A Single Man Review
by Christopher Isherwood
I felt so torn reading this book. On the one hand, it is beautifully written. It’s one of the best pieces of prose I’ve read in a long time. It is, rightfully, a classic. Isherwood writes about grief and ageing, what it means to keep living even after loss. It takes place over a single day, the main character’s last day alive, and uses the same stream of consciousness style of writing as some of Isherwood’s younger contemporaries, but feels much more accessible and deliberate than a lot of the Beats.
The main character, George, begins disembodied - floating above himself, slowly waking and returning to self awareness after sleep. This initial detachment from self sets the stage for his character’s overwhelming grief, and the book follows him remembering the reasons he wants to continue living after the loss of his long term partner. If you’ve ever lost someone, you’ll understand the overwhelming sort of underwater feeling that comes from it. Isherwood captures this perfectly. This lack of connection to his body is the perfect foreshadowing to the character’s death at the end of the book.
This book was, still is, incredibly important. Isherwood’s works were an integral part of the early gay liberation movement, and A Single Man’s overwhelming tenderness helped to humanize same sex relationships to fans of his writing who might not otherwise have been able to get over their prejudice. In saying I didn’t enjoy this book, I don’t want to minimize the impact it has had on history.
On the other hand, get even half a shot of whiskey into me and I will start to rant about the misogyny that runs rampant within the gay community. How older gay men hijacked a movement that should have represented people of all genders and sexualities, and instead used their privilege to push for only the issues which affected them. Worse! They did, and often continue to do this without examining the deep seated hatred for women that the patriarchy instills in them.
This book is no exception. Within the first few pages the author blames women for the gentrification of all of Southern California. Every woman in this book is painted as contemptible in some way, and eventually it started to feel difficult to read, despite the fact that it’s less than 200 pages long.
I feel like I can safely assume the book is semi-autobiographical. Like the author, George is an English professor teaching at a Los Angelos university. Although Isherwood was never widowed, his long term partner has said in several interviews that the book was heavily influenced by their relationship, and the troubles they were having at that time.
Unfortunately, George just isn’t a very likeable character. He’s mean, selfish, and judgemental. I’m often drawn to books featuring anti-heros or even villains, but the sexism combined with never feeling a strong connection to the character made this book hard for me to enjoy.
Find a copy of A Single Man at Agnes & Edie