A Single Man
University of Minnesota Press (2001) / 186 pp.
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Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. I have to admit that I picked up the book after watching the beautiful film version by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth as George. However, as there was quite a gap between watching the film and reading the book, I will only be reviewing the book today.
A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an English professor, after he found out that his partner, Jim, was killed in an accident. I hesitate to say “a day in the life of” because rather than giving it a full-blown naturalist treatment, Isherwood presents us with a portrait of grief in three facets. George has to deal with everyday happenings, his friend, and his student with memories of Jim looming in the background.
From the first paragraph, one understands why Ford would be compelled to make a film based on the book. Isherwood’s ability to describe a mundane activity—such as George waking up—in such a refreshing way and at a micro level is akin to a camera close-up on a part of the actor’s body. Isherwood’s dexterity in language treats us to writing that is humorous, poignant, and enlightening.
This is complemented by telling it through a third-person perspective which allows us to see the juxtaposition between his inner and outer reality. This mind-body dualism indicates the profound disconnect George has with his life and he copes by merely performing what is expected of him. The thing about grief or depression is that the most difficult thing to handle is not the surge of feelings but the mundane.
The zipping in and out between George’s thoughts and how others react to him sheds light on his sardonic interpretation of things. From feeling that he might as well be a talking head on a tray while lecturing to observing a quarrelsome couple who would die in their “beer-stained bed,” he keeps the happenings of the world at arm’s length. If they are distant, he does not need to deal with them.
This sense of melancholy is amplified by his tendency to indulge in fantasy fuelled by his misanthropy. He imagines punishing everyone in various ways for being part of the hetero-normative culture or being straight-out homophobic. In his anger for what happened, he blames them for causing Jim’s death. And the times that he is alive—the sexual or human longing that he experiences—makes him painfully aware of Jim’s absence which makes it incredibly heart-wrenching.
Of all the interactions George has, the one with his student, Kenny has to be the most interesting. The relationship is of a teacher-student, father-son, and two men in a bar all rolled into one. Kenny represents what George has just lost and a vicarious second chance in life. Isherwood balances ambiguity with tenderness and beautifully explores love, lost and everything in between.
It is easy to sum up this novel as a man grieving about the lost of a loved one. However, it is important that we see it as a gay man grieving for his partner. The openness in the treatment of George’s sexuality has led many critics to tout this novel as laying the foundations for gay liberation in literature.
However, critics like Octavio Gonzalez disagree and argue that there is an ascetic element of self-abnegation in George. By doing so, he offers an alternative to the identity politics of being a synecdoche for gay liberation. I am sympathetic to this view as there is more evidence in the text to support this stand.
Yet, one should also be careful not to read too much into it because the detachment of George could very well be part of a private grieving process. If you’re interested in reading about the debate, I’ve left a citation in the description below.
Thank you for joining me on this encounter. If you’ve read the book or have watched the movie, tell me what you thought about it. If you like what I’m doing, please subscribe and tell your friends. With that, till the next book.
Gonzalez, Octavio R. “Isherwood’s Impersonality: Ascetic Self-Divestiture and Queer Relationality in A Single Man.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 59.4 (Winter 2013): 758-89. Print.