This is a novel that had to wait for censorship to be lifted before it could be shared with the world. Isherwood had been writing since the 1920s but only in the 1960s could he finally publish a totally frank story about love between men. A short book but an intense one, Isherwood unleashes what must have been many years of pent-up frustration in the form of his disgruntled protagonist, George, a grieving English professor going through the motions at a Californian university.
This is a tragic story that starts rather than ends with a tragedy. George is officially, as most homosexuals of the time, considered to be ‘a single man’, but he really is single since his partner died in a car accident not long ago – George was not even allowed to attend the funeral. Naturally, George gets angry from time to time and when he does he wants to obliterate most of the human race, he wants to torture them, he wants them to suffer the consequences of their own stupidity…
The first part of A Single Man is raw grief so hot and new that it’s hard to read: George swings between vicious anger and utter despair. His one friend is Charlotte, a heart-of-gold but utterly selfish alcohol-soaked older woman – she is what I imagine Holly Golightly would be if she were 20 years older (and, after all, in Capote’s novella, unlike in the movie, Golightly’s friend ‘Fred’ is homosexual). A sense of doom hangs over most of the novel: it really seems that after George’s personal tragedy there can be nowhere to go but further down. As readers, we hold our breath and wait for George’s undoing of himself…
To tell more would be to give this fine story away, but I must mention a wonderful scene in this novel: one in which all the symbolism of the sea – redemption / cleansing / drowning / saving, etc is invoked to great effect and we witness the emergence of hope beyond hopelessness. Isherwood captures so many elements in this scene: the adventure of the surf, of being overwhelmed by the immensity of the sea, and the sheer joy that nature can evoke in even the most despairing humans.
This novel is devastating to read but refuses to end on a tragic note. Isherwood takes the reader to the depths and then up again: to read it is to be half-drowned but rescued at the last moment. It’s an amazing book, which must have been all the more amazing when it first burst upon the scene in the censorship-loosening of the 1960s. It still makes an impact today.
Verdict: Moving story of love, death and hope from the perspective of a 1960s gay man. Short, beautiful and devastating.
Read more: Isherwood is known chiefly for his much-loved novel Goodbye to Berlin, set in the Weimar Republic, and inspiration for the also much-loved musical Cabaret. Continuing the tradition, A Single Man has recently been made into a good film of the same name, with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore – well worth seeing, but it can’t quite convey the full power and fury of the book.