A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Reviewed by Alex Gomez

I will begin this review by saying that A Single Man is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, even though it was written on the brink of Isherwood’s physical separation from the love of his life, Don Bachardy. It must be stressed, however, that this separation was not complete and would further cement the relationship of the two men. Isherwood and Bachardy separated for work only and would reunite; this separation was in fact so successful that it eventually became a model relationship for other gay male couples; and even heterosexual ones.

I write this because I’ve read the reviews on the cover of the book, clearly re-released to advertise Tom Ford’s eponymous movie starring Colin Firth as the main character George and Julianne Moore as a good friend of his also from England; Charley or Charlotte. In my opinion, the best reviews of this book come from gay men like me, or like Gore Vidal, with whom I beg to differ—in calling Isherwood ‘the best prose writer in English,’ Vidal was obviously quite pleased by Christopher’s dedication by Isherwood’s dedication of this book to him, and was compelled to return this very high compliment.

In my opinion E.M, Forster was the best prose writer in English, being the author of A Room with a View, a Passage to India, and Howard’s End… And soon one of history’s longest lasting gay couples— Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with the brilliant screenwriting of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala… The Guinness book of world records dubbed Merchant/Ivory the longest lasting business relationship (fifty years).Obviously they were a couple longer than that!

Let us return to the subject at hand, however… Vidal simply hadn’t made his acquaintance, but Christopher would and did-- and Edward Morgan would entrust him with his gay novel Maurice, to be published posthumously. Stephen Spender’s review (from another gay man) is “An absolutely devastating, unnerving, brilliant book.”—while Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) wrote “A testimony to Isherwood’s undiminished brilliance as a novelist; and Edmund White-- a notoriously gay writer and reviewer wrote--“A Single Man… is one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement.”

The first straight-laced review comes from Elizabeth Hardwick, who writes, “It is a sad book, with a biological melancholy running through it, a sense of relentless reduction, daily diminishment.”— The New York Review of Books.

This brings to the next straight-l-laced review “This is a sad, sly report
on the predicament of the human animal.” David Daiches, New York Times.

At this point I would like to make the observation; that there is no point in this novel when Isherwood is sly, or sad for that matter. On the contrary, he is always at his most honest and hilarious best; like during the time when he runs into Kenny Potter, one of the students from the university in Los Angeles where George teaches English Literature…At his favourite gay bar, for several decades—‘The Starboard Side.’ Kenny is busy writing something on the back of an envelope, which pleases George; almost as much as encountering Kenny does.

There is a certain scene in this book which, after I read it, not only made me feel proud to be gay, but also proud to be a gay writer. It occurs when George gets a coffee at the teacher’s lounge and sees his colleague Grant LeFanu, a slight soft-spoken man who he loves because he’s a young physics professor who writes poetry and has very controversial points of view.

‘As a matter of fact Grant has recently performed an act of minor heroism. He has appeared in court as a defense witness for a bookseller caught peddling some grand old sex classic of the ‘twenties; it used to be only attainable to the Latins, but now, through a series of test cases, it is fighting for its right to be devoured by American youth (George can’t be absolutely sure if this isn’t the same book he himself read as a young man, during a trip to Paris. At all events he remembers throwing into the waste-basket, or some other book just like it, in the middle of the big screwing scene. Not that one isn’t broad-minded, of course, let everyone write about heterosexuality if they must, and let everyone read it who cares to, Just the same, it is a deadly bore and, to be frank, a wee bit distasteful. Why can’t these modern writers stick to the old simple wholesome themes—such as, for example, boys?”

One thinks of, in the first instance, of Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James and of one or two books by Harold Robbins [my mother read them first!] , in the second-- of my own book, The Sultan’s Boy, in which I wrote an incredible sex scene between Radu and Boris, neither of them over fifteen years old (the book takes place in the middle ages, for Goddess’s sake! They couldn’t have been expected to live much longer than that….

It isn´t long before Isherwood comes up with another truly hilarious scene, between George and his student Kenny at George’s aforementioned favourite gay bar:

‘And now an hour, maybe, has passed. And they are both drunk: Kenny fairly, George very.’

George says, “Just as a matter of the purest psychological interest, why do you persist in calling me sir?”

“Maybe, the point is, I like calling you sir… What’s so phony nowadays is all this familiarity. Pretending there isn’t any difference between people—well, like you were saying this morning about minorities, this morning. If you and I are no different, what do we have to give each other? How can we ever be friends?”

He does understand, George thinks, delighted.

“Say, you know—when I came over here—I mean, when I thought I might just happen ro run into you this evening—there was something I wanted to ask you. I just remembered what it was—“ [Kenny] downs the rest of his drink in one long swallow— “it’s about experience. They keep telling, when you’re older, you’ll have experience—and that’s supposed to be so great. What would you say about that, sir? Is it really any use, would you say?”

“Let me tell you something, Kenny. For other people, I can’t speak—but personally I haven’t gotten wise on anything. Certainly, I’ve been through this and that; and when it happens again, I say to myself, Here it is again. But that doesn’t seem to help me. In my opinion, I, personally, have gotten sillier and sillier and sillier—and that’s a fact.”

“No kidding, sir? You can’t mean that! You mean, sillier than when you were young?”

“Much, much sillier.”…

“Let’s go swimming,” says Kenny abruptly, as if bored by the whole conversation.

“All right.”

Kenny throws his head back and laughs wildly.”Oh—that’s terrific!”

And they pay and run across the highway to the ocean, take their clothes off and leap into the waves.

And you will just have to read the rest of this book yourself. It is available right now at A Page in the Sun Bookshop/Café. I just have two more things to say; the first is, for our Spanish readers, that A SINGLE MAN has been translated into Spanish as Un Hombre Soltero. The second is, to the straight-laced reviewers of this book, if you’re not going to have fun, why ruin other people’s fun?

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