46. A Single Man

It’s a surprisingly productive reading month! I’m on novel six of the year but miles behind on my blog posts! A Single Man is one of those novels that I’ve been meaning to reread for quite a while. This is, in my opinion, an iconic novel. Set just after the Cuban missile crisis, George, our middle aged English protagonist is coming to grips with his life in Santa Monica after the death of his partner, Jim. The prose is remarkably certain about itself, with a level of control which mirrors George himself. It is a novel about buried rage, grief and the dispassionate mundane that George seeks meaning within.

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

This is a novel that spans an average day in the life of George and the reader is intimately wound around George’s long winding mental monologues and unpacking. The first pages are some of my favourite on the subject of waking up and becoming yourself for the day.

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now.” p.1

What makes this novel so notable for me is it’s writing style, it is well written with a distinct and absolute voice but it’s also an insatiable read. George is really an unremarkable man, he acknowledges his faults, his hate for the neighbourhood children, and some more embarrassing moments when he looses his temper. He admits that more often now he finds himself in a kind of autopilot detaching from the world while driving or in conversation loosing track of himself. In short, he is a very likeable, human character who is preoccupied with his denying his state as a widower.

It is an average day for George, he drives to the University he teaches at in LA. He has exchanges with students and then has dinner and gets drunk with an old friend. It is a very average day. In fact I am aware I am not really selling this day to you as summed up it is hardly intriguing. But George’s insights within the day are continual music over all of this other background noise and he is the real subject of this novel and an interesting one.

It is a novel that is taking stock of what is current in the life of George, it is unpacking reality into some sort of meaning all the while George himself seems half going through the motions and half flourishing against them. Isherwood is quite brave in how he handles this subject matter, it is not a loud foot stomping account but very much like the shutter lens of a camera. George almost seems submissive or a passive observer to his life and its surrounding faces. He almost refuses to engage or almost fails to physically be present, the musings that come to him are selective and sometimes profound.

When he does finally engage the pace of the novel suddenly picks up as a drunk George finally drops his armour of self control. All the while throughout this novel there is something there akin to a bittersweet and tender loneliness. It was an odd experience to reread this novel.

I feel some characters can walk around and take up residence in your mind after you have read the novel to completion. But George refuses somehow, he belongs in his groundhog day, he exists only as this person who wakes up and is ‘now’ and ceases to be anything but an experience when the novel is finished. There is a real sense of finality about George, as if he is removed so completely that he will only exist on paper.

I really love this novel. I highly recommend it and also the film adaptation.


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