Film fans will remember fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut from a few years ago based on A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. As aesthetically pleasing that film was, nothing compares to the real thing: the book itself. The story of recently bereaved George, a 58-year-old Santa Monica based Englishman, struggling to fill the gaping hole left by the sudden death of his gay partner Jim, is absolutely exquisite. Written in 1964 and hailed as the first truly gay novel, this beautifully written, tightly conceived novel about re-discovering happiness is a joy to read.
The novel takes place over one day and we meet George as he wakes up in one of the more memorable opening paragraphs I can remember. He is consumed by grief, barely able to put one foot in front of the other:
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’.
As an English professor at a Los Angeles university, George navigates through the day in an almost parallel universe. Few colleagues and students appreciate what he’s going through, his relationship with Jim not necessarily known and certainly not discussed at work. In the neigbourhood, he’s know as the cantankerous middle-aged man, vexed by the noises of children playing. Jim’ sudden death in a car accident has left George reeling.
Alongside the story of George are evocative descriptions of 1960s Santa Monica, a paradise at a crossroad, on the brink of large-scale development and post-war economic boom. A place in transition, just like our protagonist.
It is the sensitivity and the psychological insight with which Isherwood portrays George which makes this short novel so compelling. We feel his pain and repressed anger, and as the day progresses, we feel trickles of happiness seeping in as George starts to re-engage with life. And despite his aloofness and cantankerousness we deeply care for him and want him to be happy. A Single Man is an American classic to cherish.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood is published by Vintage Books, 152 pages.