The 100 best novels: No 83 – A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

Christopher Isherwood’s story of a gay Englishman struggling with bereavement in LA is a work of compressed brilliance

Christopher Isherwood made his famous declaration of artistic intent in 1939: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking… Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” This cool, blank, dispassionate gaze, which often disturbed the critics, characterises all Isherwood’s writing, some of the finest English prose of the 20th century, whose decades are shadowed by his own life and work. Indeed, there are several “Christophers” competing for a place in this list. The choice is not easy. His genius was spotted early by the Woolfs, who published The Memorial (1932) at the Hogarth Press. Later in the 1930s, he became celebrated for his Berlin fiction, especially Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which introduced the world to “Sally Bowles” of Cabaret fame.

Isherwood’s third act, creatively speaking, is set in Los Angeles, where he worked in Hollywood, and also pioneered American gay fiction. This could be seen as a fulfilment of Edmund Wilson’s sharp critical insight that Isherwood’s “real field is social observation”. A Single Man is widely recognised as his supreme achievement, as much a work of compressed brilliance as Chopin’s Ballade No 4. It is also, Isherwood said, “the only book of mine where I did more or less what I wanted to do. It didn’t get out of control.” His fiction was always a transistorised reorganisation of his own self. As he developed, his fictional persona became progressively more complex, yet truer to himself. In this novel, it emerges as a character that’s both independent, yet deeply connected to its author.

Dedicated to Gore Vidal, A Single Man is set in 1962, just after the Cuban missile crisis, and describes a day (the last day) in the life of George Falconer, a 58-year-old expat Englishman who is living in Santa Monica and teaching at a university in LA, just as Isherwood did. The narrative is edgy, subtle, and controlled, with chasms of buried rage. George has recently lost his partner, Jim, in a car crash, and is struggling with bereavement. He tries to make a connection to the world around him, while denying his predicament as a widower. We see him go through the motions of everyday life: teaching a class, fighting with his neighbours, working out at the gym, shopping at a supermarket, drinking with an older woman friend, flirting intellectually with a young student – before fading out on the final page. As a study of grief and a portrait of the aftermath of a gay marriage, A Single Man is unique, brilliant, and deeply moving, with not a word wasted.

A note on the text

In December 1952, Isherwood began to develop a film script entitled The Day’s Journey, which would ultimately morph into A Single Man, a project he first envisaged as a movie. Indeed, some of the novel’s dialogue, as the Isherwood scholar Katherine Bucknell has noted, reads like a screenplay.

Thereafter, A Single Man was conceived as a novel about an English woman, and modelled on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (No 50 in this series), which Isherwood once described as “one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have ever read”. There were several decisive moments in the evolution of the text. In September 1962, Isherwood wrote in his diary “this morning we went on the beach and discussed The Englishwoman, and Don [Bachardy, his lover], after hearing my difficulties with it, made a really brilliant simple suggestion, namely that it ought to be The Englishman – that is, me.” He described the consequences of this insight as “very far-reaching”.

In its first American (Simon & Schuster) printing, A Single Man is just 186 pages long. My Vintage paperback edition runs to a skinny 152 pages. Rarely did Isherwood, the brilliant miniaturist, cram so great a reckoning into such a little room. Privately, over the years, he came to refer to it as his “masterpiece”.

One indispensable guide to the making of the novel is the second volume of Isherwood’s diaries edited by Katherine Bucknell. She writes that “A Single Man draws obviously and significantly on experiences described in the diaries, but also upon Isherwood’s life, and upon the process of ageing and the challenge of continuing in his mature identity”. Readers of these fascinating volumes will find all kinds of insights. Later, disdaining the personal in the way he preferred, Isherwood himself was publicly matter-of-fact about his intentions for the novel.

In 1985, he gave an interview to the gay writer Armistead Maupin, in which they discussed A Single Man. Maupin wanted to know if “George”, the man who has lost his lover, Jim, was an Isherwood creation, or “based on someone you knew?” To which Isherwood replied: “It was an obvious idea, you know, the widower who doesn’t present himself as one. That’s what it amounted to. No, I was never in that situation myself.” At this point his partner, Don Bachardy chips in: “I always suspected he was imagining what it would be like if we split up because I remember that period [1962-3] was a very rough time for us, and I was making a lot of waves. I was being very difficult and very tiresome.”

Maupin countered by asking how Bachardy was being tiresome ? Bachardy replied: “Just by being very dissatisfied. I was approaching 30, and 30 for me was the toughest age of all. I started suffering from it around 28, and I didn’t really get over it until about 32. And since then, every birthday has been a breeze. My 40s were the best time of my life.”

Don Bachardy has continued to interpolate himself into his lover’s story, and is often essential to it, but it is Isherwood’s prose – fiction, diaries, essays and memoir – that holds the key to his genius, and guarantees his posterity.

Three more from Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935); Goodbye to Berlin (1939); Down There On a Visit (1962).

A Single Man is available in Vintage (£7.99). Click here to order it for £6.39


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 75 – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee

Robert McCrum

23, Feb, 2015 @5:45 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: an introduction

Robert McCrum introduces our definitive list of the greatest novels written in English, a 100-week project that begins with John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

Robert McCrum

22, Sep, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
Christopher Isherwood remembered: 'Chris always loved young men, and I was certainly young'

A new volume of diaries is just one way Don Bachardy has kept alive the memory of Christopher Isherwood, says Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

16, Oct, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 46 – Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

This portrait of a day in the lives of three Dubliners remains a towering work, says Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum

04, Aug, 2014 @4:44 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 34 – Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

In the classic boy's own spy story an orphan in British India must make a choice between east and west, writes Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum

12, May, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 77 – Voss by Patrick White (1957)
A love story set against the disappearance of an explorer in the outback, Voss paved the way for a generation of Australian writers to shrug off the colonial past

Robert McCrum

09, Mar, 2015 @5:45 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 31 – Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Bram Stoker's classic vampire story was very much of its time but still resonates more than a century later, writes Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum

21, Apr, 2014 @6:03 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 99 – Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)
In his Booker-winning masterpiece, Coetzee’s intensely human vision infuses a fictional world that both invites and confounds political interpretation

Robert McCrum

10, Aug, 2015 @4:45 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 98 – Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)
A writer of ‘frightening perception’, Don DeLillo guides the reader in an epic journey through America’s history and popular culture

Robert McCrum

03, Aug, 2015 @4:45 AM

Article image
The 100 best novels: No 40 – Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911)

The passage of time has conferred a dark power upon Beerbohm's ostensibly light and witty Edwardian satire, writes Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum

23, Jun, 2014 @6:30 AM