Books to Remember: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

If there's on book you should read in your life, it's this one: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood. Its language is breathtakingly beautiful, and the story will break your heart. Why? Read on!

A couple of years ago I watched the movie A Single Man, and I loved it. I loved how the colours in the movie symbolised the mood of the main character; bleak, dreary colours when feeling sad, and rich, full tones during the moments, however short, when something resembling happiness was felt. I also loved the actors (Colin Firth got his Oscar a year later, for The King’s Speech, but this was his first nomination), and the beautiful, heartbreaking dialogues.

I knew that this film, directed by Tom Ford, was based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, an English-American author who mentored the famous poet W.H. Auden, but at the time I hadn’t read it yet. So when I saw a copy of the book, in an obscure English book store in Berlin, I just had to buy it. And the moment I started reading it, leaning against a tree in a park in the capital of Germany, I was sure that this book would be infinitely better than the movie, after reading the first two sentences:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at theceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next,and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself; what’s called at home.”

It becomes clear straight from the beginning that we are dealing with someone who doesn’t quite belong. The narrator, George, a middle-aged Englishman teaching at auniversity in America, is alone. Not only is he a foreign man in a country he doesn’t quite understand, and an older man surrounded by younger students. Furthermore, he also struggles with the loss of his partner, Jim. It is the early sixties, and George is trying to recover from something which is definitely not accepted, while most people around him are concerned with the Cold War, and are afraid every day might be their last.

George, on the other hand, knows for a fact this will be his last day. He is fed up with his life, which has no meaning for him ever since he lost his partner. He will do it after work, though, like a true Englishman. He isn’t panicked, and goes through the daily rituals calmly. After he’s finished his work, he puts his affairs in order, he writes some goodbye notes, and buys some more bullets for the gun he’s planning to commit suicide with. What happens then seems to be quite mundane, but it changes his life forever. He talks to his oldest friend and former lover, he goes to a pub and meets a handsome stranger, and eventually he has deep conversations with one of his students. These events make him realise he is not always as isolated from the rest of the world as he thought he was, and they make him see a different side of him.

The change from the sad, lonely, and finished-with-life George into the George who starts thinking of going back to work again after the weekend, is slow and subtle, and beautifully written by Isherwood. Especially striking is one of the scenes at the end of the book:

“For a moment, Kenny’s face is quite distinct.It grins, dazzlingly. Then his grin breaks up, is refracted, or whatever youcall it, into rainbows of light. The rainbows blaze. He shuts his eyes. And now the buzzing in his ears is the roar of Niagara.”

George is again able to take things in, in full colour and surround sound. He haschanged from the ‘it’ in the start of the book, back into himself, George, friend, teacher, and ex-partner, capable of living and loving in a world that seemed to have moved on without him. He wants to put the last part behind him, since that’s what’s been dragging him down for so long. When he is in his bed, trying to get some sleep after the exhausting day he’s had, he has decided, for sure, that he wants to move on, and move forward.

And at just that moment, when George is lying in his bed, once again optimistic about his life, something he hasn’t been since his partner died, fate interrupts. I won’t tell you what happens, but the ending of the book is both devastatingly cruel, and excruciatingly beautiful. Isherwood has managed to write a stunning story about a man devastated by loss and loneliness with such clarity and emotion, that it is quite hard not to be moved by it.


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