I had wanted to read this short novel for over a year now but dreaded doing so, worrying I wouldn’t enjoy it or respond to it because I’m not a big fan of gay fiction. But I was certainly wrong in waiting for so long and for feeling any trepidation over reading it.
A Single Man tells the story of George, a literature professor nearing sixty whose partner, Jim, died before the narrative begins. The action, much like that of a Greek tragedy, takes place over the course of a single day, a Friday in late fall 1962, in California.
The narrative is told in the third person, and this was key to how I reacted to the book. Isherwood’s clear, natural, objective language and storytelling struck me deep, and his lack of judgment on George and any of the other characters in the story was surprising and refreshing. In all of the greatest literary works, the author, when writing in the third person, should never intrude with judgments on his or her characters. The beauty and power of short fiction and novels lies in the author’s ability to allow his or her characters to come alive, to be three dimensional, to breathe and pulse on the page, to leave his or her own judgments outside the covers of the volume, and give his or her readers the freedom to respond to and make up their minds concerning the characters they are reading about. Isherwood does this so well that his voice profoundly enabled me to empathize and sympathize with George as a human being, and as a fellow gay male. Isherwood’s voice so entranced me that I read through forty pages in less than two hours and at different points was smiling, laughing, and my eyes were filling with tears.
We see George having breakfast, teaching, engaging with his students, visiting the woman involved in Jim’s car accident in the hospital, looking inside his neighbor’s home from his bathroom window, going to the gym, and then having dinner and drinks with his friend Charlotte, before going to a bar he frequents and finding one of his students, Kenneth, waiting there for him, hoping George would stop in. They eventually get drunk, go skinny dipping, and then go to George’s home, where he converses with Kenny about his girlfriend, and it seems as if George is going to make a pass at him but he doesn’t, noting that all anyone does these days is flirt, rather than commit to fulfilling their desires. George later finds himself in bed, Kenneth having gone, and the story closes with him sleeping, as Isherwood relates a brief “what if” scenario that I will not reveal.
Throughout the book the hollow that George feels over Jim’s death is ever-present and at times quite palpable. Along with this, I believe the concern over homosexuality itself as a disease, unnatural, a sin, etc., at the time also influences how George interacts with his neighbors, friends, and students. It is terrible that he has to lie about Jim, and in its way, the lie furthers the distance between him and others. The periodic references to Jim (his ghost, if you will) act as a symbol, the weight of which renders George unable to properly communicate in a fulfilling, comprehensible fashion. You get the sense that he will never be able to express to anyone the true essence of what Jim meant to him, or the dimensionality of their relationship. George seems to do what he accuses Kenny, and those of the younger generation, of doing—of flirting, and not fulfilling his own underlying desires. George tells him:
It’s the enormous tragedy of everything nowadays: flirtation.
Flirtation instead of fucking, if you’ll pardon my coarseness.
All any of you ever do is flirt . . .
And miss the one thing that might really . . . transform your entire life.
It seems that not only is George reprimanding Kenny and his generation, but also himself. George, it clearly seems to me throughout the novel, is a man bowed down by fear; he is not cagey, as his students report him as being. His fear is over many things: loss of his partner and where it has left him and will leave him later on in life; fear of aging: a loss of youth that is symbolized in the loss of Jim, not just in George’s fading looks; fear over being unable to express his feelings and desires without potential repercussions. Fear of not being able to communicate properly and so of being misunderstood; fear of the shame that coexists with the desire for another male, whether that male is gay or not, and fear of being an outcast for being homosexual.
Fear of change itself, because it involves loss, and an unknown, unseen end to this loss; this change always a catalyst to deepening and enlarging the cracks in the foundation of the naturally fragile fabric of the society in which he lives but also feels excluded from because he represents (in his homosexuality) the invisible forces that, to those who are conservative in their beliefs, can cause the collapse of “civilized” society and culture. And most of all, fear of doing that which he most fears, of biting the bullet and “transforming [his] entire life,” always desiring and reaching for more, for something greater, that may make his life better, more worth living, but retreating from it because it can’t compare to what he’s had before, or from the ideal he holds in his mind. It is certainly true, as he thinks early on in the novel, that no one and nothing can replace and be a substitute for Jim, a sentiment that hit me hard upon reading it, but it is nevertheless true that in that loss, there is a continued yearning to live on, to not die, to find peace and happiness though it will not be the same as the peace and happiness before.
A Single Man is a moving, thoughtful novel with many layers, but its layers do not reveal things as complicated as many might find in other works of literature. Isherwood’s novel gives us access to the human heart—a heart that feels, beats, and pulses with the desires, needs, and passions of every human heart in the midst of life, a life worth living in spite of all the pain, the change, and the loss that is inherent in it and part of its natural beauty.