Life goes on.
The worst thing that can happen in a life is not the end of the world.*
This, essentially, is the message at the heart of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. This short novel details a single day in the life of George, a newly single, middle-aged university lecturer unexpectedly bereaved following the death, in a traffic accident, of his partner, Jim. Too many commas. Apologies.
It is a well put-together piece, exploring grief, notions of self, “home”, identity… As an Englishman in California, and a homosexual, George feels that he is intrinsically an outsider, twice over. He empathises with other groups that are seen as minorities in 1960s America, and his anger at prejudice manifests as violent internal fantasies of a socially-liberal revolution, these repeated and amusing digressions pulling the reader away from the main theme of the text. Which is, really, the question: What does a person do when the most important thing in his or her life disappears? Everything reminds George of what he has lost, of Jim. The house and the friends they shared, the local supermarket, the bar they met in, any place they visited together… Isherwood conjures up an utterly believable evocation of a man experiencing great loss. And a loss compounded due to his inability to avoid the reminders of a presence he had lived with, as standard, for many years.
Yes, Isherwood conjures grief, fear of death, love of life, missing youth, yearning for experience, for change in spite of sadness… Isherwood conjures these beautifully, intelligently. I can’t fault his writing in any way other than by saying that he exhibits the almost voiceless writerliness now incredibly fashionable. Though, of course, as it wasn’t when he was writing this is perhaps an unfair criticism. What I do believe is a fair criticism, though, is the fact that the novel has lost some of its original power due to social change. What has been lost is its power to shock, because a novelist treating a homosexual’s bereavement as as serious, sincere, heartfelt and BIG as the loss of a heterosexual’s spouse, would have been shocking in 1964.
It is the normalisation of homosexual love and domesticity, much more than any lust or desire, that I imagine would have been the “scandalous” elements when it was new. However, reading it in 2013 as a wooly liberal, gay domestic bliss, gay bereavement, is something I AM conditioned to see as normal. Because it is. Now, I don’t know how much my pop culture psyche has been influenced by the ripples of A Single Man‘s decades-ago release, but reading this articulate novel about grief, life and change, I can UNDERSTAND that it’s subject matter may have been confrontational, political, in a way that it no longer is. For me. So it’s good, I don’t regret reading it, but I do feel that it can only ever be a GREAT book in its own, finished, time. There are better books about death. But are there better mass market novels about homosexual bereavement from 1964? Probably not.
Important, at the very least.
* The Cuban Missile Crisis and the wider risks of nuclear war and the horrors of the world beyond it… Isherwood alludes to this a lot, meaning that I am far from paraphrasing with this opening comment.