Review: A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood

I am so bad at reading books promptly. Care sent me a copy of A Single Man, like, ten thousand years ago. Okay, not ten thousand. Only two. But still! Two years ago! That’s ridiculous! I’m sorry, Care. You were so kind to send me this book and I took two years to read it, like a jerk.

A Single Man is about a British literature professor called George, who recently lost his partner, Jim. George is lonely and isolated, his primary source of company a British woman called Charlotte whose husband left her for another woman. He thinks a lot and drinks and talks to his students at the California university where he teaches, and at the end (spoilers!) he dies.

If this synopsis sounds somewhat tart, it’s because I wanted Christopher Isherwood to blow my mind, and he did not. He has such a cool name! I judge last names by whether I would change my last name to it if I were engaged to a guy with that last name; and I would totally be willing to be Jenny Isherwood. Isherwood! It’s fun to say. And Christopher is one of my favorite names for a boy (St. Christopher was not real, but I still sometimes say a prayer to him for safe travels). Plus, you know, Christopher Isherwood, pioneering gay writer! I wanted to be on board that train.

Alas, I am not on board the train. The writing in A Single Man felt fussy, and although I liked George, I wasn’t interested in anything he was doing (with one exception, about which more in a second). If I’m honest, I do not care for slice-of-life stories. Stories are good for the way they impose order on the disorder of real life! Down with slice-of-life stories! Down with them I say! (I know, right, I have such a future as a demagogue like Demosthenes or similar.)

The one section of the book that leapt vividly off the page for me — weirdly! — was the sequence where George is teaching his class. I loved the way Isherwood described the dynamic between George and his students, the way he feels about individual students, the conversations they have, the answers they offer. I could have read an entire book about George teaching his English class.

Identifying this as my favorite scene reminded me of what a fan I am of seeing things in process. I like watching people work things out and come to a better understanding of what they’re working with. Something like the documentary Discovering Hamlet, where you see Derek Jacobi directing Branagh in Hamlet, is fascinating to me, I’d watch a hundred documentaries of that sort. Ditto every discussion scene in Reading Lolita in Tehran. The conclusions don’t have to be groundbreaking (they don’t even have to reach a conclusion!) but I like watching people on their way to discovering something about a text.

Apropos of that, Al Pacino is making a documentary about putting on a play of Salome. I am stupid excited about this and cannot wait for it to show up in New York at Film Forum or BAM or whatever. One of the everyday benefits of New York that I did not expect to enjoy so much is that all the movies come here. All the movies. If I see a preview of a movie that looks interesting, I don’t have to fret over whether I’ll be able to see it. It’s definitely coming here and I can definitely see it if I want to. That is rather great.

Any huge fans of Christopher Isherwood who’d like to tell me what to read that might make me love him after all?

  • Dorian

    I love Isherwood’s “Mr. Norris Changes Trains” and “Goodbye to Berlin”, both set in 1930s Berlin. (The musical “Cabaret” was loosely based on these books.)

  • Nope, this is his best work. If you didn’t like it, just move on to other people. He is all about the slice of life. 😉

  • I saw the movie and liked it, but I haven’t read the book. It is a slice of life type of story, and though I sometimes like them, on other occasions they annoy me. I would recommend the movie to you, not only because it has Colin Firth in it but…ok, well just because it has Colin Firth in it and he does an amazing job.

    • Yes to the movie. It has Colin Firth in it. 😀

  • I loved the movie and agree that Colin Firth did an amazing job. At the time, I put Isherwood on my list and planned to read the book; now, I’m afraid I’d be disappointed in the book.

  • Oh, sad. Do you think if you imagined Colin Firth as Christopher Isherwood you would like it more? I think I started watching this movie but didn’t finish. I am not sure why… maybe I was on a plane? Though it seems like it may be a more risque type movie to put on a plane.

  • I think you would like the show “Slings & Arrows” as it’s about a theatre company and each season you see the characters putting together a Shakespeare play. First season is Hamlet. Second is Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet and the third season is King Lear. So it’s not a documentary but you do see the process of them getting into the play and deciding how they want the production to go.

  • Jenny

    I really liked The World in the Evening. I thought the prose was beautiful rather than fussy (reminded me a bit of Brideshead Revisited), and I thought he did some neat stuff with miniaturizing, and seeing a gay couple in New England in the 50s was interesting, but it was what my cousins and I call “lifey” rather than ordering.

    I’m kind of interested that you’re not a big fan of mysteries, if one of the main things you like about stories is the imposition of order; it’s what mysteries are best at. Maybe they are too good at it, and unsubtle?

    p.s. I like watching things in process, too, but not just text. I also like things like in the Little House on the Prairie books where they make door latches and cheese. Anything where I get to understand it better at the end.

  • I’ve never read Isherwood, but he seems to pop up in the weirdest places (not your blog). I read a book on yoga once, and there he was. And he showed up in some other book I read recently, not that I can remember what that one was.

  • I am terrible about reading books in a timely fashion after people are kind enough to send them to me, too. It’s terrible! I have a book from Care myself that I need to get around to…

  • Maybe I should make a challenge out of pushing all the people I sent books to to actually read them. (no! I’m kidding! I, too, have books from years ago that people have sent me. No biggie. 🙂 In fact, I had totally forgotten that I sent this to you. Well, at least it wasn’t a lot of pages.)
    Remind me – was this set in one day? I need to tag it as so; I like books that cover only one day.

  • Oh, is it OK if I link my post on it? I liked the book and I link even more reviews : http://bkclubcare.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/a-single-man/

    Do know that I was probably the only one in my book club who thought it better than ‘just OK’ – I think they were being nice. However, they also liked that it was so different than what we usually read so overall, I was not disappointed in our discussion.

    🙂

  • I have been meaning to read Christopher Isherwood for ten thousand years too! I have several of his (there was a cheap offer somewhere, and I am such a sucker for those), and was thinking of beginning with the Berlin one. I don’t object on principle to fussy writing – it all depends on the kind of fussy. Well, I will give him a go one day.

  • Someone who likes to read about a person teaching an English class…that gives me ideas.

  • I kept meaning to read this but then never did. Now I feel I don’t need to, and that your review would be way funnier and more entertaining than the book itself. You are such a silly thing! I would love it if you were called Jenny Isherwood. I would like to be Rachel Isherwood. Maybe we should marry two Isherwood brothers and be Isherwood sisters. Then you could live in London and we’d both live happily ever after. Deal?

  • I’m also very much a fan of things in process. If it’s about How Stuff Works–like, social stuff, more than scientific stuff–I’m there. Thus far, all my favourite Diana Wynne Jones bits have focused on How Stuff Works; specifically, How Magic Works, and How People Work With Magic.

    Which is a bit different than teaching an English class, but y’know. Same basic idea.

    Sidebar: I really enjoyed the film version of this book, even though slice-of-life isn’t always my thiing, either.

  • I read The Berlin Stories a loooong time ago, but remembered being irritated because he felt compelled to write heavy German dialect which rendered his own name as “Issyvoo”. After seeing Issyvoo several times on a page for an interminable amount of pages, my mind just rebelled.

  • Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘A Single Man’ as much as you had hoped to. I loved this book when I read it – I loved Isherwood’s prose. I also loved the movie version. Isherwood is definitely a wonderful name. I liked what you said about seeing things in process. Glad to know that you liked that teaching scene.