Tag Archives: Gore Vidal

Book Review: “A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood


This book is different. Bear with me. I promise it’s worth it.

Muna and I seem to do a lot of driving. In California last winter we spent two to three hours a day driving to see things. Audiobooks are a great way to catch up on your reading.  We picked up an audiobook called “A Single Man” at a book sale in Paso Robles, CA.  It was a pleasant surprise.

A Single Man

The book is about a gay man having a midlife crisis after his longtime partner suddenly dies. I am not usually into books about gay middle-aged men, but I love books by amazing writers. Christopher Isherwood is definitely a great writer.

Background of the Author

Christopher Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904, on his family’s estate in Cheshire, England, near Manchester. Isherwood’s father was a professional soldier from a landed gentry family. His mother came from a wealthy merchant family.

Isherwood boyhood was an environment very similar to “Downton Abbey.” As an upper-middle-class boy, he had an idyllic childhood. His father was killed in World War I.

Isherwood knew early on he was gay. This theme is present in all his writing. Isherwood attended Repton School in Derbyshire. Later he went to Cambridge University but left without a degree.

In 1929, he moved to Berlin, the capital of the Weimer Republic. He was drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. He met a man named Heinz, who became his first great love. He wrote novels based on his own life.

Isherwood moved to America in 1939 and settled in Los Angles. He reinvented himself in Los Angeles. He openly lived as a gay man long before it was fashionable.

In 1939, Isherwood wrote “Goodbye to Berlin” a semi-autobiographical novel set in Weimar Germany. Isherwood talks about pre-Nazi Germany and the rise of Hitler. Famous writer George Orwell called it, “Brilliant sketches of a society in decay.”

The book was adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret (1966) and the film Cabaret (1972). Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award for playing Sally in the movie.

On Valentine’s Day 1953, Isherwood met Don Bachardy. Isherwood was 48 and Barchardy was 18. The 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised some eyebrows. Over time they became a well-known and a much-photographed couple. They lived together the rest of Isherwood’s life. Isherwood died at 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California.


George Falconer is a 58-year-old expat Englishman living in Southern California. George is a literature professor. The book is set in 1962, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  George’s longtime partner Jim suddenly died a few weeks before in a car accident.

George and Jim were together for over sixteen years. Jim was George’s life. Jim’s death has shattered George’s reality and sense of self. During an ordinary day (his last day), George is haunted by memories.  He seeks connections with the world around him. He interacts with neighbors, students and old friends.

Throughout the day, he has various encounters with different people. His contacts with these people color his senses and illuminate the idea of being alive and human in the world. During the day George undergoes experiences that separates his thoughts from his body. While driving to his university, his thoughts wander back to his life with Jim. We learn how they met and lived together. Through dialogue, flashbacks of memory and George’s internal monologue we see the lonely, bereaved nature his life has become without Jim.


The novel is loosely based on Isherwood’s own life teaching at California State University, Los Angeles. Many consider “A Single Man” to be his best work.

“A Single Man” is a moving portrait of a man struggling to find himself in midlife. The narrative is edgy, controlled and subtle with moments of buried rage. Isherwood paints a beautiful picture with words of George’s everyday life on a multicultural, multiethnic campus. Throughout the day (his last day), George tries to stave off his loneliness. He visits an old English friend, he goes to a bar, and he frolics with a student in the ocean.

Everything is about George trying to connect with someone, anyone before it’s too late. The book is a study of grief and a portrait of the aftermath of a lost love. George being gay is only an afterthought. George is a man deeply mourning someone he loved. He is a man who has lost his rudder in life.

Isherwood the Writer

Isherwood is a brilliant novelist. His style of writing gets you into the headspace of George. We find out what makes him tick, how he feels and why he is so sad. Isherwood was a prolific writer. He was a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, biographer, and diarist. He is fun to read, “The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops.  Not because it is heroic.  It can imagine no alternative.

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead.  Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?”

Gore Vidal said, “Isherwood is the best prose writer in English.” Vidal may be right. I know I loved the book. “A Single Man” is different, brilliant, and sad.

His excellent book is hysterical and deeply moving. He gives us insight into the human mind. Isherwood is an expert on prose. Not a word is wasted.  A lot is crammed into this little book. The 2009 movie stars Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. Firth gives a brilliant performance as George.