Does knowing an author’s biography affect reading his work? It’s not possible for anyone who has seen the documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story to read Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man, without connecting its story to Isherwood’s own life. Christopher Isherwood met the love of his life, Don Bachardy, when he was 48 and Don was just 16. In spite of this eyebrow raising age difference, the two stayed together for over 30 years until Isherwood’s death at the age of 81. They lived openly as a gay couple at a time when doing so was virtually unheard of. They were happy together, except for a period of time when Don Bachardy left Isherwood and attempted to break off their relationship. During this period, Mr. Isherwood wrote his novel A Single Man.
A Single Man details a day in the life of George, a forty-something British ex-pat who lives in Los Angeles where he works as an English professor in a local college. George is recovering from the loss of his long time partner who has died in a sudden auto accident. Because none of his neighbors and few of his colleagues knew the true nature of George’s relationship, he has not told them that his partner died, but that his roommate has moved back east. This way George can avoid facing his grief at every turn. He has removed all traces of his partner from his home, all belongings, all of their pets. He is pretending that he is not a grieving man and doing fairly well at keeping up the charade. Only his close friend Charlotte knows what really happened.
One can’t help but read George as Christopher Isherwood. In A Single Man, Isherwood, a man whose partner has left him, created a fiction about a man whose partner has died. By extension, Isherwood is pretending his partner has died while his fictional character pretends his partner has left him.
I was struck by how much A Single Man reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. All three novels take place during a single day and all three deal with the minutiae of their characters’ lives as a vehicle to reach a deeper understanding of the characters. But much more than this, I felt an overall tone in A Single Man that I also felt in The Hours. A sense of unexplainable loss. In each book the characters mourn for a particular person, but there is also a sense of morning for a way of life that has perished alongside the person who died. A sense that the totality of the loss one must recover from is much more than a person. When someone is lost we don’t just lose the person, we lose the person we were when we were with them.
None of this is said in so many words in A Single Man, and the book is not nearly as heavy as I’m making it sound. George has made his peace with the loss of his partner before the book opens. He is still grieving, grief never stops completely, but his grief has already begun to be part of the background of his life. Grief is not something one can “move on” from, but George has begun to move on, his grief still in tow.
Here is Christopher Isherwood on the pleasure of books:
The living room is dark and low-ceilinged, with bookshelves all along the wall opposite the windows. These books have not made George nobler or better or more truly wise. It is just that he likes listening to their voices, the one or the other, according to his mood. He misuses them quite ruthlessly–despite the respectful way he has to talk about them in public–to put him to sleep, to take his mind off the hands of the clock, to relax the nagging of his pyloric spasm, to gossip him out of his melancholy, to trigger the conditioned reflexes of his colon.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010. Honestly, this is one of my all-time favorite books. Someday, when I’m in my 90’s and writing my top 100 favorite reads of all time, A Single Man will be on the list, in the top 20 most likely. I loved it. I love it. I will love it again.