Monday, 11 February 2013

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Isherwood’s 1962 novella is a day in the life of George, university lecturer, British expat and ageing curmudgeon. He drifts around the home he used to share with Tom, his partner of many years, who died a year before in a car accident. Now George grumbles about the local kids winding him up, the homophobic fulminations of the letters page in the local paper, and the inability of his students to read the books he has set them.


George’s friend Charlotte is another expat, grieving for the breakdown of her marriage and the estrangement of her only son. She persuades George to come round for supper, and invitation he reluctantly accepts when he realises he can’t face another night alone in his house. He walks over to her house in the nearby hills where she’s promised a stew, and a couple of drinks:

“Have I told you Geo – no, I’m sure I haven’t; I’ve already made two New Year’s resolutions – only they’re effective immediately. The first is, I’m going to admit that I loathe bourbon.” (She pronounces it like the dynasty, not the drink.) “I’ve been pretending not to, ever since I came to this country – all because Buddy drank it. But, let’s face it, who do I think I’m kidding now?” She smiles at George very bravely and brightly, reassuring him that this is not a prelude to an attack of the Buddy-blues; then quickly continues, “My other resolution is that I’m going to stop denying that that infuriating accusation is true; Women do mix drinks too strong, damn it! I suppose it’s part of our terrible anxiety to please... So let’s begin the new régime as of now, shall we? You come and mix your own drink and mine too – and I’d like a vodka and tonic, please.” She has obviously had at least a couple already. her hands fumble as she lights a cigarette. (The Indonesian ashtray is full, as usual, of lipstick-marked stubs.)

The conversation quickly turns to Charlotte’s disastrous marriage and George is sent back to refill the glasses:

George goes into the kitchen, fixes another round. (They seem to be drinking up much faster now. This one really should be the last.)

After a long evening of putting the world to rights, and perhaps even making a plan for the future, George finally decides it might be a good idea to go home:

George turns, swings open the house door, takes one stride and – OOPS! – very nearly falls head first down the steps – all of them – oh, and unthinkably much farther – ten, fifty, one hundred million feet into the bottomless black night. Only his grip on the door handle saves him.


Fortunately, Charlotte doesn’t see the near catastrophe. George makes it home in one piece... before setting out on a whim to a local bar where he gets drunk with one of his students. It’s an eventful twenty four hours, and when his ticker gives up the next morning, it feels a reasonable send off.

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