Isherwood

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
#bookstagram. Inset: David Hockney, Portrait Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Christopher Isherwood met Don Bachardy in 1953. Bachardy was an aspiring artist and native Angeleno. Isherwood came to Lotusland from England where he was already an established author. Isherwood and Bachardy fell in love.

Their relationship was a volatile one. Bachardy was 30 years younger than Isherwood and still eager to sow his wild oats. Isherwood encouraged him to have affairs yet suffered greatly. In 1963, the jealousy became too much. Isherwood moved out of their Santa Monica home. That separation inspired Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man. It’s a gorgeous evocation of loss and love as it plays out over the course of a single day.

Morning

A Single Man begins, as most days do, with the struggle to wake. Consciousness arrives slowly. Fingers are flexed. The bladder must be emptied. The body emerges from bed.

Obediently, it washes, shaves, brushes its hair, for it accepts its responsibilities to the others. It is even glad that it has its place among them. It knows what is expected of it.

It knows its name. It is called George.

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man (Simon & Schuster 1964)

This sense of disassociation pervades A Single Man. George worries that his body has taken control: driving him to work at San Tomas State College, greeting the staff, teaching his English class with practiced, mechanical precision. Meanwhile, George’s thoughts are with his partner, Jim.

Jim used to moan and complain and raise hell over a head cold, a cut finger, a pile. But Jim was lucky at the end — the only time when luck really counts. The truck hit his car just right.

Noon

George now lives alone in a cottage above the beach. He hasn’t told his neighbors that Jim is dead just as they have never inquired into the nature of George and Jim’s relationship. It is, after all, 1963. This is the age of The Dick Van Dyke Show, when a married heterosexual couple must sleep in twin beds. Homosexuality is illegal in England, where George comes from, and in the LA suburb, where he lives now.

In that suburb, there is the Mothers’ Hour when small hammer-wielding children terrorize the neighborhood. The afternoon brings schoolchildren and the masculine hour of the ball-playing. That hour ends abruptly when the fathers come home, their nerves too frazzled to tolerate any amount of noise. The contrast with George and Jim couldn’t be greater.

Breakfast with Jim used to be one of the best times of their days. It was then, while they were drinking their second and third cups of coffee, that they had their best talks.

When A Single Man was first published in 1964, reviewers seemed surprised at how normal George is.

It is not Isherwood’s purpose to write a novel “about” homosexuality; rather, he appears to want to present, without “scholarship,” or explanation, a homosexual who is, so to speak, just like everyone else

Elizabeth Hardwick, Sex and the Single Man, The New York Review of Books, 20 Aug 1964

Night

Isherwood and Bachardy survived the 1963 break. They would go on as lovers, fellow artists, and professional collaborators until Isherwood’s death in 1986.

Their life with one another and with their countless friends became a kind of shared artistic project, and their relationship was to become a model for many gay men undertaking long term partnerships in the new openness of liberation. Its iconic status was enhanced by the double portrait of them which David Hockney painted in 1968.

Katherine Bucknell, Biography in The Christopher Isherwood Foundation

But Isherwood couldn’t have known this when he wrote A Single Man. The novel closes with George at night still floundering in his grief for the lost Jim and wondering when, if ever, he’ll love again. At the end of a long and trying day, Los Angeles is no longer the paradise it once promised to be.

The cars all around, the dip of the freeway ahead, the Valley with its homes and gardens opening below, under a long brown smear of smog, beyond and above which the big barren mountains rise.

11 Jan 2020 | Karen Kao