‘A Single Man’ is a portrait of a single day in the life of George, a lonely, late middle-aged Englishman living in Santa Monica and teaching at a university in LA. George is gay. Thus far, thus autobiographical. George has in the recent past lost his lover, Jim, in a car accident, and is slowly coming to terms with his loss. We follow him and his internal monologue through the course of a day as he gets up, drives to work, presents a lecture to a very diverse group of students, and then goes to the gym, all the while narrating his progress, and simply holding it together. One gets the impression of a man on the edge, terrified of growing old and being alone, conscious of the need to keep his sexuality, still taboo in America at this time, secret, but equally being struck by lust several times during the course of the day. He needs to grieve, but is unable to do so – indeed, he has told his neighbours that his ‘friend’, Jim, has simply moved away, rather than acknowledging his death and having to respond to their condolences.

This was brave stuff for a novel in the 1960’s. Homosexuality was illegal and while attitudes across America varied widely, and still do, Isherwood references some of the struggles gay men faced. (Remarkably, while gay marriage is not legal in the USA, “as of April 2014, 17 states either had not repealed their laws against sexual activity among consenting adults, or had not revised them to accurately reflect their true scope. Often, State laws were drafted to encompass other forms of sexual conduct such as bestiality, and no attempt has been made to separate them. Fourteen states’ statutes purport to ban all forms of sodomy regardless of the participants’ genders. Four states specifically target their statutes at same-sex relations only”) (With thanks to the wonderful Wikipedia, which knows all).
George is, in his grief, alienated from his environment. His students are “the male and female raw material which is fed daily into this factory” (ie the university) (page 32). He only really comes to life when sexually aroused, by the lithesome tennis players he sees, or when exercising in the gym next to a desirable if dangerously young man.  

There are some difficult scenes where Isherwood/George describes his disgust with the female body, including his dying ‘friend’, Doris, previously a short-term lover of his partner, Jim. He remembers her as:

“that big, arrogant animal of a girl…With that body which sprawled stark naked, gaping wide in shameless demand…gross insucking vulva, sly ruthless greedy flesh, in all the bloom and gloss and arrogant resilience of youth…I am Doris…I am Bitch-Mother nature.” (75)

There is plenty more in this vein. You could read this as George hitting out in his grief at someone who tried to steal his partner from him, but the visceral nature of the description reveals a nastier strain of misogyny. Heterosexuals generally get quite a hard time – children are described as appearing “litter after litter” (9) and even ‘Children at play’ traffic signs are seen as sinister. This is the interior narrative of a bitter sad, single man. His anger and resentment of the heterosexual families that encroach on his bohemian community is understandable, but nonetheless unpleasant.

George’s day, and the novel, concludes with a wild, improbable and drunken midnight swim, and finally with a heart attack, a gloomy, hopeless ending to a sad and bitter life. ‘A Single Man’ is an important landmark in gay literature, and is economically, sparsely written, but it has a sadness which made me quite glad to be leaving this world. Isherwood’s earlier novels may have been less polished that this, but they had an optimism and hope missing here.