Sex and the Single Man

A Single Man

by Christopher Isherwood
Simon and Schuster, 186 pp., $4.00

Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood; drawing by David Levine

Poor Corydon is now in California, driving the freeways with a day-dreaming ardor, attacking the ants with a Flit gun, and mourning among the hibiscus bushes. His name is George and perhaps he must be called the “hero” of Christopher Isherwood’s new novel, A Single Man. George is chagrined, restless, grieving over the death of his lover and housemate, Jim, as a widower would grieve for his wife. George is an Englishman. He is ironical, middle-aged, and yet boyishly passionate. His is a fairly modest anal disposition, respectable enough, with a finicky, faggoty interest in the looks of things—far from the corruption and splendor of his type in French fiction. And yet perhaps he is a little corrupt and a little splendid, too. George lives in a hideaway cottage on Camphor Tree Lane. He knows all about the human and decorative insults of suburban California; his tastes are low but his Taste, of course, is reasonably high. He is a perverse mixture of arrogance and shyness, suspicion and indifference. Devastating revolts threaten in daydreams, but in truth he is controlled enough to get by. His neighbors, the Strunk and Garfein couples and their rackety children are the object of George’s fears and his satiric vexation.

George teaches at San Tomas State College in Los Angeles. If he were not so “English,” so plausibly bred, he might, as he faces his classroom of boys and girls lined up before him like bulldogs, be some S. Levin out of Malamud. His entrance into the classroom “is a subtly contrived, outrageously theatrical effect.” When he gives his brittle, hysterical lecture on Huxley’s After Many a Summer, we see that George is not a real teacher, but one of those American artists or writers, hanging by his fingernails to his academic and sexual freedom, making a diversive display to hide a natural leaning toward indiscretions.

George is abjectly presented. Indeed his first scene takes place on the john. (“George feels a bowel movement coming on with agreeable urgency and climbs the stairs briskly to the bathroom book in hand.”) The book is by Ruskin and from his throne George looks down upon Mrs. Strunk “emptying the dustbag of her vacuum cleaner into the trash can.” 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, who claims his rights to be allowed to go about his homosexual life—a life curiously, in its little cottage, its domesticity, its social compromises, remote from angularity and singularity. There is a lot of Mr. and Mrs. Strunk—or is it Mr. and Mrs. Garfein?—in George and Jim. They too are emptying, day in and day out, the dustbags into the trash can.

So George is a natural man, compromised, self-conscious, irritable, but nevertheless keeping up his exercises (and…

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