Study Guide

Christopher Isherwood

by Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood Essay - Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 11)

Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 11)


Isherwood, Christopher 1904–

Isherwood is an English-born novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, filmwriter, translator, and editor. Like other members of the "Auden group," he was influenced in the 1920s by the philosophies of Marx and Freud. He is generally considered to be at his best when writing detached social satires, depicting a tragic view of life that is outlined with humor. Describing himself as "a born film fan," he has experimented with cinematic and episodic techniques in his fiction. Much of his work is autobiographically oriented. Isherwood collaborated with Auden on three plays, works of fantasy which combine verse with prose. He has also explored an interest in Hindu mysticism, translating and editing several books of Indian philosophy. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Angus Wilson

"'I'll even forgive myself. As a matter of fact, I just have. Do you know something, Jane,' I said, as I emptied my glass, 'I really do forgive myself, from the bottom of my heart.'" So speaks Stephen, the central character of … The World in the Evening, and on these words the book ends. Forgiveness of oneself is, of course, a spiritual state highly to be desired; but for those who accept the idea of personal guilt—and Mr. Isherwood belongs firmly to the generation of the guilt-acceptors—the deliberate statement of self-forgiving is an act of high seriousness. The slightest hint of triviality either in the conviction of sin or in the belief in its atonement is liable to produce an inelegant impression upon those who are asked to witness the confession…. It is exactly some such chasm between high intention and inadequate capacity that will, I am afraid, disturb Mr. Isherwood's admirers who have waited so long for this novel, and will, no doubt, delight his critics who have waited equally long to say "I told you so."

This failure in central purpose is particularly sad because The World in the Evening shows no decline in Mr. Isherwood's powers; indeed, in the understanding of certain human relationships and, above all, in technical control both of range and of organisation, it shows, I think, a very considerable advance. (p. 62)

[Isherwood's] new hero Stephen is the creature of his own imagination, not a convenient cover name for autobiographical reporting. To the extent that his new novel has, I imagine, drawn more deeply upon his invention than his earlier work, this is true. Nevertheless it is impossible not to equate his hero's spiritual odyssey with his own…. A great deal of the novel is highly entertaining, much of it is percipient, some of it very moving, but it is not important at the level to which it aspires…. Nothing in Mr. Isherwood's earlier work suggested that either his intellectual powers or his emotional strength would sustain a novel of the kind that could satisfy Dr. Leavis' criteria. To succeed in the portrayal of a man's progress from an undeveloped state of emotional parasitism to the inner conviction of a total and satisfying meaning in life that allows him to forgive even himself would require, surely, either the tornado of Dostoevsky's emotions sweeping good and evil alike before it, or the enveloping calm of Tolstoy…. Stephen is a peculiarly feeble vehicle for the expression of spiritual truth. There is, of course, nothing unacceptable in presenting the spiritual progress of a feeble personality, even if it be only from minus six to minus four, but the author must be fully aware of the smallness of his compass.

Mr. Isherwood is, I suspect, only a very little conscious of the triviality of Stephen's story. He is afraid on occasion, I think, that he may seem to have lost his sense of proportion…. Whatever happens it must not seem that grace has robbed him of his sense of humour, finding God must at all costs be shown to be tremendous fun. Of course, Mr. Isherwood is too perceptive, too sophisticated not to see how unbecoming this archness is in other godly folk. We are given many examples of the irritating little jokes which the Pennsylvania Quakers employ to humanise their rectitude. Nevertheless, when he is ill at ease with his own theme, he uses exactly the same tactic, though the archness and charm are more worldly, more New Yorker than those of his Quaker characters. The most distressing example of this comes with his hero's final confession of self-forgiveness…. This episode is either the crux of the whole theme or it is nothing; yet the author is careful to present it at the end of a conversation between Stephen and his wife when both are "high" after a few cocktails. It is true that all we have learnt of Stephen tell us that he might not be able to say such a thing unless he were drunk, but Mr. Isherwood somehow contrives to present this circumstance as charmingly excusing the confession, when clearly it either needs no excuse or it should not have been made at all.

The truth is that Mr. Isherwood is not much at ease with "goodness" and "good people." In...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)

Stuart Hampshire

Mr. Isherwood is an experimental writer who has invented a form of his own. Like most experimental writers, he is sometimes estimated unjustly, and interpreted anxiously and angrily, because the critic, or reader, is not always sure how he ought to be read and what his intentions are. He shocks, because he is truthful in an unfamiliar way. Also he evidently uses fiction for an oblique moral purpose. But he is a subtle moralist; there are no reassuring hammer-blows, as in Orwell, which tell the reader quite unmistakably which side he ought to be on, leaving him complacent among the angels. There is doubt, insinuation of opposing points of view, and therefore discomfort. It is as if the author, through the narrator, is still making up his mind what he believes, or where he stands, as he writes: at least he successfully creates the illusion of a tentative development within the stories that he tells.

Mr. Isherwood's novels … constitute a peculiar kind of contemporary history. Their peculiarity is the combination of an intensely private private life recounted against the background of public events: first, Fascism and [then] the war that emerged from it…. [He] has sustained the story of a hero who is obstinately loyal to the values of private life and of personal relations … of friendship and truthfulness. (p. 86)

The centre of Mr. Isherwood's experiment is the use of his hero, Christopher. The sequence of the novels constitutes a very peculiar kind of Bildungsroman, in which a hero...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Frank Kermode

Few writers have been more persistently anxious about themselves, their contemporaries, or the times they lived in [than Isherwood], and those who have seemed not to have wanted to state their anxiety so obliquely. He is a little like St. Augustine deploring in conceited Latin the depravity of another evening world. He studies our amusing, apparently self-willed deformities almost as if what mattered was their intrinsic comic value, almost as if he did not know that the pressures that create them are beyond the control of the individual will; yet his whole way of looking at them is ultimately conditioned by the political and psychological preoccupations of his contemporaries, and that to a degree most unusual in English intellectuals. On the face of it nothing could be more dispiriting than an œuvre of which the main theme is escape from Mother, enacted against sketches of a decaying continent. But Mr. Isherwood is not serious, and so the Berlin stories [become] conceited variations on a desperate theme…. (p. 121)

Being farcical about desperate matters is a trick associated with cabaret, especially German cabaret…. It has never been naturalized here, except momentarily by Isherwood himself…. [Jocular desperation is a highbrow solution] to the big problem of how to achieve specifically literary effects without shutting out life and politics. For the Freudian artist it is a problem complicated by his own alienation from society. Without it he wouldn't be an artist, but it complicates his way of looking at public events, especially at a time when … 'the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms'. (p. 122)

[The problem of treating public events in a work of art] is presented in an apparently relaxed fashion in The World in the Evening (1954). Gerda, the refugee help, stands for total acceptance of our condition as good—internment camps, bedpans, love, everything understood and included. Stephen, the hero, is cut off from precisely this, and his relationship with Gerda is one of those sex-free affairs between tormented men and life-accepting women that recur throughout Isherwood's work. Stephen's dead wife Elizabeth was a highbrow novelist whose work Gerda dislikes. (pp. 122-23)

Elizabeth, in this strange,...

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Colin Wilson

[Auden, Isherwood, Spender, and Upward] set themselves up as the Next Generation (after Joyce, Huxley and Eliot) and achieved literary eminence by a kind of coup d'état….

Yet of the group, Isherwood seemed to be the odd man out. Auden and Spender were starting where Eliot left off, writing about the world of aeroplanes and pylons and guerrilla warfare. Upward's prose in Railway Accident and Journey to the Border was as complex and allusive as you would expect from someone who knew his Ulysses by heart. By comparison, Isherwood seemed deliberately naive. There was no evidence that he'd ever read anybody—except possibly the early novels of Knut Hamsun, which have the...

(The entire section is 3645 words.)