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.)
"'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,...
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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...
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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...
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[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 same artless directness. How could he reconcile being The Novelist—one of the company of Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy—with this deliberately low-key approach? (p. 313)
[Isherwood's detached, observant first-person narrative is reminiscent of] Henry James; the James of The Aspern Papers and The Sacred Fount. Not that Isherwood's narrator 'Chris' is ever as complicated or analytical as James's mouthpiece. Yet, as I now suddenly realised, the basic spirit behind Isherwood's enterprise is Jamesian. Professor Sampson once compared James to a man who looks at life through a magic mirror, like the Lady of Shalott, always the observer, never the participant. What is the difference between James's mirror and...
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