Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 14)
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 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
There is only one portrait in Mr. Isherwood's collection [Journey to a War] that does not recall a familiar type; that is the host of the Journey's End Hotel, Mr. Charleton, and for the few pages of his appearance the narrative suddenly comes to life, and one is reminded that Mr. Isherwood is not only the companion of Mr. Auden, but the creator of Mr. Norris and Miss Bowles. Not that his work ever falls below a high literary standard. It is admirable. The style is austerely respectable; not only does he seldom use a cliché, he never seems consciously to avoid one; a distinction due to a correct habit of thought. Anyone of decent education can revise his work finding alternatives for his clichés; a good writer is free from this drudgery; he thinks in other terms. Mr. Isherwood writes a smooth and accurate kind of demotic language which is adequate for his needs; he never goes butterfly-hunting for a fine phrase. It is no fault of his technique that Journey to a War is rather flat; he is relating a flat experience, for he is far too individual an artist to be a satisfactory reporter. The essence of a journalist is enthusiasm; news must be something which excites him, not merely something he believes will excite someone else. Mr. Isherwood—all honour to him for it—has no news sense. In particular, he is interested in people for other reasons than their notoriety. The quality which makes Americans and colonials excel in...
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There must be plenty of people who, like myself, read their Isherwood during the war period and recognised in him a novelist not only admirable but congenial. Although quite capable of powerfully haunting effects (witness the closing scene of 'The Nowaks'), he offered clarity, common sense, easy-going humour and detachment as distinct from the more insistently literary or prophetic qualities of some of his elders. They constructed; he evidently re-created. There may have been something suspect about that detachment of his, something that ceased at times to look like an authorial strategy and became a mere personal reticence; but the rest was genuine, the gift for atmosphere and for location in place and time, the ability to fix a bar or a tenement or a beach or a Berlin street by the swift unfussy selection of concrete objects. The study of this was worth giving one's days and nights to.
The year 1945 brought Prater Violet, which incorporated an unwelcome novelty. Herr Issyvoo was discovered to have a sex-life after all, and about time too, but the whole thing was treated in a chary, allusive manner, with the other people given initials instead of names. Much better to have gone on being 'detached' than to roll up the bedroom blind a quarter of the way, so to speak. This kind of self-editing brings a danger of self-indulgence: the novelist can say whatever he likes about what he hasn't actually described. So here sex got fitted...
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Carolyn G. Heilburn
[Christopher Isherwood] is the best British novelist of his generation…. [His] fictions have achieved the integrity of art while illuminating the human tensions of our time. Muted in tone, self-effacing in manner, his works continue to make a quiet but persistent claim on our attention….
To read … his "autobiographical" Lions and Shadows, is to find oneself not only committed to the reading of all his other books but surprised into an appreciation of the rarest literary conjunction of our times: readability and high intelligence…. Readability is usually allied with superficiality, best-sellerdom, or, at best, competent nonfiction, and there can be little doubt that Isherwood's readability has preserved him from academic sanctification. It is difficult to be properly serious about a writer in whose literary presence one feels so relaxed. (p. 3)
Certainly the effect of ease in Isherwood's writing is deluding: it persuades the reader to overlook the enormous skill of his prose….
No one, in these works, is romanticized, condemned, or even judged; if the narrator, named Christopher Isherwood, responds at all, he does so only from personal pique or inconvenience. The brilliantly unobtrusive prose allows us to watch violence, brutality, and compromise with pain, and to realize only when the book is finished that in doing so we, like the narrator, have failed in humanity. Isherwood's Berlin...
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W. H. Auden
In reading Mr. Isherwood's latest book [Kathleen and Frank]—since in it he always refers to himself as Christopher, I shall henceforth call him by his first name—it may be helpful to recall the three crises through which, according to Erik Erikson, anybody who merits an autobiography must pass: the crisis of Identity, the crisis of Generativity, and the crisis of Integrity. Roughly speaking, these occur in youth, middle age, and old age respectively, but they usually overlap, and the intensity and duration of each varies from individual to individual.
In the Identity crisis, the young man is trying to find the answer to the question, "Who am I really, as distinct from what others believe or desire me to be?" This is a crisis of consciousness. The Generativity crisis is a crisis of conscience. The question now to be answered is: "I have done this and that; my acts have affected others in this way or that. Have I done well or ill? Can I justify the influence that, intentionally or unintentionally, I have had on others?" Both the Identity and the Generativity crises are preoccupied with freedom and choice. The Integrity crisis of old age is concerned with fate and necessity. As Mr. Erikson puts it, it demands:
… the acceptance of one's one and only life-cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions, the knowledge that an individual life is...
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With matriarchal arrogance, the mother rules Isherwood's first two novels, All the Conspirators and The Memorial, written just before his Berlin books…. In the later novels, after [Isherwood's] conversion to Vedanta, mother figures become kind, even saintly, as [he] no longer postures as the young man "angry with the family and its official representatives."… (pp. 19-20)
Although Isherwood chafed against all authority, particularly its initial manifestation in his mother, his first novel cannot be classed either as a manifesto of independence or as a polemic in the same way that D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can. All the Conspirators is a portrait of the artist as a hapless mother's boy unable to sever his ties to mother and to home. Isherwood exposes not only the Edwardian manners of the older generation but also the postwar sensibility of the younger generation as bogus and smug. His targets are pretentiousness and Prufrockian escapism, neither trait exclusively possessed by either generation. Rather than "a call to sound the cry to the barricades," All the Conspirators is an autopsy of a malignant family with Isherwood a coroner dissecting "the great malady, horror of one's home" and "Acedia, 'the malady of monks,' that deadly weakness of the will … the root of all evil" that sickens unto death. (p. 20)
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D. S. Savage
Isherwood set out initially to be a novelist, not an autobiographer; but his apprentice efforts as well as later attempts to dramatize characters and situations and to write confidently about adult emotions, are all relative failures. Most of his best work, written in Europe in the thirties—Sally Bowles, Goodbye to Berlin, Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Lions and Shadows, together with the later rechauffe of much the same material in Down There on a Visit (1962)—is artfully artless reportage by a naif 'I' who bears one of Isherwood's own christian names, or it is direct if slightly fictionalized autobiography.
With Isherwood's self-absorption is associated both his recessive orientation towards the past and his preoccupation with the immature…. Isherwood's style at its early best has a bare particularity which accords well with the triviality of his subject-matter. (pp. 71-2)
[An] admission by one of Isherwood's later mouthpieces that he is one to whom things happen in a disconnected, meaningless way seems to express facetiously his author's own unreadiness, for all his self-concern, to grasp, evaluate and comprehend experience so as to grow inwardly to maturity through its creative assimilation. (p. 72)
[It] becomes apparent that Isherwood's characters have one especial feature in common. They are simultaneously both naughty and innocent…. It is this odd...
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