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 news-reporting is the ease with which they are impressed by fame. Mr. Isherwood met nearly all the public characters in his district; he felt it his duty as a war correspondent to be interested in them. But they were bores—or rather the kind of contact a foreign journalist establishes with a public character is boring—and he is too honest a writer to disguise the fact. (p. 498)
Evelyn Waugh, "Mr. Isherwood and Friend," in The Spectator (© 1939 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 162, No. 5778, March 24, 1939, pp. 496, 498.
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 into generalisations, talked about, made the subject of anguished self-communing. And this from a writer who had acquired his tone of voice, indeed his whole world, by dint of never stirring an inch from the straight path of event and on-the-spot emotional reaction. Still, the first five-sixths of the book, in which a relationship was treated in the old Isherwood way and just shown happening, was all right.
It was not long, of course, before it became as apparent as such things can be that that first five-sixths had crossed the Atlantic in Mr. Isherwood's trunk, constituting a marble torso that was to be eked out with a plaster leg or so when he reached Hollywood. Until somebody writes Christopher Isherwood in America I suppose we shall all go on saying, whenever and wherever we bring up the question why his talent took a nosedive as soon as he left England, that this is neither the time nor the place to attempt an answer….
Passing over The World in the Evening...
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[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 Stories are the best rendering of early Hitler Germany we have: an artistic re-creation of a society's self-betrayal. (p. 4)
In a consideration of Isherwood's major work, a division clearly suggests itself: Documentaries and Novels. I call "documentaries" those works in which "Christopher Isherwood," the ventriloquist's dummy, appears; "novels," those works in which he does not…. The division is less arbitrary, or superficial, than may at first appear. If, for example, we call the books with the "Christopher Isherwood" narrator "political," we begin to see that it is precisely in the use of this particular device of point of view that Isherwood's success as a political novelist lies. Even his so-called factual books, Lions and Shadows, Journey to a War, The Condor and the Cows, are documentaries in their presentation of events, in their selection of incident, and in the character of the dummy who tells the story. In all of these, emotion has been transposed or dissolved, and the distance which political novels require has been achieved. (p. 15)
Be that as it may, a comparison of Isherwood's portrayals of characters in his documentaries, and his "factual" portraits of actual people, reveals immediately the particular and peculiar art of the documentary. His factual portraits of Ernst Toller, Virginia Woolf, and Klaus Mann…, and his sketch of Aldous Huxley …, are lifeless and unevocative. Without the dummy, without the touch of the artist, Isherwood is strangely feeble. The reporter without the artist is only a competent journalist. (p. 17)
The rare gift of touching a portrait with life is discovered by Isherwood only in the documentaries; the lifelessness of his actual portraits attests to this. (p. 18)
The whole question of point of view and the reliability of the narrator has been seen as central in modern studies of the novel. It is the more extraordinary … that critics have failed to recognize that Isherwood alone developed the form of the documentary and the particular narrator who makes it possible. Not even Wayne Booth, whose Rhetoric of Fiction is devoted to the relationship between the chosen point of narration and the sense of truth and morality conveyed by the story, has seen how Isherwood's first-person dummy makes possible a kind of veracity that is freed from an intrusive sense of morality or ideological bias. Yet a study of Isherwood's fictional technique makes clear the apparent anomaly that political novels are best narrated by a first-person viewer of bland personality, while interior novels of sensibility are, as Henry James of course discovered, impossible successfully to render in the first person. Furthermore, the bland first-person narrator saves the political novel from too strident a presentation of ideology so that, in the end, the moral point of view for which Wayne Booth hankers, is, in fact, created. (p. 19)
"Christopher Isherwood," who refuses to judge the characters, who, indeed, allows himself to be charmed by...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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