The aspect of Isherwood’s writing that is most immediately apparent is the extent to which his fiction is all but inseparable from his autobiography. For Isherwood, the process of creation began with his own experience and observation. While he certainly invented material, even those inventions tend to be but slight variations of his actual experiences. In some of his best work, most notably The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood uses his own name or his middle names for the protagonist.
That noted, it must also be recognized that the “Isherwood” or “Bradshaw” of the novels is never a perfectly autobiographical presentation of the author. There are significant differences, and Isherwood does not hesitate to assume a mask, even if the voice remains his. There is, for example, an aloofness and ingenuousness to the narrator that is not characteristic of Isherwood himself. The boundaries are so imprecise in Isherwood’s work, however, that many readers have confused the writer and the protagonist. Isherwood has even been criticized for some of the faults that he purposely assigned to his fictional self. Likewise, his best work has sometimes been mistaken for mere journal or diary extracts strung together in a loose framework.
The more general opinion, however, is that Isherwood is one of the best writers of his generation. Isherwood stands out in part because of the lucidity and ease of his style. Along with novelist and essayist George Orwell, he is representative of the power that a colloquial or vernacular style can achieve. It was a style that he developed after early experimentation with a prose derived from modernist novelists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. E. M. Forster was particularly influential in the career of the young Isherwood. Consequently, his early novels, such as All the Conspirators and The Memorial, rely on a tone of ironic understatement by which significant events are treated only slightly while trivial events are presented in full detail. Isherwood referred to this characteristic as the “tea-table technique”; that is, subjects worthy only of the tea table receive undue attention. The intention is entirely ironic. For example, Isherwood might juxtapose memories of a dead husband with anxieties over cooking and shopping, thus highlighting for the reader the way in which a fragmented postwar society has imposed triviality and isolation on its members.
Though Forster remained the most important influence in his literary career, Isherwood abandoned the techniques of modernism in favor of a more restrained and pared-down realism. Starting with The Last of Mr. Norris, he avoided the complexities of a fragmented story line and a jumbled chronology, along with the interior monologue of his earlier novels. Bradshaw’s account of his encounters with the strange Mr. Norris is straightforward and colloquial, yet the simple diction conceals a sense of incongruity that can only be called ironic. There is always the slightest sense of mockery and denigration in Isherwood’s subtle prose. Indeed, the prose is so subtle that the reader must avoid assuming, mistakenly, that the narrator is merely a neutral or transparent observer—the camera to which the narrator compares himself in Goodbye to Berlin. He is not merely a camera; he comments on the subjects of his vision, and the commentary is persistently, if not overtly, ironic.
The source of the irony is the sensibility of Isherwood’s detached narrator. He calls little attention to himself, and he does not dramatize himself. He is an unobtrusive guide leading the reader through “the freak museum of our neurotic generation.” The narrator’s strong urge to be that guide provides the incentive for the documentary style of the Berlin novels. The nature of the political circumstances demands of him a lucid and objective presentation, insofar as objectivity is possible. Isherwood’s changing technique exemplified some of the concerns of his generation, particularly the belief that communication was more important than aesthetics.
His work after 1939, the year that he moved to the United States, is generally thought to be inferior to his early work, at least in terms of style. Instead of his quintessential “thirties prose,” considered by many to be the best of the decade, Isherwood’s later style is more melodramatic and sentimental. According to many critics, the excursions into Oriental philosophy that inform his later work, A Meeting by the River, for example, weaken the universal appeal that was so marked in his early novels. Not all, however, are in agreement on this particular point. Brian Finney, Isherwood’s biographer, finds that his later novels compare favorably with the early ones.
The most important aspect...
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