Christopher Isherwood

by Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood

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Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 1)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

Isherwood, Christopher 1904–

An English-born novelist, playwright, and translator, now living in California, Isherwood is best known for his Berlin stories. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Perhaps no novelist of the last thirty years seemed better equipped than Christopher Isherwood to catch the peculiar tone of his times; he had verbal facility, inventive ability, and a sense of form and movement. What he lacked in his early work was imaginative breadth, and this, the reader felt, would develop as his total powers grew…. Instead of maturing into a novelist, however, Isherwood demonstrated that his real skill lay with the short sketch, the vignette, the brief portrait, the episode. His verbal facility and grace of movement remained, but they were placed at the service of basically trivial characters.

Frederick R. Karl, "Christopher Isherwood," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 290-92.

In one respect, Isherwood is the greatest disappointment in the history of contemporary fiction. It seems clear, after his … recent novels, The World in the Evening and Down There on a Visit, that his best work is essentially of the thirties. It is certainly one of the most considerable achievements of that time, and not only because of the Berlin books, which have tended to overshadow the two brilliant novels that preceded them, All the Conspirators … and The Memorial…. They are still technically interesting; and in their matter and the attitude informing them they remind us of Isherwood's close association with W. H. Auden. They may be considered, indeed, as equivalents in fiction of Auden's early verse, their characters particular examples of what Auden was attacking generally, embodiments almost of the codified lists of symptoms in Poems and The Orators.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 234.

Christopher Isherwood made his reputation before the war, though the books he is best known by—Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains—have taken on a poignantly new significance since the war. They are studies of the Germany of the nineteen-thirties, though not hard-breathing and earnest concentrations on a significant period of modern history: what one primarily notes is their humour and lightness…. The serious intention of Isherwood, the use of the novel-form to clarify tragic situations, was made manifest in his earlier, experimental, works, like All the Conspirators and The Memorial. By the time he came to the Berlin books, he had learnt that strong draughts required a bedside manner. It is astonishing how powerful a picture of the decay of bourgeois German society is drawn on the margin of entertainment. If we want to know what it was like to live in that autumn, the Nazi wind ready to puff its cheeks, it is to Isherwood we must go and not to the heavier, worthier chroniclers.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 112-13.

In all of Isherwood's novels, the discontinuity of the characters' manifestations of self creates fictional problems. Identity seems more a record of compulsion and paralysis than of action, as fugitive and expatriate characters improvise disguises against settings which—after the first two novels—are places of escape, resort areas, clubs, bizarre boarding houses, utopian camps—places suggesting a general disruption...

(This entire section contains 1892 words.)

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of family and society. The camera point-of-view inGoodbye to Berlin strengthens the mood of alienation, implying that all the author can offer of truth is what can immediately be recorded. But recent fiction is more opaque. At least the reader knew how to interpret the "objective" reporting of Goodbye, but now teleological patterns are disrupted—what one did ten years ago has no connection with today. That one dares ask why partly causes the weakness of the stories in Down There on a Visit. It might, however, be reason for success in more recent writing where the whyness is less important than the whatness of existence—especially those dimensions of experience of interest to religious thinkers. Perhaps Down There on a Visit fails to achieve these dimensions because this would be a lie for the characters involved. In the next novel, [A Single Man,] he does approximate, if briefly at the end of the novel, a sense of the eternal….

The change in Isherwood's recent fiction is related to cultural change. The passive, unexpressive figure who reported the hectic activities of the Thirties has become part of a more general alienation—fear of annihilation, fear of survival. On the surface he seems to accept the current popular belief (expressed in rock festivals, Eugene McCarthy's campaign, or plans for communal living) that Eros can exist without aggression. But, more importantly, he shows the way aggression goes underground to become a source of destructive fantasy.

Terence Dewsnap, "Isherwood Couchant," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1971, pp. 31-47.

[The] themes of separateness and aloneness—along with the repeated images of mirrors, games, and traveling (to mention only the most prominent)—… provide continuity among Isherwood's works. The works differ from one another, on the other hand, in the ways the characters respond to their dissatisfactions with themselves and the worlds of which they find themselves so remotely and unsatisfactorily apart. (p. 3)

[The] major reason for the devaluation of Isherwood's books, especially his novels, seems to lie above all in a failure to understand the nature of his vision. To put the matter simply, it has become increasingly common among critics to assume the identity of Isherwood with his protagonists, especially with those of the first-person novels, and to assume further that he is, as the narrator of Goodbye to Berlin apparently claims to be, a neutral observer of the agitated scene that surrounds him…. Critics who tend to misread the novels are generally guilty of missing at least part of their irony: specifically, the irony that is almost invariably directed at the narrators and protagonists of the books. (p. 4)

Isherwood's handling of language has always been his hallmark, and critics have commented frequently on the ease and lucidity of his writing…. ["Purple] passages" or "literary" effects are rare in Isherwood's writing. Certainly, his diction is simple; but what needs to be added is that the words are frequently deployed in such a way as to produce in the reader a sense of incongruity that is as potent as but less obtrusive and less blatantly grotesque than what one takes away from the early novels of Aldous Huxley, in which comparable strategies are employed. The result, in any case, is reductive; the reader is made to apprehend the texture of daily life as somewhat ludicrous, uncomfortable, even repellent.

Most descriptions in Isherwood's work are, in fact, written from an angle that is oblique to ordinary perception. Not only the ordering and arrangement but also the choice of words serves to bring about a slight but constant displacement of the reader's expectations, and it is Isherwood's accomplishment that even the most apparently random word or phrase contrives to fantasticate the entire passage of which it is a part. (p. 14)

Isherwood's conception and articulation of his characters bear little resemblance to the methods of the modern psychological novel. Here, as elsewhere, his approach is oblique: the reader is presented with surface and left to infer depth. The characters in Lions and Shadows—and in all of the novels where the protagonist bears Isherwood's name—are less individuals in their own right than facets of the protagonist and then of the narrator-author. Everyone whom the young Isherwood meets throughout the course of Lions and Shadows is in some way an objectification of a quality, good or bad, that is inherent or potential in him; each is what he might be, what he revolts against, or what he is. Necessarily, since the record of his thoughts and actions supplies the narrative interest of the book and his development, its unifying thread, the protagonist receives more attention, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. Ultimately, he, like the others, is part of the network of clues that refers back to the narrator who is recording his education. (p. 20)

The influence of Vedanta on Isherwood's later writings has to do both with the nature of his vision and the shape of his books. Prater Violet, for all its obvious links with the books that precede it, marks the beginning of a reorientation in Isherwood's career, most apparent in the transformation of the romantic and relativistic irony of the early novels into the transcendental irony of the later ones…. At their best, the later novels, deriving as they do from a comprehensive and coherent system of beliefs and values, convey simultaneously and with equal dramatic validity Isherwood's continuing preoccupation with human action and motives and with his new metaphysical assumptions—a double vision of man seen through his own eyes and, as it were, through those of God. Where the later works fail, they reveal, in contrast to the lack of sufficient focus that sometimes obscures the early ones, an overly theoretical structuring of experience. If the prewar novels seek above all to discover value, the postwar books attempt rather to demonstrate the consequences of belief. (p. 100)

Isherwood's most remarkable achievement has to do with the inventiveness and versatility of his handling of technique, which are apparent in his command of stylistic, and particularly syntactic, subtleties; in his structural and verbal ironies; in his experiments with narrators of varying degrees of insensitivity or reliability; in his narrative use of letters and diaries; and finally, in his shifting temporal perspectives. Indeed, Isherwood's success in finding new forms (or revitalizing old ones) makes of him one of the most rewarding and subtle experimental novelists of the last four decades. (pp. 149-50)

Alan Wilde, in his Christopher Isherwood, Twayne, 1971.

Much of Isherwood's fiction has been based upon actual diaries; he has always invoked the verité of actual events with an acute sense of specific place and time—making use of what he has described as "islands of fact." In these respects he has striven for a sense of the personal and the actual. In fiction of this sort, the author/reader relationship is unusually close: the reader is, in fact, obliged to take an interest in the authorial personality, for that personality is both the means and, substantially, the subject of the work.

David P. Thomas, "Goodbye to Berlin: Refocusing Isherwood's Camera," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1972 (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 44-52.

Isherwood's early writings revealed him as a sympathetic observer and recorder of man's oddities. In his last four novels, however, he has identified himself more closely with his narrators, giving us, in essence, a portrait of the artist as Odd Man In: a plucky, often eccentric fellow who is part of society, yet who refuses to be intimidated by forces that threaten his freedom as a writer and homosexual. This shift in approach has sometimes resulted in merely polemical fiction (The World in the Evening), but in his best novels (A Single Man, A Meeting by the River) Isherwood writes with wit and subtlety.

Joseph Catinella, in Saturday Review, January 22, 1972, p. 66.


Isherwood, Christopher


Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 11)