Christopher Isherwood Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 9) - Essay

Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood

Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Isherwood, Christopher 1904–

Isherwood is an English-born novelist, playwright, translator, short story writer, and screenwriter who is popular for his largely autobiographical accounts of pre-Nazi Berlin and for his detached, humorous observations of men and manners. Critic Frederick R. Karl speculates that "perhaps no novelist … seemed better equipped … to catch the peculiar tone of his times." As a young man, Isherwood was a member of the Marxist group that included Spender and Auden; the latter first convinced him to go to Berlin. Isherwood and Auden later collaborated on a number of plays. Isherwood's works reflect his interest in film and its techniques, such as flashbacks and time shifts. While living in California, he wrote movie scripts and Prater Violet, a novel about the film industry. His The Berlin Stories, adapted by John Van Druten for his I Am a Camera, was the basis for the musical and film Cabaret. Isherwood became a U.S. citizen in 1946. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Lions and Shadows is the most unpretentious exhibit in the vast gallery of Romantic and post-Romantic works that chart the development of the artist as a young man. It is also the only one of Isherwood's books that he has chosen to acknowledge as autobiography, although the novels as well appear to reflect, more or less accurately, the events and experiences of his life. Indeed, the preface to Lions and Shadows, typically, invites the reader to treat the book as if it were fiction, but it is clear that, even where the work in untrue to fact, it is faithful to the inner struggles it exposes. For this reason and because it does in fact reveal in a form least affected by the requirements of fiction Isherwood's typical themes and concerns and his characteristic manner of expression, Lions and Shadows holds a central place in Isherwood's career and provides the best introduction to all of his writings, especially to those highly ironic novels of the nineteen-thirties, which are still the foundation of his reputation.

In his note to the reader, Isherwood announces his theme with the statement that "this book is about the problems of a would-be writer"; he goes on to add: "The style is the man."… The two statements are not completely coordinate, since the first takes into account both the protagonist and the narrator and the nature of the development from one to the other, whereas the second refers to information that can be inferred about the author-narrator alone. The latter, however, although less immediately obvious, is ultimately the more central figure in the book: at first sight simply bland, neutral, and cool, the familiar detached and impartial spectator of modern literature, the narrator supplies, in his observations and evaluation of the "education in the twenties" that transforms his younger self into the more sophisticated, thirty-three year old author of the thirties, not only the angle of vision but also the moral values that the reader adopts in his interpretation of Lions and Shadows. The clue to his own personality and to the "implied authors" of all the early novels lies, as Isherwood's epigrammatic sentence indicates, in the style or, more broadly, in the technique of the work—in the shaping voice that is everywhere, if lightly, felt, as the major presence of the book. (pp. 475-76)

[Purple] passages or "literary" effects are rare in Isherwood's writing. Certainly his diction is simple; 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, where comparable strategies are employed. The use of domestic and animal imagery in juxtaposition with the human and the natural, to choose typical examples, generates a series of small shocks, the effects of which are at times simply humorous, at times more unsettling…. [The result is to make the reader] 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. 476)

Lions and Shadows has its moments of exuberance, if not quite of intensity, and it is on certain levels at least a very funny book, but its persistent mode is deflation, its instrument the self-inflicted and barely noticeable pin-prick. Diction, however, plays only a part, perhaps the smaller part, in creating the distinctive tone of the book; more elusively and, from the reader's point of view, less consciously, syntax gives shape to the author's vision. It is generally assumed that Isherwood's sentences are as simple as his vocabulary. Many are, and a typical one tends to organize a single impression, thereby imparting to the style of the book an effect of dryness and spareness and providing a formal equivalent to the discontinuities of perception that characterize the narrator's mind. On the other hand, the ear, even sooner than the eye, will convince the reader that in almost any paragraph of Lions and Shadows there is to be found a number of long and complicated and, more rarely, of complex sentences. Of course, neither length nor complication is at variance with a style that is colloquial and familiar. Isherwood's sentences are never formally rhetorical or architectonic; the mind that they reflect is one in process, thinking discursively, as if in the midst of conversation, adding to, qualifying, or making more vivid some initial statement or observation…. (p. 477)

One more point needs to be made about Isherwood's style, specifically about the impact of an entire paragraph. Here it is not a question of diction or syntax but of the variety among and the concatenation of the sentences that compose the larger structural unit. The principle, however, is roughly the same: one is conscious of, or at least made to feel, a constant shifting among the kinds of sentences, a slight detachment of each from the others, a tendency to produce an effect of decrescendo toward the end. Everything follows, but nothing is explicitly related; an invisible hiatus fills the space after every period, producing for the reader the time needed to adjust to the minute but constant shifts of direction he is expected to make. Connectives, implicit or explicit, are rare in Isherwood's early prose, where one is forced to jump, so to speak, rather than glide from one stop to another. (p. 478)

Style and the narrative technique that duplicates in another area its essential features, the tone that they combine to produce, with its perpetual slight mockery and denigration, its understatement and tea-tabling; and, as we shall see, point of view—all help to translate and in turn point to a vision of the world that can best be described as ironic. Irony in this context is not to be understood as an isolable literary technique. For modern man it is a characteristic sensibility, a response, like sentimentality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to a growing loss of faith both in the reality of the external world and in the authenticity of the self. (p. 480)

All irony demands the complicity of the reader and assumes a level of intelligence at least equal to the ironist's own. Isherwood's in particular calls for a degree of sustained attention without which even the most alert are likely to be betrayed into the mistaken belief that the apparently neutral and transparent narrator is simply the recorder, reporter, or, most famously, in Goodbye to Berlin, the camera that he purports to be. What is reflected by these various stances is, in the first instance, not methodology but psychology, not the supposedly bland empiricism of the scientist or the literary realist but the involuntary detachment of the outsider. Whether or not it is intentionally ironic, it is significant that the narrator adds—in apposition to his description of his younger self as "the would-be novelist"—the phrase: "the professional observer"…. Isherwood's books take as their leading theme the failure of involvement and communication, the failure to establish contact between the self and the world. Viewed in this light, the seeming transparency is seen actually to be a mask and a shield: "Henceforward," the narrator says late in the book, "my problem is how to perfect a disguise."… (p. 481)

The difficulties of penetrating the perfected disguise are three-fold. It has already been suggested that the narrator calls little overt attention to himself. The lightness of his touch and the refusal to dramatize himself make him the most unobtrusive of guides through what he calls "the vast freak museum of our neurotic generation."… Furthermore, there is a remarkable consistency in maintaining the tone of the book: "the wry, the sotto-voice,/Ironic and monochrome," as W. H. Auden puts it in one of his poems. Irony is pervasive, not occasional; there are no excursions into sentimentality, as in Forster's novels, or into anger, as in Huxley's. Few modern writers exhibit in their works a more uniform texture or provide fewer jolts to the reader's absorption in narrative surface. Lions and Shadows is in fact a study in low relief: all of the characters, incidents, and objects that make it up are viewed from the same distance and with the same amount of interest. So in his opening note, Isherwood refers to the "caricatures" he has drawn, and, although he is at that point indicating primarily the lack of correspondence between his characters and their real-life models, there is some validity in the remark. Later in the book, he comments: "I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people—their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks …"…. Characterization, in other words, is largely external; there is little probing of minds, little effort to lay bare the inner life.

Isherwood's conception and articulation of his characters bears little resemblance to the methods of the modern psychological novel. Here, as elsewhere, the 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 in the first place 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.

[The] primary theme of the autobiography is … the need to transcend the limiting boundaries of the ego and to establish some authentic relation not only with other isolate individuals but with the world at large. (pp. 481-83)

Lions and Shadows … is a study in limitation and, more ambiguously, in growth. Its irony is directed most consistently at those fundamental traits that lead to the deficiencies and subterfuges of the protagonist and especially at their successive manifestations: the aberrations of conduct which keep him at the borders and not at the center of life. The nature of his character and conflicts is articulated most fully by means of two recurrent symbols—Mortmere and The Test—which correspond to the evasions and the failures of the protagonist…. (p. 483)

Both symbols point to the protagonist's underlying fear, which in turn finds expression in two repeated images, the one expressive of his complete rejection of and revolt against the adult world, the other of his retreat from it: the nursery and acting. (p. 484)

The ultimate desire, never consciously acknowledged and perhaps never fully understood in Lions and Shadows, is to lose the the self, to destroy with one gesture personal identity and its reflection, the "nursery prison," the world as threat and punishment. In fact, the loss of the self, the abnegation of individual identity, is the goal toward which all of Isherwood's work strains. (p. 486)

It is the nature of Isherwood's irony to equivocate, to register the simultaneous awareness of different possibilities without choosing among them. Like so many other open-ended books of the twentieth century … Lions and Shadows offers at its close a sense not of completion and certainty but of speculation and doubt, posing most insistently the question of whether there is any substantive difference between the Christopher of the late twenties and Isherwood of the thirties. The evidence of technique indicates that there is not. (p. 487)

Both Christopher and Isherwood are … ironists, to use that term as I have defined it. "The goal of satire," Auden has … written, "is reform, the goal of comedy acceptance." One might add that the goal of irony is neither the one nor the other, but understanding…. Self-analysis is what, on one level at least, Lions and Shadows is, and it is also what Christopher achieves as a result of his education. Problems are posed, difficulties acknowledged, but of any significant change beyond the perfecting of a disguise there is no evidence.

To say that irony seeks understanding and liberation is not to deny that there is implicit in it a point of view toward the very things it wishes to rise above. The search is born out of precisely that vision I earlier tried to describe: the sense of failure that is anterior to the undertaking, the disappointment that precedes the event. (pp. 487-88)

The final irony of Lions and Shadows is that its very existence disproves its thesis. Style is the man and it is the artist too, and conduct shapes all three—but to different ends. Isherwood's autobiography is a validation of itself rather than of the life it records, an ambiguous testimony to the triumph of the aesthetic over the moral. "Day after day," Stephen Spender writes about Isherwood in his own autobiography, "… I witnessed that transformation taking place in his mind, where the real becomes the malleable" and where, it might be added, the refractory is given satisfactory definition in the timelessness of literature. (pp. 488-89)

Alan Wilde, "Irony and Style: The Example of Christopher Isherwood," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1971, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Winter, 1970–71, pp. 475-89.

Critics and scholars love to reduce writers and their work to fit into the limits of neat epithets or thematic headings. I suppose if I had to submit Christopher Isherwood to such a treatment, the obvious choice would be Sexuality and Spirituality. This seemingly incongruous duo recurs throughout his writing, though rarely so happily united as they have been in the latter half of his own life….

It has been stated often and wrongly that Isherwood is obsessed with sexual perversion, that the majority of his characters are maladjusted people on the fringe of society, tragic freaks of shoddy demi-mondes. Statistically that is nonsense, though it is certainly true that many of Isherwood's most memorable observations (I hesitate to use the word 'creations', as so many of his characters are so clearly based on actual human beings who have strayed across his field of vision) are practitioners of minority sexual tastes. (p. 343)

There is … a traceable development in the approach of his novels to sex, as if each time he has felt justified in going one little step further, swimming with the current of enlightened public opinion rather than leading it. To my mind, therefore, his significance in this field comes from the way he has helped to make respectable topics previously unmentionable in polite society….

In the first of Isherwood's novels, All the Conspirators (1928), sex is presented only obliquely, hinted at as a motivating force behind personal relationships, but seen only through the lens of those relationships. As in much other fiction of the period, Freud hovers in the background. Much of the talk about sex remains on an undergraduate, pseudo-intellectual level, such as Allen Chalmers' 'casual' remark: 'I wonder … whether the desire to photograph puffins during the love act could be classified as any form of sexual mania'…. (p. 344)

The young people in All the Conspirators are arrested adolescents par excellence. Nobody in the book really radiates physical confidence, despite their bravura. Philip Lindsay, indeed, exudes insecurity and an inability to assert his masculine individuality, a result, we are led to believe, of the pernicious influence of his mother. (Isherwood, in these early works, shows a clear awareness of the fact that smother is an anagram of mothers.) It took Isherwood a good many years to work out his resentment against his own mother, the dominent influence in his development, as his father had been killed while he was young. He finally exonerated her in 1971 with the positively loving portrait in Kathleen and Frank. One is acutely conscious of the fact that his attitude to mother-son relationships obscures his vision and presentation of all women characters in the early books. These women exist not so much as characters in their own right, but as demanding attenders on the male characters, often tyrannical or brainless and frequently shallow. (pp. 344-45)

Women gain more status and credibility in The Memorial (1932). Mary Scriven is shown to be an admirable member of the older generation, capable of both human compassion and organising efficiency. Lily Vernon is more in the Mrs. Lindsay mould, destructive in her love for her son Eric. Both she and Mary Scriven have lost their husbands either in the War or through desertion, so that as in All the Conspirators, there is no picture of a couple married, happily or otherwise. However, we do know that Lily's twelve-year relationship with the late Richard was seen as a blissful one.

Only two other women appear in the novel as important characters: Mary's daughter Anne (who remains as shadowy as Philip Lindsay's sister Joan in All the Conspirators), and that much more interesting individual Margaret Lanwin. In the more direct parlance of today, I suppose one would refer to Margaret as a fag-hag, the first of a series of women who appear in Isherwood's work and world, serving as friend, confidante, honorary sister or mother to the gay protagonist, and more often than not getting emotionally involved with him. Despite the futility of her emotions and desires, Margaret's relationship with Edward Blake is a beautiful one, and gives the Isherwood reader the first opportunity to witness some of the more admirable traits of feminine nature.

Edward Blake, of course, is the first overt homosexual in this fictional canon, a bundle of paradox. He has a brilliant war record, is athletic and witty, but also prone to depressions and vulnerable to alluring, worthless boys who will desert him. He even attempts suicide, in the rather Freudian way of thrusting a gun in his mouth—and fails. The lot of the homosexual is shown to be a dismal one, and curiously remains so throughout Isherwood's work. (pp. 345-46)

During his time in Berlin, Isherwood undoubtedly passed The Test, clambered over the barrier presented by his own adolescent problems vis-à-vis sex and life in general. The exact nature of these problems can be gleaned from his early autobiographical volume, Lions And Shadows. But in Berlin he was largely freed, and the liberation brought about a noticeable improvement in his presentation of what makes people tick. Mr. Norris Changes Trains, published in the States as The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), greatly widens the gamut of the author's characters. He has become more confident in his descriptions of individuals and their sexual tastes, aided no doubt by a stylistic shift to objective, documentary observation of striking individuals met during his three and a half years in the period of the Nazis' rise to power. (p. 346)

Norris, along with the other characters in the book, benefits from a closer attention to detail on Isherwood's part. Physical characteristics are painted in briskly but astutely, often centering on the eyes, those betrayers of personality and sexual taste or mood. (pp. 346-47)

Feminine sexuality is largely ignored in Mr. Norris, apart from thumbnail sketches of those prostitutes who serve their clients' various whims. Fräulein Schroeder, the landlady, does emanate a certain earthiness, but this is never explicitly sexual in Isherwood's eyes. But the hard-as-nails British journalist Helen Pratt is a new phenomenon: a female liberationist, precursor of the bra-burning brigade, who 'loathed being reminded she was a woman except in bed'…. One senses Issyvoo's distaste for her. Yet that is not because she is a woman, but rather that she has thrown over the graces of her sex to play the dirtiest of men's games. She is also a journalist—the most damned profession in the novels—and, more seriously, she is hostile to Arthur Norris, to whom Isherwood (partly represented in the narrator William Bradshaw) shows considerable loyalty.

Thus one feels the sudden force of innovation in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), where, for the first time, the reader is presented with a credible woman, who works from basic feminine desires—Sally Bowles. It is no mere quirk of fate that she has remained Isherwood's most famous creation, for she is the most alive, the most normal and identifiable of the whole range of unusual personalities. (p. 347)

Side by side with the burgeoning of Isherwood's understanding of women, as witnessed in the Berlin stories, comes a greater frankness about the sexual attractiveness of the male. None of the early creations emitted much sexual appeal (or if they did, it is not evident from the text), whereas in Goodbye to Berlin, there is a strong undercurrent of animal sensuality, particularly among the working class….

Despite the fact that the homosexual content of the Berlin stories must penetrate even the most blinkered reader's mind, Isherwood does not commit himself one way or the other. He has not yet come out of the closet, as he would later describe the process. He disguises his own sexual stance by the very inclusion of a Christopher dummy character in the novels, a narrator who observes everything going on around him with a positively asexual detachment. (p. 348)

Christopher's ambiguity remains in Prater Violet (1945), that much-awaited novel which broke Isherwood's fictional silence during the War, a period where he was putting in order his own spiritual house, devoting himself latterly to the Vedanta movement, working on translations of religious texts, and even for a while practising personal abstinence. In Prater Violet, sexuality is relegated to a place of minor importance so as not to detract from the basic aim of portraying the film director Berthold Viertel (Friedrich Bergmann in the book). Isherwood nonetheless derives a certain pleasure, shared with the reader, by hiding his own sexual life from this honorary father figure…. [In] Prater Violet, Bergmann's romantic ideal of love is held up as an appealing contrast to Christopher's empty affairs: 'Women are absolutely necessary to a man … he needs them like bread. I do not mean for coitus … one needs their aura, their ambiance, their perfume'. Or again: 'Love is like a mine. You go deeper and deeper'…. (pp. 349-50)

There is always a time delay in Isherwood's career between his experiencing a phenomenon, and his writing it out. This gestation period is frequently several years, as if his literary nature had to catch up with his real-life self. Thus his own self-questioning about the compatibility of sexuality and spirituality, largely a feature of his life in the forties, only really emerges in 1954, with the publication of The World in the Evening…. It is significant that Stephen treats the boy fairly shoddily, as Isherwood takes a dim view of bisexuals or married men who have male peccadilloes on the side…. [It] is a poor book, as even Isherwood admits, a failure during the transition period in his career from a European to an American environment. I would be tempted to dwell no further on it if it were not for the curious pair of homosexual lovers represented in it: Bob Wood and Dr. Charles Kennedy.

Considering Isherwood's personal life, which has included several longish relationships,… it is most curious that he does not treat the phenomenon of proper homosexual relationships in his books. Nearly all homosexual encounters and couplings in his fiction are brief, animal affairs doomed to failure. The one happy homosexual 'marriage' in his oeuvre is referred to in A Single Man, but even there George and Jim's bliss is shattered by Fate with the latter's untimely death. So, Bob and Charles in The World in the Evening appear as the only male couple in the ten Isherwood novels who actually seem to have some chance of making a go of it. Their portrait is not over-edifying, largely due to the silliness of Bob Wood, who may have been intended as an endearingly goofy, fun-loving American kid, but who in fact comes over as yet another retarded adolescent fairy. Isherwood had sadly not yet learnt to be fluent in American youth English.

Why is it that so many of Isherwood's homosexuals have such blatant psychological weaknesses and deficiencies?… Eventually one is forced to the conclusion that basically the sort of people and situations that stimulate the literary side to his being are the failures of the emotional world, and that this generalisation (despite the weakness of all generalisations) is just as valid for the heterosexuals as well. Death, it seems from CI's novels, is the only reward for happy relationships.

Perhaps the realisation of the failure of The World in the Evening was one reason why Isherwood reverted to an earlier format for his next novel Down There on a Visit (1962)…. Maybe the most interesting thing about the book as a whole … is the change in Christopher from his early Berlin days. One is conscious of the older Christopher narrating the adventures of his younger self, claiming detachment, but in fact so clearly a product of the young man who, for the first time, admits to actually taking part in some of the more unusual goings on that are described. (pp. 350-51)

Isherwood's last novel, A Meeting by the River returns to the theme of sexuality and spirituality, though not so much in combination as in competition. There is one character who seems to embody both aspects, Patrick's wife Penelope, but she remains offstage. So the forces are polarised in the two brothers Oliver and Patrick, the one preparing himself for the acceptance of vows in a Hindu monastery, the other bursting with sexual vitality, and fresh from a very physical affair with a young boy student from the West Coast. Oliver is seen resisting sex (he has been, and still is, emotionally and sexually attracted to his sister-in-law), understanding of other people's desires, but determined to leave the carnal world. Patrick, on the other hand, must remain sexual; his struggle is to decide exactly how. In the end, he goes for the security of his marriage and family, ditching his boy lover in a despicable lack of feeling (one gathers it is not the first time). Again the uncomplimentary portrait of the wicked bisexual, hypocritical and selfish! Yet one feels Isherwood understands both sides, that even if he disapproves theoretically of a person's sexual or emotional behaviour, he nonetheless accepts it in reality, and sympathises, with a tolerance and understanding sadly lacking in most people on either side of the sexual fence. (p. 352)

Jonathan H. Fryer, "Sexuality in Isherwood," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), October, 1976, pp. 343-53.