Christopher Isherwood

by Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 to be 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, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Angus Wilson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"'I'll even forgive myself. As a matter of fact, I just have. Do you know something, Jane,' I said, as I emptied my glass, 'I really do forgive myself, from the bottom of my heart.'" So speaks Stephen, the central character of … The World in the Evening, and on these words the book ends. Forgiveness of oneself is, of course, a spiritual state highly to be desired; but for those who accept the idea of personal guilt—and Mr. Isherwood belongs firmly to the generation of the guilt-acceptors—the deliberate statement of self-forgiving is an act of high seriousness. The slightest hint of triviality either in the conviction of sin or in the belief in its atonement is liable to produce an inelegant impression upon those who are asked to witness the confession…. It is exactly some such chasm between high intention and inadequate capacity that will, I am afraid, disturb Mr. Isherwood's admirers who have waited so long for this novel, and will, no doubt, delight his critics who have waited equally long to say "I told you so."

This failure in central purpose is particularly sad because The World in the Evening shows no decline in Mr. Isherwood's powers; indeed, in the understanding of certain human relationships and, above all, in technical control both of range and of organisation, it shows, I think, a very considerable advance. (p. 62)

[Isherwood's] new hero Stephen is the creature of his own imagination, not a convenient cover name for autobiographical reporting. To the extent that his new novel has, I imagine, drawn more deeply upon his invention than his earlier work, this is true. Nevertheless it is impossible not to equate his hero's spiritual odyssey with his own…. A great deal of the novel is highly entertaining, much of it is percipient, some of it very moving, but it is not important at the level to which it aspires…. Nothing in Mr. Isherwood's earlier work suggested that either his intellectual powers or his emotional strength would sustain a novel of the kind that could satisfy Dr. Leavis' criteria. To succeed in the portrayal of a man's progress from an undeveloped state of emotional parasitism to the inner conviction of a total and satisfying meaning in life that allows him to forgive even himself would require, surely, either the tornado of Dostoevsky's emotions sweeping good and evil alike before it, or the enveloping calm of Tolstoy…. Stephen is a peculiarly feeble vehicle for the expression of spiritual truth. There is, of course, nothing unacceptable in presenting the spiritual progress of a feeble personality, even if it be only from minus six to minus four, but the author must be fully aware of the smallness of his compass.

Mr. Isherwood is, I suspect, only a very little conscious of the triviality of Stephen's story. He is...

(This entire section contains 1718 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

afraid on occasion, I think, that he may seem to have lost his sense of proportion…. Whatever happens it must not seem that grace has robbed him of his sense of humour, finding God must at all costs be shown to be tremendous fun. Of course, Mr. Isherwood is too perceptive, too sophisticated not to see how unbecoming this archness is in other godly folk. We are given many examples of the irritating little jokes which the Pennsylvania Quakers employ to humanise their rectitude. Nevertheless, when he is ill at ease with his own theme, he uses exactly the same tactic, though the archness and charm are more worldly, moreNew Yorker than those of his Quaker characters. The most distressing example of this comes with his hero's final confession of self-forgiveness…. This episode is either the crux of the whole theme or it is nothing; yet the author is careful to present it at the end of a conversation between Stephen and his wife when both are "high" after a few cocktails. It is true that all we have learnt of Stephen tell us that he might not be able to say such a thing unless he were drunk, but Mr. Isherwood somehow contrives to present this circumstance as charmingly excusing the confession, when clearly it either needs no excuse or it should not have been made at all.

The truth is that Mr. Isherwood is not much at ease with "goodness" and "good people." In his earliest novel, All the Conspirators, the conventionally "good" were the targets of [irony]…. They were the ununderstanding, the blundering, the philistine, the deadening forces in life. Conventional morality in the hands of the hero's mother and her elderly City friend was simply a weapon to deny the young self-expression and to treat themselves to the pleasures of self-inflicted martyrdom. This deadly, selfish, conventional goodness which Isherwood understood very well and ridiculed most entertainingly is continued in the character of Lily in The Memorial—once again the hero's mother. But in that novel … we get his first presentation of a less conventional goodness which we are meant to respect [in the character of Mary]…. [Mary's most striking feature] is the self-consciously jolly, leg-pulling sort of way in which she protects her emotions, her "goodness" from the world…. [Mary] is really the last "good" character in Mr. Isherwood's work until The World in the Evening. She is an Understander, an Acceptor…. In all the Berlin stories that followed, the Understanding and Accepting were done by Mr. Isherwood himself, and very brilliantly, if a little self-consciously, he did them. With [The World in the Evening], "good" characters appear again and once more they hide their emotions in the same rather embarrassing "chaffing" way. It is as though the author had communicated his own unease at the spectacle of "goodness" to his characters. There has always been a certain preoccupation with the ethics of his public school days about Mr. Isherwood's work…. [Its last imprint is left] in this sort of self-deprecating facetiousness in which his "good" characters talk. It is a version of the traditional "chaffing" and "rotting" with which the cricket-captain hero of the school disguises—and … all too often advertises—his merits. I do not think that Mr. Isherwood has ever quite lost his idolatry of that school hero. (pp. 62-4)

[Isherwood has a] general disregard for intellectual competence. The intellect plays almost no part in his scheme. There is an awful passage in the book when the doctor, Charles, tells Stephen his philosophy of life. It revolves around the idea of a high sort of "camp" which is the mark of true artistic greatness…. This sort of arrant nonsense should never be treated seriously, but I fear it is not only Charles and Stephen who do so, but Isherwood himself. It is a nice, cosy substitute for thought.

The element of cosiness is very important in Mr. Isherwood's work. It is a somewhat smug emotion…. [Reading the Berlin stories we] are left with the feeling, not that these characters have been sentimentalised, but that somehow, because Herr Isseyvoo is so understanding a man, we have been privileged to get on to cosy terms with people whom we would otherwise have found worthless. There is nothing against liking bad people as I am sure Isherwood does. Still less against finding the inevitable elements of good in them. But there is something a bit disturbingly smug about doing so in a cosy, happy family way. It is this cosiness which throws out the balance of The World in the Evening. It is at its worst in the character of Sarah, who is the true vessel of spiritual light in the book…. The note of cosiness, of the homely vessel of spiritual depths is overdone. It is, in fact, in the two principal characters chosen to expound the theme that The World in the Evening breaks down. Sarah, the true saint, may be as homely as you like; Stephen, the saint in travail, may be feeble and ineffectual; but we must be convinced that beneath the deceptive outward symbols there lies an inward grace of wisdom and strength, and we are not. (pp. 64-6)

If the author pretends to too much spiritually, he is admirably aware of his experiential limitations. This, I am sure, is a great strength in a writer. For Isherwood the important experiences happened before 1939 and he uses that period to illustrate his present position….

[With The World in the Evening Isherwood has made advances in] the understanding of personal relationships and the extension of technical range…. The growth of his understanding of people has demanded a corresponding growth of technique….

Mr. Isherwood has always had a powerful sense of place and time, of exact situation and the unspoken implications of such a situation…. Ultimately, however, Mr. Isherwood is even more a novelist of character than of place. In The World in the Evening [Elizabeth and Jane seem] more deeply felt and more truly realised than anything he has done previously…. The relation between Stephen and these two women is the first serious attempt of Mr. Isherwood to explore the complex patterns of emotional love. (p. 66)

Elizabeth is beautifully done. The intense egoistic preoccupation with life's meaning to her, the clinging to life combined with the neurotic and hypochondriac preoccupation with death, the awful paradox of a tired, ageing woman genuinely committed to a world of high, sensual values—all this is entirely convincingly presented….

Jane is an improvement on an old theme. She is, in great degree, Sally Bowles seen again, but in The World in the Evening Mr. Isherwood has lost that satisfaction in standing apart, and that equal satisfaction with being cosy with the disreputable, which tinged so much of his earlier work with a sort of ironic sentimentalism. Jane is at once less of a bitch than Sally Bowles and also less sentimentalised. In Jane, I think, Mr. Isherwood, without altogether realising it, has drawn a very human, pleasant young woman who stands out above all his cosy saints. (p. 67)

Mr. Isherwood's previous novels have made few demands on his technical skill…. [In] The World in the Evening, he uses the Woolfian technique of change of time and place, of memory, journals, and letters with a logicality of sequence and a unification of purpose…. (pp. 67-8)

Angus Wilson, "The New and the Old Isherwood," in Encounter (© 1954 by Encounter Ltd.), August, 1954, pp. 62-8.

Stuart Hampshire

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Mr. Isherwood is an experimental writer who has invented a form of his own. Like most experimental writers, he is sometimes estimated unjustly, and interpreted anxiously and angrily, because the critic, or reader, is not always sure how he ought to be read and what his intentions are. He shocks, because he is truthful in an unfamiliar way. Also he evidently uses fiction for an oblique moral purpose. But he is a subtle moralist; there are no reassuring hammer-blows, as in Orwell, which tell the reader quite unmistakably which side he ought to be on, leaving him complacent among the angels. There is doubt, insinuation of opposing points of view, and therefore discomfort. It is as if the author, through the narrator, is still making up his mind what he believes, or where he stands, as he writes: at least he successfully creates the illusion of a tentative development within the stories that he tells.

Mr. Isherwood's novels … constitute a peculiar kind of contemporary history. Their peculiarity is the combination of an intensely private private life recounted against the background of public events: first, Fascism and [then] the war that emerged from it…. [He] has sustained the story of a hero who is obstinately loyal to the values of private life and of personal relations … of friendship and truthfulness. (p. 86)

The centre of Mr. Isherwood's experiment is the use of his hero, Christopher. The sequence of the novels constitutes a very peculiar kind of Bildungsroman, in which a hero of our times undergoes formative experiences. The peculiarity is that he is not too profoundly changed by his experiences: he protects himself by observing, and keeping a record of his observations. The purpose of the record is to establish his own identity…. There is another kind of novel which is an inquiry into the protagonist's identity, and which starts from the question "Who (or what kind of person) am I?"… Literary egoism of this kind is the expression of a fluid personality, of an uncentred "I." The memoirs of an egoist help to provide him with a centre. The fluid ego flows into a succession of situations, modifies each of them a little, and is temporarily shaped by them; but each time it resumes its way along other channels. Any shape that can be discerned is discernible only in the succession of incidents; these are the situations in which, to his surprise, and, as it seems, through no purposes of his own, the unidentified hero successively found himself. So the literary egoist, using the ambiguous first person singular, can represent the hero also as a tracer element, which will mark the diseased organs of the social body as it passes. Mr. Isherwood has used the device subtly for many years. He contrives to suggest some doubt about what kind of truthfulness to expect: the truthfulness of fact or that of imaginative reconstruction. The reader's uncertainty is more sharply provoked in [Down There On a Visit] than in the Berlin stories. For these are stories of distorted private lives, and the distortion is intrinsic to them and cannot be so closely associated with known historical events.

All four of the episodes [in Down There On a Visit] seemed to me like visits to hell; but they are lightly and humorously described by the narrator, who, exercising his professional powers as observer, evidently enjoyed himself. And it is typical of him that he should. His reflections on war and peace are ghastly in their banality and smugness, and his reflections on love only slightly less so….

The reader who, hot for moral certainties in the contemporary manner, tries to disentangle Mr. Isherwood's attitudes and opinions from the narrator's will fail…. (p. 88)

Stuart Hampshire, "Isherwood's Hell," in Encounter (© 1962 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1962, pp. 86, 88.

Frank Kermode

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Few writers have been more persistently anxious about themselves, their contemporaries, or the times they lived in [than Isherwood], and those who have seemed not to have wanted to state their anxiety so obliquely. He is a little like St. Augustine deploring in conceited Latin the depravity of another evening world. He studies our amusing, apparently self-willed deformities almost as if what mattered was their intrinsic comic value, almost as if he did not know that the pressures that create them are beyond the control of the individual will; yet his whole way of looking at them is ultimately conditioned by the political and psychological preoccupations of his contemporaries, and that to a degree most unusual in English intellectuals. On the face of it nothing could be more dispiriting than an œuvre of which the main theme is escape from Mother, enacted against sketches of a decaying continent. But Mr. Isherwood is not serious, and so the Berlin stories [become] conceited variations on a desperate theme…. (p. 121)

Being farcical about desperate matters is a trick associated with cabaret, especially German cabaret…. It has never been naturalized here, except momentarily by Isherwood himself…. [Jocular desperation is a highbrow solution] to the big problem of how to achieve specifically literary effects without shutting out life and politics. For the Freudian artist it is a problem complicated by his own alienation from society. Without it he wouldn't be an artist, but it complicates his way of looking at public events, especially at a time when … 'the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms'. (p. 122)

[The problem of treating public events in a work of art] is presented in an apparently relaxed fashion in The World in the Evening (1954). Gerda, the refugee help, stands for total acceptance of our condition as good—internment camps, bedpans, love, everything understood and included. Stephen, the hero, is cut off from precisely this, and his relationship with Gerda is one of those sex-free affairs between tormented men and life-accepting women that recur throughout Isherwood's work. Stephen's dead wife Elizabeth was a highbrow novelist whose work Gerda dislikes. (pp. 122-23)

Elizabeth, in this strange, tense book—for the appearance of relaxation is entirely superficial—is representative not merely of a style to be escaped from, but also of a mother to be defeated; and the whole work is really a literary battlefield upon which the political and the psychological interests fight it out. The result is not always happy…. Yet the opening chapter is a superb beginning to a book in which sexual failure and irresponsibility are indices of a general collapse of communication between persons. (p. 123)

People found [The World in the Evening] disappointing because it was a unlike the Berlin books—and Prater Violet—as it could well be, coming out of the same skull. Yet it is by no means so unlike The Memorial (1932)…. Here also Isherwood, with a different diagnostic method, explains the time's deformity. Such aetiological inquiries impose upon the novelist, as upon the physician, a technique of flashbacks, confrontations of cause and symptom. This necessity happens to have made The Memorial a more difficult book than The World in the Evening, but the two books are as it were linked behind the backs of the Berlin stories…. [The World in the Evening] is less ambitious and more expository in method, certainly; it came after the flight from art, from the Elizabeth kind of novel, in the Berlin books. The Memorial is altogether more serious, and equally desperate. The best way to put this is in terms of Isherwood's theory of High Camp, as expounded by the doctor, Charles, in The World in the Evening.

True High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is largely camp about religion. The Ballet is camp about love….

The Berlin stories are High Camp about civilization; The World in the Evening is decadent Camp; The Memorial was written while the idea was germinating, and is pre- or proto-Camp. (pp. 124-25)

The Memorial is certainly a work of art. The central event is the erection in 1920 of a war memorial in a small town deep in Manchester's Cheshire fringe…. Some of the people who come to the ceremony we have met before, though eight years later, in the first section of the book, which has a somewhat Conradian time-scheme. (p. 125)

It is difficult to give much idea of The Memorial, of the careful structuring and the compulsive stresses. It is, however, a book of enormous skill, heavy but without redundancy. 'It was to be about war,' wrote Isherwood, 'not the War itself but the effect of the idea of "War" on my generation…. I was out to write an epic; a potted epic; an epic disguised as a drawing-room comedy.' The determination, epic though it may be, to drape everything round a few central episodes involves having people remember rather than act; this becomes noticeable and irritating. And there is a tendency to slide over the sill of irony into identification with the manner criticized: 'Anne was plunging into a simple but very smart frock,' or, 'Oh, it was cruelly unjust, it was fiendish that she should have so many sorrows to bear'. Yet The Memorial is the best completed novel of a most distinguished writer: a genuine interpretation of the times. (p. 126)

Frank Kermode, in his Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958–1961 (© Frank Kermode 1962), Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Colin Wilson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Auden, Isherwood, Spender, and Upward] set themselves up as the Next Generation (after Joyce, Huxley and Eliot) and achieved literary eminence by a kind of coup d'état….

Yet of the group, Isherwood seemed to be the odd man out. Auden and Spender were starting where Eliot left off, writing about the world of aeroplanes and pylons and guerrilla warfare. Upward's prose in Railway Accident and Journey to the Border was as complex and allusive as you would expect from someone who knew his Ulysses by heart. By comparison, Isherwood seemed deliberately naive. There was no evidence that he'd ever read anybody—except possibly the early novels of Knut Hamsun, which have the same artless directness. How could he reconcile being The Novelist—one of the company of Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy—with this deliberately low-key approach? (p. 313)

[Isherwood's detached, observant first-person narrative is reminiscent of] Henry James; the James of The Aspern Papers and The Sacred Fount. Not that Isherwood's narrator 'Chris' is ever as complicated or analytical as James's mouthpiece. Yet, as I now suddenly realised, the basic spirit behind Isherwood's enterprise is Jamesian. Professor Sampson once compared James to a man who looks at life through a magic mirror, like the Lady of Shalott, always the observer, never the participant. What is the difference between James's mirror and Isherwood's camera? (p. 314)

[In James, a] problem seems to arise because the novelist is untrue to his original conception: of being a camera. For the moment he attempts to exclude himself from the scene, to photograph a group of people who exist only in his own mind, he is only pretending to be a camera….

But why should the novelist want to be a camera? Is not the whole enterprise dishonest—or at least, muddled—from the beginning?

The answer to this question can be seen by referring to any of the early camera novels, from Knut Hamsun's Hunger or Rilke's Malte to Ulysses and Olyesha's Envy…. The 'camera' novel is essentially the 'outsider' novel. It is about a man 'outside' everyday life—what Husserl called the communal life-world—looking in. There is a tremendous gain in intensity and subjectivity. And that word reminds us that one of the earliest 'camera novels' was Kierkegaard's Either/Or—not, perhaps, strictly a novel, but certainly achieving a kind of philosophical detachment, combined with subjective intensity, which is typically Jamesian.

So it becomes possible to understand how Isherwood could see himself as The Novelist—even, perhaps, as the Great Novelist—without abandoning his humanistic creed of truth, attention to detail, and refusal to get overblown. The philosophy—such as it is—may have come from Forster, but the essential idea came from Kierkegaard, via Rilke, James, Joyce and Aldous Huxley. (I am not suggesting that Isherwood was influenced by any of these—except possibly Huxley—but that this is where we should look for literary parallels.) The ideal is a peculiar kind of honesty—an honesty that becomes almost a monkish vocation. The aim is to tell the truth—about oneself and other people—with a precision and honesty and thoroughness that would have alarmed Rousseau. (p. 316)

Readers of Isherwood's first novel All the Conspirators—started when he was twenty-one and published two years later—might be forgiven for feeling that the results of the method are hardly spectacular. But then, most first novels are at least partly autobiographical—designed to allow the writer to get some of his pet obsessions off his chest—and this is no exception…. The main impression it makes on the unprepared reader is of triviality…. Its main interest is that it gives us a very clear picture of what Isherwood had to fight against, the suffocatingly dull and respectable middle-class background. (p. 317)

Anyone who has been exasperated by All the Conspirators would hardly be reassured by the next novel The Memorial (1932). The technique is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Point Counterpoint of four years earlier; modern readers will be reminded of Angus Wilson. It is about a group of middle-class, rather cultured people in the 1920s, and again we are aware of how oppressive Isherwood found the whole milieu. 'Eric turned away from the window, deeply sighed. He was weary—weary to the bone.' Yet the book is finally far less oppressive than Point Counterpoint or [Upward's] In the Thirties: the reason being that Isherwood so obviously likes people. He writes of them with the same kind of keen observation and sympathy as E. M. Forster—Carolyn Heilbrun has commented on the 'roundness' of Isherwood's characters. This gives the novel an inner glow that saves it from negativeness.

From the first words of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), you can see that Isherwood has achieved his freedom. He has still not quite achieved the confidence to speak of himself as Christopher Isherwood, but in all the essentials, William Bradshaw is 'Chris'. (Even the names are his own middle ones.) Isherwood's 'British' characteristics—his detachment, his good manners, even his shyness—have now ceased to be a disadvantage and have become his strength. For he is no longer trapped in a mood of self-disgust. (p. 318)

In Kathleen and Frank [Isherwood's tribute to his parents], Isherwood comments about his mother: 'She can't have cared much for his Mr. Norris—its humour was too sour, it was too preoccupied with drinking and dirty rooms and lowlife types to suit her taste …'. In measuring the distance from the impotent rebel of All the Conspirators, one becomes aware of how far Isherwood has come in five years. And how far the impetus that has driven him towards freedom has been his mother. He has found a subject as remote as possible from Kensington—so remote that it has even freed him from the need to cock a snook at Kensington. So the negative element that made the first two novels rather oppressive has vanished. The surprising thing about Mr. Norris, in spite of the brothels catering for perverts and the brooding shadow of Nazism, is that it is such a sunny and open-hearted book. Berlin has given Isherwood his freedom just as certainly as Paris and Zurich gave Joyce his; but this Artist as a Young Man has no need for silence, exile and cunning, and apparently no resentment about the things he has fought so hard to escape.

I re-read the book after reading Kathleen and Frank, and was surprised to discover that one of its most remarkable qualities is its honesty. In the last pages of Kathleen and Frank. Isherwood speaks openly of his homosexuality…. It does not matter that 'Chris' [of Goodbye to Berlin] allows us to assume that he is a perfectly heterosexual young man, and that in the dramatised version, he even gets Sally Bowles pregnant. The pruderies of the thirties were such that it was still not possible to admit openly to homosexuality, if only for legal reasons…. But what is absolutely clear is that this thoroughly irks Isherwood. Part of his hard-earned freedom was the right to be defiantly honest; so he steers as close as he possibly can to admitting it in the Berlin novels, and seems to try to make up for the suppression by an additonal honesty about himself and his motivations. It is this feeling that Isherwood is a totally honest man that gives all his novels—but particularly the four 'Chris' novels—their durable quality. (pp. 318-19)

Of all Isherwood's books, Goodbye to Berlin is the most stunningly successful. The method, the subject and the style have all come together to produce one of those oddly 'perfect' books. I put 'perfect' in quotes because in the Jamesian sense, it is far from perfect; it is all over the place: three bits of diary and three long-short stories. In spite of which, it has that air of never putting a foot wrong. It is not necessarily the best of Isherwood's books; both The World in the Evening and Down There On a Visit are in many ways more substantial and impressive products of the novelist's craft…. Yet it has the curious perfection of a healthy child.

This is due to an interesting combination of ingredients. To begin with, as 'Chris' himself recognises, this is because he has cast himself in the role of a camera, the Jamesian observer. But he has gone one step further than James. The narrator of The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and The Sacred Fount is basically a lay figure, an excuse for getting the story told. Now Isherwood is too good mannered to take refuge in this kind of objectivity; like a well-bred Englishman, he is anxious to hide his superiority. So he enters the story as a real character, apparently revealing himself as well as Sally and Otto and Bernhard. 'Chris' is not, of course, Isherwood; he is also a lay figure; but Isherwood pulls the strings so convincingly that we hardly notice. And this lay figure of Mr. Norris, Goodbye to Berlin and Prater Violet is perhaps Isherwood's most skilful creation….

All the Conspirators and The Memorial have the same feeling of fidelity as the Berlin novels; but what they are reflecting lacks urgency; you admire the precision of the writing without getting very involved with the characters…. Isherwood happened to find his ideal subject in the Berlin of the early thirties. His own slightly ambiguous attitude towards his subject gives the whole thing an additional sharpness and clarity. He does not take up a violently moralistic attitude towards his pro-Nazi landladies, and his attitude towards Otto—who is what would nowadays be called a 'yob'—seems oddly compassionate. So the human values remain; the violence is understated—and therefore all the more shocking. The story of the Nowaks, with its poverty and muted tragedy, might have been written a generation earlier by one of the 'socially conscious' writers like Hauptmann or Sudermann; but the fact that it takes place in this brutal, disintegrating society gives it added force. (p. 320)

Prater Violet is, in my opinion, one of Isherwood's most successful works, and this is largely because he again makes use of the brooding, menacing atmosphere of the thirties and the rise of Nazism. The story is ostensibly about his involvement in a preposterous 'escapist' musical film; Bergmann, its German director, feels the full irony of the contrast between this cachou-scented nonsense and the Reichstag Fire Trial, which is at present taking place in Germany.

From the point of view of Isherwood's development, the most interesting thing about the book is the sense of 'Chris's' involvement with Bergmann and the tragedy of Germany. He is no longer cold and detached, and rather enjoying the superiority his detachment gives him. (p. 322)

At the same time, Prater Violet makes us more intensely aware than ever before of the limitations of this interesting method that Isherwood has chosen for himself—trying to be a 'pure' novelist in some super-Jamesian sense. By the rules he has laid down for himself, he is not allowed to keep voluminous notebooks of observations, which can then be elaborated into ideas for stories or novels, fleshed out with invention and technical know-how. I have already commented on the resemblance between the basic ideal of Isherwood and Hemingway—to tell the truth as it had never been told before. The trouble is basically that a novel is a pack of lies. If a novelist really wanted to tell the truth, he'd write history or autobiography. He doesn't; he wants to create, and to make his creation seem as truthful as possible. (pp. 322-23)

Yet Prater Violet seems to be a dead end. Isherwood's 'mirror' had been so effective because the monstrous figure of Hitler dominated the background; his fundamental subject had been the contrast between public and private life. (It was a formula that Solzhenitsyn would later use so effectively.) (p. 323)

When his next novel, The World in the Evening, appeared in 1954, it was clear that he was making an extraordinary, almost a heroic effort, to deal with these new circumstances. And this is also characteristic of the three novels that followed—his total output to date. Creatively speaking, each one of them has involved a far greater effort than any of the Berlin novels. None is a complete success, and one comes close to failure. Yet it seems to me that this is due to the nature of the problem rather than to Isherwood's response to it. (pp. 323-24)

Novelists could be conveniently divided into two groups: the subjectivists and the objectivists…. [The subjectivists] write about inner conflicts and problems, and their success depends on persuading you to 'identify' with the hero or heroine. The objectivists are observers, recorders and story tellers—Jane Austen, Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy, Henry James….

From the beginning, Isherwood took his stand with the major practitioners of the objective novel—James, Hemingway, Joyce (of Ulysses) and Forster. Each one tried determinedly to be a camera.

At which point, the problem arises. A camera is all very well for special purposes—recording a war, or some definite epoch of the past. But if nothing in particular is going on around you, it becomes rather useless.

There are two possible solutions for a novelist. One is to forget the camera and invent, as James did. The other is to point the camera inside yourself, as Proust did. Joyce, who could not see any way out of the problem—having moved from subjectivism to objectivism—found 'extra-literary' solutions and played linguistic games. Hemingway wandered around the world with his camera on his back, looking for wars. (p. 324)

In The World in the Evening, Isherwood chose a mixture of the two main solutions: he 'invented', and he turned the camera inward. He also decided to avoid Forster's cul de sac by bringing the problem of homosexuality into the open. For this is what Forster wanted to write about but never could: the problem of 'the homosexual outsider'—the homosexual as outsider.

All 'subjective' novels are, in their very essence, Bildungsromans—that is to say, the hero's problem is to 'find himself'. The World in the Evening makes a radical break with all Isherwood's previous novels in that it is about a man trying to find himself—and more-or-less succeeding. Stephen Monk's natural tendency is to be passive and selfish. (p. 325)

The recreation of the marriage between Stephen and the novelist Elizabeth Rydal is superbly done. Yet the whole novel leaves one with an over-all sense of a tremendous effort that has not quite achieved its object. Moreover—and rather surprisingly—there is an air of unreality, of wishful-thinking—about the homosexual seduction scene. Certainly this, in a way, is the core of the book. One suspects that Isherwood even considered making Michael Drummond the legally adopted son of Stephen and Elizabeth, instead of simply a young man they take under their wing; it would add an element of shock, and also emphasize the problem of the divided loyalties of a homosexual. This is basically the problem of the novel. Stephen is a passive character, rather feminine, a bit of a gigolo. 'Chris' seems to be fascinated by such characters—Arthur Norris, Otto Nowak, Sally Bowles, 'fabulous Paul' (of Down There On A Visit). So now he is writing his first 'true novel' since The Memorial, it is to be expected that his hero should be of the same type. The trouble is that most readers do not enjoy identifying with self-proclaimed weaklings (the American word 'fuck-ups' would probably be more precise here); it was the passages of gloom and futility that made the first two novels so claustrophobic. ('He was weary—weary to the bone.') Moreover, we tend to feel that a real-life Stephen would not be married to a nympho like Jane, and would probably never have got married to Elizabeth Rydal earlier.

In short, while the 'subjective' part of the solution works, the 'inventive' part doesn't ring true. We never believe in Stephen as we believed in Chris. Perhaps this is because we accepted Chris's claims that he was a camera—because he was so careful to maintain the conventions of objectivity—and we can't grant similar credence to a man who seems awash with self-pity.

The World in the Evening is by no means a failure; judged as a totality, it is probably Isherwood's best novel. Its weakness may lie in an attempt to adapt the methods of Aldous Huxley. It is a serious attempt to talk about spiritual renewal, to make fictional use of the lessons he had learned from Vedantism; but Huxley himself never solved that problem, and most of the later novels have an analogous problem with 'focus'. The reader doesn't quite believe in them as he believed in Crome Yellow and Antic Hay. So it is with The World in the Evening compared to the Berlin novels.

Down There On A Visit (1962) demonstrates clearly that Isherwood had recognised what went wrong with the previous novel: that there was a faint, but nevertheless detectable, air of mauvais foi. He appears to retrace his steps—but this is only an appearance. Only the first part, Mr. Lancaster, is a genuine throw-back to the old days. It is less successful than some of 'Chris's' other portraits for a reason that the author recognises: 'When I tried to describe him to my friends, I found I could make very little of him as a significant or even a farcical character. I just did not have the key to him, it seemed.' Lancaster is a 'hollow man', a pompous bore who only becomes interesting for a moment when he tries to convince Chris that he composed one of Wilfred Owen's best known lines. If, as one suspects, Mr. Lancaster has created some new and extraordinary form of mauvais foi bordering on madness, Chris fails to put his finger on it.

The writing has again the wit and precision of the other 'Chris' books—there were times in The World in the Evening when it had become slack. (pp. 325-26)

Technically speaking, the innovation of Down There On A Visit is caught symbolically on Don Bachardy's dust-jacket, showing the middle-aged Isherwood looking at a mirror that reflects back his younger self. That is to say, Isherwood has tried an interesting way out of the camera problem by introducing a form of double-exposure. Instead of 'Chris'—the mirror—we have the action mirrored in a young Chris who is in turn mirrored in the older and wiser Chris. This gives it a greater depth than the earlier Chris novels—and also makes it the ideal conclusion to the series, as Isherwood himself realised at the time.

Yet this in itself means that Isherwood had reached another dead-end. When one looks more closely at Down There On A Visit, one can see why. As in Sally Bowles and The Nowaks, you feel that an essential part of the 'camera' method is to observe people who are either failures or freaks…. 'Mr. Lancaster' needs more malice. I am not now speaking of gloating malice, of the kind one finds in the novels of Baron Corvo, but simply of the essential elements of malice—cool superiority. The whole point of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin is 'Chris's' superiority to everything that happens to him—rather like Stephen's in Ulysses. This is not intended as a criticism of Isherwood's method; a camera is by nature 'superior', since it remains detached from the things it records. 'Paul' is such an interesting exercise because of its ambiguity; 'Chris' is superior to Paul, observing him rather pityingly from above, yet is also fond of him, loves him as a fellow human being. (pp. 327-28)

Now the most significant thing about Isherwood as a novelist is that the driving force behind his work is a genuine craving for truth; there is nothing static or passive about his integrity. The honesty shows on the surface in the 'Chris' books, where he is, if anything, a little too self-analytical. But it runs under the surface in everything he has done; it is the basic recurrent theme of all his work.

It is this honesty that enables him to retreat from another dead-end, and produce one of his most successful novels, A Single Man (1964). The remarkable thing about this book is that it starts off by looking like his most resounding failure so far, then gradually gets the reader involved until he is laughing, slapping his thigh, and experiencing the sensation described by Holden Caulfield—the desire to snatch up a pen and write the novelist a letter. (p. 328)

Perhaps the most important thing to be learned from A Single Man is that the 'problem of the modern novel' is not purely a technical problem; on a much more fundamental level, it is a personal problem. If Isherwood had been negative and sour and defeated, the novel would have provided one more piece of evidence that the modern novel has landed itself in a cul de sac—or on the strand, like Yeats's post-romantic fish. What is important is that Isherwood has evolved as a human being since he wrote All the Conspirators; his odyssey has been long and at times dangerous; A Single Man is like a rocket sent up to announce that he has arrived home safely. (p. 329)

[Isherwood] is not suggesting that the answer to human misery and stupidity lies in sainthood or mysticism—only in decency and common sense, and also a certain optimism. For this is the thing that comes over most clearly from A Single Man and A Meeting by the River: that Isherwood's integrity is born of optimism, of hope. (p. 331)

Colin Wilson, "'An Integrity Born of Hope': Notes on Christopher Isherwood," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), October, 1976, pp. 312-31.


Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 1)


Isherwood, Christopher (Vol. 14)