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...
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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 in tactful silence and coming at last to Down There on a Visit, I note my first twinge of disquiet—or recognise occasion for one on second reading—at the first sentence: 'Now, at last, I'm ready to write about Mr. Lancaster.' More follows in the same strain. No barker at the entrance was needed in the case of Mr. Norris, a character of almost incredible all-round superiority to the poor buffoon here commended to our attention. To be sure, I find things picking up for a time after the opening paragraph, or looking as if they're going to. The persona of the eager, talkative, flatteringly confidential and self-deprecating, 'engaging' narrator seems a bit overdone, but he is obviously some sort of kin to Herr Issyvoo, and after all, I reason, this is the 1962 Isherwood consciously looking back at the 1928 version. And there are references to Hugh Weston, Allen Chalmers and the Enemy….
The paradoxically claustrophobic atmosphere of [the setting in the second sketch presented in the book] with its endless farcical-nasty quarrels and momentary revelations of paralytic depression, comes over here and there with jolting effectiveness; but the reader is left in some doubt whether either narrator-Isherwood or author-Isherwood fully appreciates what a fearful Sartrean hell is being portrayed. Again, there are times when we see how that tolerance which is the condition of a homosexual mode of life—a tolerance arising not out of benignity but out of a fear of making demands which may be humiliatingly rejected—slides into the condonation of any and every kind of nauseous behavior and thus into total moral and emotional chaos; but it is hard to tell whether we are being shown this or just deducing it for ourselves from material offered with nothing particular in mind. There are, or ought to be, limits to detachment.
After a meticulously bitchy, but otherwise unremarkable, account of a Hollywood lunch-party, the final sketch comes slowly and as it were reluctantly to life, in spite of periodic descents into coy amorous semi-revelation on the part of the narrator, the initial-dropping mode of the worst episodes in Prater Violet. Paul, a bisexual remittance man with a long history of bed-oriented globe-trotting, seeks out Christopher to be saved from suicide and, with the aid of a contemporary-style mystic called Augustus Parr, is so saved. Parr is the one assured success of this volume. Highly educated, charitable, remorselessly articulate and just faintly silly, he is depicted with a blend of reverence and irreverence that I think is unique, and funny and sympathetic too. Paul, similarly, is witty and tough as well as whatever else he is in a way that recalls the author's prewar work. It's a pity that Paul's later career is so foggy and remote, his eventual death so meaningless—this as a result, presumably, of the real Isherwood's loss of contact with the real Paul. (In heaven's name, can't the fellow invent occasionally?)
I don't mean to be smart, let alone patronising, in calling this book promising. There's just about enough in it to foster the hope that that old glassiness may turn out not to be chronic after all. The novelist is a less differentiated and specialised, altogether simpler life-form than the poet, and can survive shocks and amputations which would mean total death to the higher organism. Anybody who cares for the novel in English must hope that Mr. Isherwood is going to be a case in point.
Kingsley Amis, "A Bit Glassy," in The Spectator (© 1962 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 208, No. 6976, March 9, 1962, p. 309.
[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 them, provides the perfect unity: the focused, the unjudging camera, which visualizes but does not preach. Isherwood is fond of referring to some of his works as dynamic portraits; it is in the dynamic portraits, with the dummy as the focal point, that Isherwood … gains for himself the obviously essential aesthetic distance. Distance, of time as well as of narrator, is essential to Isherwood … (p. 21)
"Christopher Isherwood," throughout Lions and Shadows, is seen as immature, passive, always admiring some stronger, more forceful or attractive figure. In fact,… Isherwood was a markedly active and dominating figure among his friends…. The dummy has been formed to serve its particular purpose in this masterful book in the documentary form. (p. 23)
Prater Violet is a brilliant novella which re-creates the whole lunatic process involved in the making of a successful film. Isherwood, in fact, had been working on the writing of films for many years prior to 1945, but "Christopher Isherwood" of the story assumes no expertise as he trails after the director in England during the early thirties. Indeed, the dummy is depicted here rather more harshly than before, complete with mother and brother who are amiable and long-suffering in the presence of arrogant, German-speaking Chris. (p. 26)
Down There on a Visit, particularly in its two best sections, "Waldemar" and "Paul," is a brilliant example of how suffering (or, as we say, life) can be transmuted into art…. It is the extent and subtlety of the transformation that intrigues us. Isherwood has managed, astonishingly, to keep separate "the man who suffers and the mind which creates." (pp. 31-2)
Yet one cannot go on to discuss the "novels," as opposed to the documentaries, without pointing to the extraordinary accomplishment of this last of the documentaries. The four sections of Down There on a Visit, although uneven, do precisely and uniquely reveal the four versions of hell which modern man has most consistently chosen to explore…. The dummy "Christopher Isherwood" has visited every hell except that of complacency. Immensely readable, as always, one of the most fascinating and accurate record of several eras, Down There on a Visit is perhaps the best of Isherwood's documentaries, because it took the most courage to write. It is clearly the best work of fiction we have on the spiritual odyssey of his generation. (pp. 32-3)
What is remarkable about [All the Conspirators] is its accomplished technique, style, and tone: Isherwood might not have discovered his true voice, but he was clearly a born writer, and his novel is still in print. Cyril Connolly … called it mature, readable, concentrated, and perceptive; it was all of these despite its author's early age, and, despite Isherwood's youthful fascination with private worlds, it is an available book, not only to another generation of "angry young men," but also to readers the same age as the novel itself, or older. (pp. 33-4)
[The Memorial] is divided into four sections, each superficially independent as though it were a family photograph…. The technique [used in this novel] has been compared, astonishingly, with Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, a work Isherwood admits to never having read through. The comparison, however, is suggestive: if the two writers could not be more different in style, setting, tone, and theme, they are alike in evoking societies which have largely destroyed themselves…. Here, as in all of Isherwood's novels, the relation between the private life and the public event is closer, more vital than it was in the novels of the previous generation. Yet differing from the documentaries, the novels allow the private individuals greater development, a more richly perceived interior life, a deeper intelligence. (pp. 35-6)
It is Angus Wilson who points out that Isherwood, in The World in the Evening, explores for the first time "the complex patterns of emotional love" [see CLC, Vol. 11]. His readiness for this exploration perhaps persuaded him to return to the "novel" form; certainly his special achievement is to have created, in 1954, a novel in which the women characters are not, as in the novels of almost every other writer in the fifties …, objects of the hero's scorn, leers, lusts, and aggressions, twice as simple as the hero, and five times as evil. (p. 38)
The letters … [used in the novel] constitute the book's chief failure, which is one of over-all technique. Isherwood apparently wrote the letters from Elizabeth Rydal with fatal ease. Many of them are beautifully done…. But all the other letters, and particularly that written by Stephen at the end of the book to his wife-of-the-doll-house, are little more than admissions of defeat. The difficulty, of course, is to get inside a character (the dummy had only to look, listen, and, later, respond) without the use of diaries, letters, or first-person narration: to show inner struggles without requiring that the characters expound them personally. This use of letters more seriously weakens Isherwood's … A Meeting by the River; he has yet to master the rare technical skill of the novelist, to which James devoted his life, of being able to manifest in act, dialogue, and image the inner spiritual quality and growth of the characters. (pp. 38-9)
A Single Man (1964), that masterpiece of a comic novel, is the story of one day in the life of an expatriate English professor in Los Angeles. It contains the best American college classroom scene ever portrayed, and a series of stunning portraits, not least of all George, the central character who, like Leopold Bloom, is allowed no single moment of privacy, but who, unlike Bloom, is not surrounded by a wealth of literary symbols or endowed with a shred more dignity than he can muster up for himself….
Not that A Single Man ever mentions spiritual experience; that is its greatness. Here is only the portrait of an inhabited body and the attempts it makes at living. (p. 42)
A Meeting by the River (1967), is a failure, an attempt to use insufficiently digested material gathered on a visit to a monastery in India. Unable to find the proper narrative technique …, Isherwood falls back on letters which are unsuccessful on even the most superficial level: in an age of telephone calls and jet flights, it is simply improbable that the two brothers in the book would write, for the few days they are together, as compulsively as Clarissa Harlowe. (p. 44)
If his religion of Vedanta simply has not worked when incorporated wholesale into his novels (as in A Meeting by the River) it appears to have worked well enough in his life and therefore indirectly in his art. Certainly it is essential for anyone who would understand him to realize that his religious conversion has made him closer to, not more distant from, the problems of his time. (p. 46)
Carolyn G. Heilburn, in her Christopher Isherwood (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers Pamphlet No. 53; copyright © 1970 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1970, 48 p.
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 believe or desire me to be?" This is a crisis of consciousness. The Generativity crisis is a crisis of conscience. The question now to be answered is: "I have done this and that; my acts have affected others in this way or that. Have I done well or ill? Can I justify the influence that, intentionally or unintentionally, I have had on others?" Both the Identity and the Generativity crises are preoccupied with freedom and choice. The Integrity crisis of old age is concerned with fate and necessity. As Mr. Erikson puts it, it demands:
… the acceptance of one's one and only life-cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions, the knowledge that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life-cycle with but one segment of history.
As I read it, Kathleen and Frank is Christopher's attempt, wholly successful in my opinion, to solve his Integrity crisis….
The trouble for the reader of a diary who does not know its author personally is that he can only judge it, firstly, by its entertainment value—it must amuse him—and, secondly, by its historical value, the light it sheds upon the social mores and political events of the time in which it was written. I must frankly confess that, taken by itself, that is to say, without Christopher's comments and explanations, I do not think Kathleen's diary very interesting. (p. 19)
[Christopher's] descriptions of the family and their life in Cheshire are … fascinating both personally and historically….
I have [a bone to pick with the author]…. The narrative would be easier to follow if [he] had provided genealogical tables….
A fine book though, I cannot imagine any reader, whatever his social background and interests, not being enthralled by it. (p. 20)
W. H. Auden, "The Diary of a Diary," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1972 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XVII, No. 2 and Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January 27, 1972, pp. 19-20.
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 can. All the Conspirators is a portrait of the artist as a hapless mother's boy unable to sever his ties to mother and to home. Isherwood exposes not only the Edwardian manners of the older generation but also the postwar sensibility of the younger generation as bogus and smug. His targets are pretentiousness and Prufrockian escapism, neither trait exclusively possessed by either generation. Rather than "a call to sound the cry to the barricades," All the Conspirators is an autopsy of a malignant family with Isherwood a coroner dissecting "the great malady, horror of one's home" and "Acedia, 'the malady of monks,' that deadly weakness of the will … the root of all evil" that sickens unto death. (p. 20)
Isherwood assembles his book as if he were editing a film, juxtaposing snips of action and dialogue with sparse descriptive passages…. [The critic's] charge of sketchiness stems from the novel's jerky, cinematic technique and Hemingwayesque dialogue, which needlessly obfuscate. (p. 21)
All the Conspirators ultimately fails because Mrs. Lindsay looms too large for the young Isherwood: at the end, Isherwood either retires her in the wings or renders her bland and inept. In his second published work, The Memorial, Isherwood is competent and versatile enough to create a world with the ambience and time not only for a character like Mrs. Lindsay to flourish, but also for her opposite. In Lily Vernon, Isherwood presents a masterful portrait of the "Evil Mother, fierce, obstinate, tearful and conventional." Lily's antithesis, Mary Scrivens, is a dilettantish, exuberant mother who lives only in the present; nevertheless, like Lily, she too destroys her children. Both women bequeath unrest and death to their families.
Isherwood's method is a sophisticated refinement of the jerky, stop-go cuts in All the Conspirators. Isherwood still composes like a film editor, but in The Memorial he lengthens his vignettes, clarifies his dialogues, varies and develops his characters…. To avoid an "I remember" digression, he does not construct a continuous narrative but arranges his story "in self-contained scenes, like a play: an epic in an album of snapshots."… We see the characters at four critical periods through the subjective eyes of other characters and through the writer's own descriptions. What emerges is a chilling, prescient portrait of a family dominated and damned by its women. (pp. 30-1)
[Although] sentimental, at times flabby, [The World in the Evening] nonetheless augurs a fresh start for Isherwood…. [In The World in the Evening] Isherwood strives mightily to chart the spiritual awakening and growth of Stephen Monk, who, under the tutelage of Aunt Sarah and Elizabeth, his mothers in the spirit, learns how to live. What they teach him is succinctly recapitulated by an entry in Katherine Mansfield's diary [which defines individuality as the consciousness that one has a will and can act]. (pp. 49-51)
Stephen Monk's journey from anger to appeasement mirrors Isherwood's own change of attitude toward himself and his life. (p. 51)
Two father types appear in Isherwood's fiction: in the early novels, the forbidding ghost whose legend, kept alive by Kathleen, emasculates his son; and in the later books, after Isherwood's settling in America and adoption of Vedanta, the sympathetic, broadly human, anti-heroic father.
The father of the Others is fully fleshed in The Memorial. There, seen through the admiring eyes of Edward Blake or the love-beclouded eyes of Lily, Richard Vernon (Eric's father) is a cynosure of classical manhood, "a hero and a great man … sure of himself … brave."… (pp. 55-6)
For his own sanity, Isherwood had to cut himself free from the father of the Others. Hence he plays so often and so well the role of Heathcliff, the fatherless child, the mysterious outsider without home and country. Only in Prater Violet does Isherwood, still without father and country, transcend these losses and convert them into spiritual gains. Prater Violet is significant because it bears witness to Isherwood's reinterpretation of reality in terms of Vedantist philosophy and because, for perhaps the first time, his hero establishes intimate contact with another human being whom he fittingly calls "father." But this is not the father of the Others.
Vedanta presented a religious version of Isherwood's anti-heroic hero. And for this reason—as much as for any other—Isherwood converted to Vedanta. In an article explaining this conversion in the collection What Vedanta Means to Me, Isherwood clearly shows that the search for a father and the search for a religion had become inextricably interwoven in his consciousness. (p. 57)
Vedanta answered Isherwood's every need. It is nondualistic: God is not above and beyond man, but the Atman is within man. Unlike Christianity, Vedanta is not narrowly moralistic…. To be more precise, unlike Christianity, Vedanta does not condemn homosexuality but views it as "merely another form of attachment, neither worse nor better" than heterosexuality. (p. 59)
For a book that begins with persistent self-confirmation (the book opens: "Mr. Isherwood?" "Speaking." "Mr. Christopher Isherwood?" "That's me."), Prater Violet is Isherwood's longest journey, from inveterate ego reinforcement to a loss of name and identity. (p. 67)
[The] final pages carry the lyrical mysticism of a miniature Bhagavad-Gita, the struggle for affirmation of Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence," even the transcendence of Tennyson's In Memoriam.
At the spiritual center of Prater Violet is Bergmann, father to Christopher or, in Vedantist terms, guru. (p. 71)
Perhaps because Isherwood's creative subconscious is responsible for the spiritual dimension in Bergmann, Bergmann is Isherwood's most successful portrait of a fatherguru figure. Isherwood's deliberate attempt in "Paul," the fourth part of Down There on a Visit, is far less successful. Modeled on Huxley and Heard, the guru Augustus Parr is too self-consciously religious…. Though Parr's appearance in "Paul" is brief, his function is as essential as Bergmann's in Prater Violet. Parr is Christopher's guru, someone whose presence and faith compel Christopher into belief. Nevertheless, in the book he comes off as little more than a cardboard saint. (p. 72)
Only in A Meeting by the River does Isherwood create a convincing guru gifted with both the irresistible genius of Bergmann and the other-worldliness of Parr. (p. 73)
[As Evelyn Waugh writes in Journey to a War], Isherwood's definitions are exquisitely hewn—but, more than ever, Isherwood is the outsider looking in, the Berlin-Stories narrator observing a holocaust in which he is not involved. Perhaps because he was unable to penetrate the enigma of the Orient, much less the enigma of man's violence to his fellows, his style is rhetorical, even rehearsed (Waugh's term was "respectable" [see excerpt above]). It is as if … Isherwood is masquerading "as a war correspondent."… [While] lacking clichés, Isherwood's diary entries also lack the authenticity and anguish of his war novels. Perhaps his braced, deliberately wrought style derives from this fact—that to Isherwood, the idea of war is far more nightmarish than the actual fact of war. (p. 80)
Isherwood cannot curb his own pathological war obsession from rearing its ugly head in his books. E. M. Forster's clear-eyed appraisal of English prose between the wars is pertinent here. Forster reads the books of that period as the "product of men who have war on their minds." Their works "need not be gloomy or hysterical—often they are gay and sane and brave—but if they have any sensitivity they must realize what a mess the world is in." (p. 81)
[War] taints the atmosphere of a major portion of Isherwood's works…. The little lives of Isherwood's characters are rounded by nightmare: not yet recovered from the bitter sorrow of one war, they discover themselves madly careering toward another. There is nothing in Isherwood of the idea often found in Michael Roberts or Rupert Brooke or Rex Warner, that war would purge the country of pettiness and selfishness and eventually invigorate. Rather, in Isherwood's world the idea of war conjures up a legion of Eumenides, or in Lawrence's terminology, a pack of jackals, hounding Isherwood's characters to the death. (pp. 81-2)
Because Isherwood brilliantly recorded what he saw, The Berlin Stories is a valuable social document which provides an insight into Isherwood's handling of political themes. (p. 88)
Isherwood's stories achieve political significance not because of their ideological content, but because of their heightened sensitivity to the obscure dread, the vague, unnatural menace inherent in the last days of the Weimar Republic…. Even in summations of this sort, [with] extreme selectivity of detail …, Isherwood's method is to catch the unrest and shabby chaos of the larger life around him in the microcosm of the individual. Isherwood is not an archivist like Orwell, prying into totalitarian atrocities, but rather a seismographer capable of reading the subtlest tremors that ripple across his personal landscape…. The "essential human element" in Isherwood's Berlin pieces composes all, gives the various genres a sustained, unified impact, and reveals the main lines of the epic he originally intended. As the political situation deteriorates, Isherwood's portraits darken. There is an increasing sense of suffocation, a sinking of human consciousness, as people discover themselves locked in hopeless situations, trapped by the approaching horror of Nazism. Indeed the subjects of Isherwood's portraits support [John] Lehmann's assertions that anyone reading Goodbye to Berlin with The Last of Mr. Norris will catch "glimpses of the bigger work which never materialized," which Isherwood planned to name The Lost, or its German equivalent Die Verlorenen.
If we take The Berlin Stories, then, as the epic Isherwood intended, the first piece we encounter is a novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, narrated by Isherwood's namesake, William Bradshaw. Norris is an essentially comic character, a colorful flaneur delighting in mysteries, dabbling in communism and fascism, reveling in the decadence of wigs and scents and vintage wines. (pp. 88-91)
While Norris flits about with the epicene pomp of a fin-desiècle aesthete, tragedy is all around him…. Berlin is in a state of civil war. But the reader's attention is focused on Arthur Norris' comic inferno and Bradshaw's amused toleration rather than on the tragedy. Even the ending is ironic…. (p. 91)
The sequel to The Last of Mr. Norris is Goodbye to Berlin, which begins and ends with Isherwood's two Berlin diaries. Here the tonal change is immediately clear from the very first line, a sentence fragment: "From my window, the deep solemn massive street."… [There is a] gradual shift from edgy watchfulness to icy despair. (p. 92)
["Waldemar," the third section of Down There on a Visit, reveals] an anguish and passionate despair that recall Quentin Compson's breakdown in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. "Waldemar" is one prolonged, desperate scream from beginning to end….
Isherwood is so engrossed with himself that he does not see his despair macroscopically reflected in Europe's; instead, he sees England's and Europe's problems mirrored in his own manic behavior. (p. 103)
The political crisis stokes Isherwood's personal crisis. Though studded with citations from newspaper pundits, his diary is really another mirror in which Isherwood can glare at his sweating self. Stylistically, the selections shudder with self-interrogations, curses, and ranting non sequiturs. (p. 105)
Because his mother, invoking his dead father, wanted him to attend and because an award given by the Others enabled him to attend with the highest scholarship of his year, Isherwood had no choice but to detest Cambridge. In Lions and Shadows, he calls it a "city of perpetual darkness … the country of the dead."… He vigorously rejected Cambridge and in its place substituted, with [Edward] Upward, his own imaginary country of the dead, located somewhere near the Atlantic and peopled with a menagerie of ghouls. This macabre fantasy of Mortmere schooled Isherwood for the real nightmare he was to encounter in pre-Hitler Berlin.
Mortmere became the mad nursery in which Isherwood and Upward grew up as writers. (pp. 110-11)
With its aberrant characters, pornography, and gothic plots, Mortmere is as flamboyantly bizarre as a Dali painting, its stories clever pastiches of Sir Thomas Browne, the Brothers Grimm, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Conan Doyle, Beatrix Potter, Anatole France, and many others. (p. 111)
Isherwood and Upward eventually repudiated Mortmere precisely because they were unable to connect its lunacy with the prose of everyday life. They gave it up, however, reluctantly, and only after repeatedly trying to impose sense on its essential nonsense. (p. 112)
Berlin with its Mortmere monstrosities uncannily pandered to Isherwood's predilection for the grotesque…. [Unlike the Mortmere stories, fantasy] does not alter reality; rather, reality in Berlin assumes the Caligari-like perspective of dream and surpasses even fantasy's tendency toward extremism: life heightens art. And life drastically alters the writer. The callous observer of The Berlin Stories, whom Isherwood repudiates in the late fifties and sixties, not only describes the Mortmere monstrosities about him, but, by the time of Down There on a Visit, actually becomes a monster. (pp. 116-17)
Isherwood's technique, as he himself expounds it, is that of a camera; however, too many readers stress the objectivity of the camera, forgetting that the Isherwood camera is subjective, highly expressive, and, in fact, Germanic. The influence of German film on Isherwood's writings is no surprise—Isherwood cites German film as captivating his generation…. The peculiar German contribution to film was the creative use of the camera—what the gestures of the actors could not communicate was to be conveyed by the symbolic language of the moving camera which "had the power of giving meaning even to lifeless things." (p. 117)
[It is not] that the camera as a metaphor for Isherwood's technique is identical with the actual camera of film-making. The two art forms are vitally different and, of course, Isherwood achieves certain effects which can be produced only by the choice and arrangement of individual words…. However, the characteristically visual properties of this style are achieved by Isherwood's placing his socalled camera in the proper position at the proper time….
The very simplicity of The Berlin Stories—in plot, lack of clutter, and use of cogent incident only—may well be a result of Isherwood's schooling in the German cinema. On its simplest level, The Last of Mr. Norris is a serial biography of Arthur Norris who, surrounded by lesser characters, commands the reader's eye. (p. 118)
The novel's action is episodic, bracketed into single chapters or a series of chapters, like sharp cuts in a film, often with little connection to preceding incident…. The progression of the book resembles a film serial in which each installment presents, almost independently, another phase in the life of its picaresque hero.
In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood abandons the novel form to compose what he feels he can write best, a sequence even simpler and more compact—individual portraits. Against the bleak but garish background of a falling city, Sally Bowles, Peter and Otto, the Nowaks, the Landauers, and other Berlin denizens shuffle through their shabby cabaret choreography. Even more compressed than The Last of Mr. Norris, these portraits are succinct and direct. It is as if Isherwood, rather than making a full-length feature as he did in Norris, contents himself with shooting vivid, loosely joined shorts, startling in their severity and power. (p. 119)
[It] is important to note that the camera technique itself embodies the theme of The Berlin Stories, for, as Hitler's grasp on the city tightens, the narrator becomes more remote. In the beginning of The Last of Mr. Norris, Bradshaw feels excluded from a communist meeting, standing "outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it."… By the time of "Sally Bowles," however, the narrator is isolated from the mass of men…. In "Ambrose," this personal detachment dilates to cosmic proportions.
But what separates Isherwood's camera from the documentary camera which churned out reel after reel of undistinguished footage is the way Isherwood's camera is highly sensitive to nuance, capable, because of its selectivity, its angles, its juxtaposition of light and dark, of catching what Stephen Spender calls "the terrifying mystery of cities."
Isherwood's camera captures the terror of Berlin very early in The Last of Mr. Norris. Bradshaw's walk to a New Year's party in chapter three is actually an archetypal journey to the land of the dead. So closely allied is Isherwood's technique with that of the early German film-makers that, merely by the insertion of camera directions and a slight rearrangement of the text, Isherwood's account of a New Year's festivity could have been excerpted from an early fantasy feature similar to Dr. Caligari. (pp. 119-20)
[Even] after Berlin's nightmare, Isherwood's narrator is still as uninvolved as he had been after the New Year's party in Norris. When he catches his reflection in a store front, he is quite shocked to see himself smiling. In Down There on a Visit, however, the same narrator is not so detached. Then looking into the mirror, he is startled by his terrible transformation. Although Isherwood's narrator flees Berlin's Mortmere atrocities, he cannot escape them—for the truth, as Isherwood discovers, is that Mortmere is not a place, but a state of soul, more pernicious than his wildest imaginings at Cambridge. (p. 126)
Throughout his career, Isherwood has constantly been reassessing and reinterpreting his life and work. For a writer who sought escape from the past, this continual remembrance of things past is, as we have seen, an unexpected irony. The rebellion against Kathleen and Frank, the camera technique of The Berlin Stories, which won him instant acclaim, the bizarre Mortmere fantasy of those stories, the concealment of his homosexuality—of these Isherwood, as an older man, takes a second, very different view. With his conversion to Vedanta he even revises his conceptions of character and conflict, conceptions basic to the work of any novelist.
Very early in his career, as he relates in Lions and Shadows, Isherwood formed four concepts which fired his creative imagination and which were to figure in his major fiction: the Enemy, the Test, the Truly Weak Man, and the Truly Strong Man. (p. 136)
Impossible to pass, the Test doomed Isherwood to continual aberrations in behavior…. Even the flight to Berlin is a search for the ultimate experience, the absolute Test, as the squeamish public school boy willfully samples the perversion of a foreign capital.
In Isherwood's early fiction, the Test exists only for the Truly Weak Man, Isherwood's version of the modern neurotic hero, feckless and impetuous, plunging where angels fear to tread. Yet, "no matter whether he passes it [the Test] or whether he fails, he cannot alter his essential nature" …, for he is damned by his ponderous sense of failure and inadequacy. (pp. 139-40)
All of Isherwood's early characters—those conceived during his English period, before he left for America in 1939—easily slip into the categories of the Truly Weak Man and the Truly Strong. (p. 141)
Isherwood's characters and conflicts are no more than the desperate attempts of a Truly Young Man straining to exorcise his demons, for the fictional possibilities of this early scheme lead nowhere. The Truly Weak Man is on an endless journey without a destination…. In all cases, the options, in terms of the novel, are cramped, even solipsistic.
The options of the Truly Strong Man seem equally feeble for a novelist. In Isherwood's early career this figure suffers from such superficiality that he is a mere heroic cutout…. (p. 142)
[In] the books of his American period, or more properly his Vedanta period, beginning with the publication of Prater Violet, his characters become markedly more interior as Isherwood discovers more potential in them. Bergmann in Prater Violet is the first indication of Isherwood's deeper understanding of the Truly Strong Man. Alternatively, Stephen Monk in The World in the Evening is as spoiled as Philip Lindsay (All the Conspirators), as lost as Eric Vernon (The Memorial), and as miserable as Edward Blake (The Memorial). But Stephen does learn the futility of imposing harebrained tests on himself, because the Test for the deeper Isherwood hero is inward and the Enemy is his own deficiency, not his mother or his father or his two wives. (p. 143)
[At] least from the time of Prater Violet, Isherwood is writing from an altered perception of what a novel should be…. [The] basic ideas of the Enemy, the Test, the Truly Weak and Truly Strong Men, though still with him, become modified. Now Isherwood's Truly Strong Man is a saint, the most interesting subject to write about because a saint responds to life more creatively than anyone else. (p. 147)
[The] Test is no longer the somber spectacle of insurmountable odds, the Truly Weak Man's inevitable failure. By now Isherwood has grown to view the Test as the risk-taking inherent in maturing into one's better self. The … Test is more akin to a conversion than to an ordeal….
Once the hero is converted, Isherwood sees the writer's task as demonstrating that the saint is not insane when he turns his back on "the whole scheme of pleasures, rewards, and satisfactions … accepted by the Joneses, the Smiths, and the Browns, and goes in search of superconscious, extraphenomenal experience." (p. 148)
What about the portrait of the perfected saint? Here Isherwood despairs, for nothing short of genius can succeed in such a task…. Isherwood concludes: "Perhaps the truly comprehensive religious novel could only be written by a saint—and saints, unfortunately, are not in the habit of writing novels."
This new depth and awareness of saintly possibilities are salient characteristics in Isherwood's last two novels, A Single Man and A Meeting by the River. (pp. 149-50)
Though radically different in technique, A Single Man and A Meeting by the River both point to an extra dimension, a "superconscious, extraphenomenal" aspect in reality. In A Single Man, Isherwood presents a day in the life of a Truly Lonely Man, George, a middle-aged homosexual and professor of English literature. George is very much like Jones or Smith or Brown, for his life is not particularly rich or luminous: if he is different, it is only in degree. His homosexuality, his education, his pathetic mourning for Jim, his dead lover, actually intensify George's very human condition of loneliness. The spiritual, even mystical aspects of George's life are suggested by Isherwood who, throughout the novel, sustains a delicate dialogue with the reader. Isherwood's description of George's late-night encounter with Kenny, one of his students, as a symbolic Platonic dialogue, defines the book's narrative method: a symbolic dialogue between the author as a kind of guru and the reader as a disciple meditating on the ephemera of George's day.
George has no idea that his confusion and monotony contain mystical ramifications; he is the early Isherwood hero as he might have been without Isherwood's conversion. The dialogue remains between author and auditor only—George is unaware of his dimensions. (p. 150)
In A Meeting by the River, however, Isherwood abandons any stylistic individuality in favor of an epistolary novel—it's as if in his last novel he is trying to bring the book as near as possible to the experiences of the Joneses, the Smiths, the Browns, by casting the book in the form of letters and diary jottings. The style here is simple, energetic, but in comparison with the subtle, delicate prose of The Memorial, The Berlin Stories, Prater Violet, A Single Man, it is deliberately undistinguished. (p. 161)
What begins as a dispute ends in a fraternal dialogue as Isherwood deftly manipulates the double viewpoints [in A Meeting by the River] to fulfill his chief requirements for a religious novel. He makes his saints-to-be very much like Messrs. Jones, Smith, and Brown. More important, Isherwood surpasses his own expectations, for the novel's thrust is that both Oliver and Patrick are incipient saints, brothers in the deeper sense that both are seeking sanctity. It is not the richly evocative language of A Single Man, but Isherwood's placing of the letters and feuilletons of the brothers which contrasts their individual strivings and thus makes two points intrinsic to Isherwood's conception of the religious novel: that Oliver's behavior is not at all insane but, in essence, is similar to that of Patrick; that Patrick's flamboyance is not merely mindless bustle but actually an expression of his longing for the same realities Oliver seeks. Their two paths, therefore, represent complementary roads to holiness, the religious and the worldly. (pp. 162-63)
Does Isherwood give us the portrait of the perfected saint? No. But he does present the Isherwood hero as no longer lost, but as having found himself; if he is still an outsider, he is so not because of neurotic hostility but because of spiritual growth. (p. 168)
In the early novels, Isherwood's treatment of the homosexual is, at best, conventional; only later, as Isherwood's own vision deepens, does he alter his vision of the homosexual's place in the world.
Not surprising, Isherwood's first references to homosexuality in All the Conspirators are, like other aspects of the novel, strained and self-conscious. (p. 172)
By the time of The Memorial and The Berlin Stories,… homosexuality has become a staple of the anti-myth, a characteristic of both the Truly Weak Man and of the Lost, who are alike shunned by society. Edward Blake in The Memorial is severed from society by the nightmare of the Great War and by his sexual preferences. Blake's homosexuality, though, is a perversion characteristic of his peculiar malaise. (p. 173)
In The Berlin Stories, homosexuality takes on a new dimension and becomes a resonant metaphor for Berlin's Mortmeresque depravity. Isherwood's portrait of the Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, for example, like all the Mortmere parodies, is a caricature of perversion: loathed by Bradshaw, the Baron is drawn as a sinister storybook monster. His advances to Bradshaw are always made to appear farcical. (p. 174)
Isherwood's recent reflections on Berlin confirm the notion that his use of homosexuality as a symbol of depravity is only a literary technique and not a realistic representation….
Isherwood's artistic reason for turning Bradshaw-Isherwood into what many consider a chaste prig are well-intentioned and understandable. To have made the narrator heterosexual would have been to capitulate to the heterosexual dictatorship and to distort his own experience; to have made him homosexual would have been to affront his readers and to detract from the story. (p. 179)
As the narrator began to develop into a human being in the later novels, and as Isherwood's own understanding of how he might use homosexuality as a theme in his novels matured, the fictional treatment of the narrator drastically altered. Rather than a Mortmere curiosity, the narrator becomes a human being….
In The World in the Evening, for the first time, Isherwood begins to probe the perilous dilemma of the homosexual in an intolerant society. He gamely attempts to draw Bob Wood, Dr. Charles Kennedy, and Michael Drummond as complex human beings who are also homosexuals. Their loneliness and alienation are unmerited: they suffer because they are different. But like almost every other character in the book, they are cardboard figures, another series of exhibitions. Nonetheless, Isherwood's failure here shows an advance in his handling of homosexuality: he has indeed tried to imbue them with flesh-and-blood characteristics. (p. 180)
Isherwood's later frankness about his personal life also accounts for a change in his style. In the last four novels, Isherwood's writing is, as always, a perfect instrument for his perceptions; but, lacking the distant I-Christopher narrator, the books contain less posturing, fewer rhetorical gestures. In A Single Man, the style is plain, at times even bare. The only metaphoric passages are religious—George's midnight swim and the rock-pool description. In both passages, because Isherwood is trying to communicate the mystical, he is forced to speak in imagery and parable, for, as he has written, the mystical experience can only be hinted at. (p. 190)
Isherwood has always asserted and maintained his identity in a world that operated from diverse, chiefly antagonistic values. His nine novels are nine autobiographical glimpses—blurred, darkened, partial—into a mirror. Taken together, these nine glimpses coalesce to form a reflected image of what might be called the "essential Isherwood," always investing his life with epic proportions, always creating his ironic anti-myth, the subject of which is, always, the anti-son of Kathleen and Frank. Each new frontier crossed, each new shock survived, each new revelation declared, entails a further probing and fresh articulation of the counter-myth…. [One might] say that Isherwood wrote one novel which he constantly amended, incorporating new, original insights so that the final copy is a palimpsest recording the results of his modified interpretation of the anti-myth; or that he actually wrote a Proustian remembrance of things past with nine books, as well as three autobiographies, which organically expand and change as Isherwood matures, recalling and reliving his past. (pp. 196-97)
As the man and the myth change, so does the style. As always, Isherwood is a master, his writing exact and unclichéd, a superb medium for his observations. In the books since his conversion, the style is still masterly, but different, simpler, at times more lyrical, and, in the seventies, certainly more honest and straightforward. Isherwood's last three books—A Meeting by the River, Kathleen and Frank, and Christopher and His Kind—are based on letters and diaries. Intent on telling the truth, Isherwood seems to regard the manner of his early work as a hindrance to revelation. The writing is energetic, subtle, but compared to that of his early works, austere and unembellished. The style here is nonstyle. In these books one … sees realized the hope expressed in 1949 by a critic in the Times Literary Supplement: "What could he do if he really tried." (p. 197)
Paul Piazza, in his Christopher Isherwood: Myth and Anti-Myth (copyright © 1978 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1978, 245 p.
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 orientation towards the past and his preoccupation with the immature…. Isherwood's style at its early best has a bare particularity which accords well with the triviality of his subject-matter. (pp. 71-2)
[An] admission by one of Isherwood's later mouthpieces that he is one to whom things happen in a disconnected, meaningless way seems to express facetiously his author's own unreadiness, for all his self-concern, to grasp, evaluate and comprehend experience so as to grow inwardly to maturity through its creative assimilation. (p. 72)
[It] becomes apparent that Isherwood's characters have one especial feature in common. They are simultaneously both naughty and innocent…. It is this odd combination of innocence and guilt which fascinates Christopher/William …, as if he too were in some respect guilty and innocent. He accepts Sally Bowles so uncritically because the more naughty she is the more she reveals her irrefragible innocence, so reflecting his, Christopher's, own moral perplexity or equivocalness. (p. 73)
The central issue for Isherwood is an irresolvable ambiguousness concerning innocence and guilt which, for him, has always a sexual focus. While for the Isherwood man, sexuality is everything, it is at the same time the realm of the wicked, the forbidden, above all, the dangerous. Its forbiddenness makes it irresistibly enticing; its dangers make it a Test. And the approach to sexuality is surrounded with an inadmissible guiltiness which must be denied by re-phrasing it in terms of innocence. (p. 81)
What that curious memoir, Kathleen and Frank, sets down in factual terms is precisely that which is implied, though never more than implied, in the novels: its author-editor's lifelong reluctance to grow out of a cosily reassuring homoerotic phase. To become adult Isherwood had an inner task to perform which proved against his will or beyond his strength, a movement towards self-possession which should free him from the compulsiveness of an unresolved Oedipal attachment, both positive and negative, to his Daddy and Mummy, and the consequent determination, as on a fixed track, of his life-pattern throughout by this never ending travelling 'in the parental train'…. Here the desperate need for self-justification, deadly to a writer, constrains Isherwood to parade his continued determination by the homosexual mother-fixation as though it were a form of self-liberation. But a man does not escape from or transform his own inwardly infantile emotions by putting himself at a physical distance from his mother or by defiantly adopting modes of living of which she disapproves, but by an inward and spiritual de-conditioning and emancipation which removes him altogether from the child-parent context into the dimension of personal autonomy and moral responsibility. As elsewhere in this writer, the overt pronouncement is in conflict with the covert meaning of the words. It is only necessary to compare this piece of bland self-approbation with the cool self-analysis of Lions and Shadows to see how far, and in what direction, the later Isherwood has diverged from the earlier; and yet the two are related, and the same. Both are summed up in the guileless observation concerning the unfulfilled quest for Christopher's identity.—'Impossible to say exactly where Kathleen and Frank end … they merge into each other … Christopher has found that he is far more closely interwoven with Kathleen and Frank than he has supposed, or liked to believe.' On a railway journey one may change trains, but the train never leaves the tracks. (pp. 87-8)
D. S. Savage, "Christopher Isherwood: The Novelist as Homosexual," in Literature and Psychology (© Morton Kaplan 1979), Vol. XXIX, Nos. 1 & 2, 1979, pp. 71-88.