From New International, Vol XII No. 4, April 1946, pp. 118–119.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
by Christopher Isherwood
Random House. $2.00
Christopher Isherwood is perhaps the most important English novelist writing today. He is a more facile writer than Maugham or Forster, and he writes from a richer experience. He is a finished craftsmen, a fine stylist and a deliberate artist. His prose is unpretentious and deceptively casual. It is a colloquial prose that breaks down the wall between the spoken and the written language. His prose is so effortless, so unstrained, that it seems too, too easy. Isherwood is not unaware of the dangers of such facility. Cyril Connolly some years ago observed that Isherwood’s protagonist, who is Isherwood himself, was “much less subtle, intelligent and articulate than he might be,” and that Isherwoods’ work might become colorless reporting.
“Isherwood,” Connolly says, “while admitting the limitations of the style he had adopted, expressed his belief in construction as the way out of the difficulty. The writer must conform to the language which is understood by the greatest number of people, to the vernacular, but his greatness as a novelist will appear in the exactness of his observation, the justice of his situations, and in the construction of his book.”
Isherwood meets his own criteria successfully. His Berlin books give the uneasy, heavy atmosphere, the peculiar political smell of Germany in the pre-Hitler era. Germany is communicated through a handful of characters from the Jewish upper middle class, the Berlin petty-bourgeoisie and the Berlin proletariat. They are memorable characters: Fraulein Schroeder, who. has the damp soul of a boarding-house landlady, tortured by the pettiness of a constrained existence; Sally Bowles, a precocious, rootless English girl, without morals, orientation or goal; the Lindauers, wealthy department store owners, insecure and uneasy with the knowledge that their wealth cannot save them; Otto, the insensitive, conscienceless communist youngster, the brother in spirit and morality of millions of other German youngsters, communist and fascist alike; and Mr. Norris, the degenerate English adventurer, who embraces every possibility for profit and self-satisfaction from homosexuality to blackmail and communism.
Isherwood measures up to his own criteria, but are they enough? Until Prater Violet, he was only the observer, the stage manager, never saw the participant. He could relate a situation but he could never enter it, he could present a character but he could never penetrate it. Connolly here, too, was able to locate Isherwood’s weakness: “He is persuasive because he is so completely bland and anonymous, nothing rouses him, nothing shocks him.” Isherwood is aware of his detachment, demonstrated in the following account of a communist meeting and his own relation to it in his novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains:
The hall was very full. The audience sat there in their
soiled everyday clothes: Most of the men wore breeches with coarse
woolen stockings, sweaters and peaked caps. Their eyes followed the
speaker with hungry curiosity. I had never been to a communist
meeting before, and what struck me most was the fixed attention of
the Berlin working class, pale and prematurely lined, often haggard
and ascetic, like the heads of scholars, with thin, fair hair brushed
back from their broad foreheads. They had not come here to see each
other or to be seen, or even to fulfill a social duty. They were
attentive but not passive. They were not spectators. They
participated, with a curious, restrained passion, in the speech made
by the red-haired man. He spoke for them, he made their thoughts
articulate. They were listening to their own collective voice. At
intervals they applauded it, with sudden, spontaneous violence. Their
passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One
day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present I just
sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feeling
muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the
confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s
regiment marched to the railway station, seventeen years ago.
Prater Violet contains a new element, which perhaps can best be defined as a need for intimacy, a participation in experience, a penetration into character. Prater Violet is the story of Isherwood’s relation to Bergmann, a Jewish refugee film director, and the relation of both men to English society. They work together on a senseless film which is completely irrelevant to political developments. Bergmann frantically tries to convey to the English some sense of politics, and he is driven almost to hysteria by the indifference he meets. The pressures of English life are too strong for him, and finally Bergmann buckles down to finish the stupid film. It is a moderate success, and Bergmann goes to Hollywood.
At a critical moment Isherwood feels he has failed Bergmann, and engages in the following self-criticism:
Perhaps I had travelled too much, left my heart in too many places. I knew what I was supposed to feel, what it was fashionable for my generation to feel. We cared about everything: fascism in Germany and Italy, the seizure of Manchuria, Indian nationalism, the Irish question, the workers. the Negroes, the Jews. We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin. I cared, oh yes, I certainly cared-about the Austrian socialists. But did I care as much as I said I did, tried to imagine I did? No, not nearly as much ... What is the use of caring at all, if you aren’t prepared to dedicate your life, to die? Well, perhaps it was some use. Very, very little.
Isherwood has lost his detachment, and he has come to identify himself with a character.
“Beneath outer consciousness, two other beings, anonymous, imprisoned, without labels, had met and recognized each other, and had clasped hands. He was my father. I was his son. And I loved him very much.”
The book shows the effort and strain that Isherwood has undergone to reach this point. But the father-son relationship does not follow from the narrative. It is the Telemachus Hamlet Stephen Dedalus theme all over again, and demands for development more space than a novelette can give. And so, this novel is, in a sense, an artistic failure. But it is Isherwood’s triumph.
The book is a protest against the utter irrelevance of our traditional and customary activities in the face of political and moral disintegration. The contrast between England and the continent is effectively presented: on the one hand, immersion in the meretricious, the inane, the inconsequential; on the other hand, the triumph of brutality and totalitarian values. It is a commentary on the entire pre-war era, and it ends in defeat. Bergmann, the cultivated European who struggles against totalitarianism, capitulates to the shoddy culture in England and the United States, and on the strength of his success with Prater Violet, obtains an offer from Hollywood. In a real sense, this book is the swansong not of an era but of a culture. It is the prose counterpart of Eliot’s Hollow Men – less successful as a work of an, more confused but nonetheless equally pathetic.
Last updated on 13 March 2017