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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

Christopher Isherwood

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  • 1 Christopher Isherwood, Down there on a Visit, London, 1962, p. 349.

You know, you really are a tourist, to your bones. I bet
you’re always sending postcards with ‘down here on
a visit’ on them. That’s the story of your life.1

1The discrepancy between Isherwood’s reputation as an artist and his actual achievement was for some time a misleading element in the assessment of his work. In the Thirties he appeared to many as the potential interpreter of the human predicament in a socially and historically significant period, and he was still considered as a promising writer long after he had published what was to be his best writing. He played a prominent part among a group of writers who did not actually form a movement but were animated by the same romantic urge to infuse literature with a revolutionary spirit. Isherwood himself was seen as a rebel who had put a stop to his bourgeois education and broken with English middle-class life. However, in the light of his work it is difficult to interpret his revolt as part of a wider and more significant movement. This is a fact which I should not comment upon if it did not account to some extent for the limitations of his art and if Isherwood the narrator did not play so prominent a part in his fiction. In this respect Lions and Shadows (1938) is a revealing document as far as the man and the artist are concerned.

  • 2 Christopher Isherwood, Lions and Shadows, London, 1953, p. 13.

2Though Isherwood carefully warns us that Lions and Shadows should be read as a novel, it is a hardly disguised autobiography. Its subtitle, An Education in the Twenties, suggests that the author also saw it as the story of a generation. He does indeed show how the First World War and its aftermath conditioned the lives of those who were too young to fight and came of age in the confused atmosphere of the post-war years. Isherwood tells us that even at his preparatory school he was emotionally “messed about” by masters and mistresses to whom the war years “had given full licence to every sort of dishonest cant about loyalty, selfishness, patriotism, playing the game and dishonouring the dead.”2 During his public-school years he developed a divided attitude towards the idea of war. He was strongly influenced by Chalmers, his revolutionary friend, who objected to patriotism and to war. When the two of them went to Paris with their public-school master, they visited “Les Invalides,” which Chalmers had condemned in advance because it was a shrine to war. Isherwood was secretly impressed, but he wouldn’t acknowledge it and agreed with Chalmers that it was ugly and vulgar. In the sixth form he proposed a motion before the debating society that “patriotism is an obstacle to civilization.” But while thus joining in the protest against war, which was common enough in the Twenties, he also felt a sort of guilty excitement about it:

We young writers of the middle ‘twenties were all suffering, more of less subconsciously, from a feeling of shame that we hadn’t been old enough to take part in the European War. The shame, I have said, was subconscious; in my case, at any rate, it was suppressed by the strictest possible censorship. (pp. 74-75)

3Nevertheless, he tried to make up for this sense of frustration by devising the idea of the Test, to which he longed to be subjected but which he also dreaded because he felt certain that he would fail. It was a test of courage, of maturity, of sexual prowess: in other words, a test of “Manhood.” Until his departure for Germany Isherwood’s career is a record of failures, not all of them connected with the Test, but all revealing his instability and illustrating the conflicting tendencies of his temperament. Under the influence of Chalmers’s revolutionary idealism he defied the Cambridge authorities by purposely failing in the tripos in order to be sent down. He worked for a while as a private tutor and as secretary to a musician. Then, suddenly longing for respectability, he stopped playing the rebel and became a medical student. This led to a new failure, for he was not at all suited for medical studies. He gave them up and left England after the publication of his first novel, All the Conspirators.

4In connection with the Test Isherwood developed at Cambridge a cult of the public-school system and built up a day-dream of romantic school life; he vizualized himself as an austere young prefect who heroically overcame all sorts of dangerous obstacles, passed the Test successfully and became a Man. He remarks on the homosexual romanticism of his dreams; it is worth noting that he was about twenty at the time and that these dreams certainly reveal a refusal to grow up and to face life responsibly. He created with Chalmers other day-dream fantasies in which they took refuge from university life:

There was the private world which Chalmers and I had deliberately created for ourselves, a world which was continually expanding, becoming more absorbing, more elaborate, sharper and richer in detail and atmosphere, to the gradual exclusion of the history school, the Poshocracy, the dons, the rags, the tea-parties, the poker, the play-reading; the whole network, in fact, of personalities, social and moral obligations, codes of behaviour and public amusements which formed the outward structure of our under-graduate lives. (pp. 64-65)

  • 3 “Conversation with Edward Upward,” The Review, 11-12, 65.

5In the Mortmere stories the “poshocrats” and the dons belong to the enemy camp. The basic themes of the tales and their myths derive from a central conflict between, on the one hand, the conspirators or mysterious characters of The Other Town, the anarchic and free Mortmere, and, on the other, the university system. According to Isherwood, he and Chalmers had come to Cambridge as to “the country of the dead” and had immediately escaped into their fantasy world, though Isherwood was sometimes tempted to join the “poshocrats,” i.e., the snobs, the socially successful and all those who support the representatives of authority. As the conspirators became older, the poshocracy and the enemy became the English bourgeoisie and the social or political authorities. As late as the end of the Thirties Isherwood and those of his friends whom he had initiated into the Mortmere Myth were still under its spell. Auden, in particular, used in his poetry the names given to some enemies by Chalmers and Isherwood. Some readers seem to have resented these private jokes and conspiratorial games, mainly because they were used in connection with themes that were treated seriously. Yet the Mortmere stories were not merely a game. True, Isherwood found it odd some years later that he and Chalmers should have been so self-absorbed at the time of Hitler’s Munich Putsch, of Mussolini’s final campaign against the democrats, of the first English Labour Government, or of Lenin’s death. But when they left the university, they still saw society as divided into two enemy camps. Isherwood still speaks in terms of their fantastic myth when he uses the word “enemy” in Mr. Norris Changes Trains, in Goodbye to Berlin, or even in his latest works A Single Man and A Meeting by the River. The pleasure which several writers in the “Auden Group” seem to have derived form the Mortmere Myth is explained by Edward Upward3 as a longing for fantasy and playfulness which made life more exciting, but disappeared when life did become exciting. One may also wonder whether their myth of a frontier dividing the enemy camps wasn’t an unconscious imitation of a war-time situation. In Isherwood’s novels it is definitely associated with the idea of the Test which the Truly Weak Man, Isherwood’s neurotic hero, imposes upon himself. Moreover, the relation between the Truly Weak Man’s incapacity to face reality and his longing to escape into a fantasy world cannot be questioned.

  • 4 Julian Symons, The Thirties, London, 1960, p. 25.

6Julian Symons writes that “the most damaging criticism that can be made of Isherwood and his friends is that their deepest desires and longings were connected with public school and uni-versity; that, wishing to speak in popular language to a mass of people, they found themselves talking to each other in the language of their public school.”4 This is an unfair statement when applied to Isherwood’s fiction. The novels he wrote in the Thirties were accessible to a large public and entirely concerned with the outside world. Only Lions and Shadows gives some indication that Isherwood was a public-school man, and he initiates the reader into his private world. Actually, this book gives a clue to the interpretation of his fiction because he alludes in it to his purpose as a novelist and describes the inner conflict which, as an artist, always prevented him from probing deeper into men’s hearts.

7In All the Conspirators (1928) Isherwood creates for the first time the Truly Weak Man and describes his neurotic attempts to avoid responsibility for his own life. Philip Lindsay wants to be a painter and a writer, but he has a job in the city which his mother wants him to keep at all costs. He runs away twice. The first time he comes home of his own accord, and his employer takes him back; but this is a defeat which Philip cannot accept. He is offered a job in Kenya and runs away again just before he is due to leave England. He develops rheumatic fever, which is enough to convince his mother that he must be given independence and be allowed to paint and write.

8The novel is a protest against the dreariness of English middle-class life. Through his implicit criticism of Philip’s milieu Isher-wood satirizes the conventions of the middle class. His technique is still uncertain, though one can already detect his skill in provoking the reader’s response and participation. However, the narrative is too often interspersed with conscious imitations of Joyce, the author resorting to the stream-of-consciousness to convey the feelings or thoughts of his “conspirators.” These are the young dissatisfied characters who come up against the incomprehension of the old: Philip, his friend, Allen Chalmers, and his sister Joan, who is even less successful than Philip in attempting to escape from the stifling Kensington atmosphere of their home. Eventually, she marries Victor, a typical poshocrat, who sides with the enemy, i.e., with Mrs. Lindsay and all those who prevent the young from developing and living according to their own nature. Mrs. Lindsay and Victor want everybody to conform to a preconceived type and are genuinely incapable of understanding anyone who doesn’t comply with the rules. Yet neither Joan nor her brother are capable of revolting. For all his hostility to the enemy camp and his desire to devote his life to art, Philip cannot pass the Test and simply shirks it, rejecting the responsibility for his repeated failures on his environment.

  • 5 Christopher Isherwood, All the Conspirators, London, 1957, p. 255.
  • 6 G.H. Bantock, “The Novels of Christopher Isherwood,” in The Novelist as Thinker, p. 49.
  • 7 Cyril Connolly, quoted by G.H. Bantock in “The Novels of Christopher Isherwood,” in The Novelist a (...)

9Isherwood’s attitude towards his main character is ambivalent. He undoubtedly meant to bring out his weakness, his incapacity to make a decision and carry it through, his fear when he faces the Test, self-imposed but always eluded at the last moment. Philip is made to sound ludicrous when he remarks at the end of the novel: “‘You see, Allen, what I really dislike about your attitude is that it gets you nowhere. You refuse to venture, that’s what it is. You’re timid. Oh, I grant you one’s got to have the nerve.’”5 He himself has simply frightened his mother into giving in to him. Yet that mediocre young man is the main conspirator, the hero chosen to wage “the great war between the old and the young.” The victory he wins over his mother is quite unheroic since, in reality, he compromises and is glad to settle comfortably in his Kensington home, though he has always pretended to hate it. Philip reacts against the social atmosphere in which he lives, but he is unable to live in any other way. G.H. Bantock doesn’t seem far wrong when he writes that “The test could be just as well defined as a desire for social integration and acceptance by the group,”6 for it is also prompted by the hero’s awareness of his incapacity to deal with ordinary life. Isherwood presents this incapacity as characteristic of his generation. His young people are not enthusiastic because there is nothing to be enthusiastic about. They are unstable, unwilling to follow the traditional pattern of existence of the members of their class because they refuse to waste their talent on dreary or blind-alley jobs. “I like All the Conspirators,” Cyril Connolly writes, “because it is a study of weakness, because Philip and Joan and Allen and Victor are English adolescence as I knew it.”7 One is reminded of Mr. Connolly’s own weak hero in The Rock Pool.

10Mrs. Lindsay is not quite equal to her role as an evil and possessive mother; she is a rather stupid and narrow-minded woman too obviously impressed by position and money. Clearly, she couldn’t have been a serious obstacle for anyone but Philip. However, she illustrates a dominant theme in Isherwood’s fiction: that of the possessive mother who shamelessly exploits her son’s feelings and marks him for life, injuring his emotional self and making him unable to have normal human relationships. In All The Conspirators the conflict between mother and son often seems trivial because the characters themselves are petty. But in The Memorial the theme is treated much more subtly. Lily Vernon is more intelligent and cunning than Mrs. Lindsay. She cannot love her son as he is and uses her own unhappiness as a sort of sentimental blackmail to make him behave as she wishes. The boy is under a constant moral and emotional strain, which shows in his stammer and in his awkwardness and gives him a feeling of guilt whenever he enjoys himself with other adolescents. Even when he at last frees himself from the baneful influence of his mother and gives proof of his will and moral strength, he remains emotionally dissatisfied and only finds peace when he becomes converted to Catholicism. Other examples of frustrated or perverted development due to a possessive mother are Bernhard Landauer in Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris. Even in The Ascent of F6 the life and death of Michael Ransom are determined by his excessive love for his mother, while in The World in the Evening Stephen goes through several crises before he is finally freed from the influence of his much older wife who has always treated him as a son. The possessive mother is an obsessing figure in Isherwood’s fiction; he presents her as a dominant and evil force in English middle-class life and associates her ascendency with the high rate of homosexuality among Englishmen. In Lions and Shadows he describes his own effort to escape such influence as his only hope of achieving maturity: “You want to commit the unforgivable sin, to shock Mummy and Daddy and Nanny, to smack the nursery clock, to be a really naughty little boy. Well, why not start? Time’s getting on. It’s your only hope of ever growing up at all. If you stick to your safe London nursery life, you never will grow up. You’ll die a timid shrivelled Peter Pan.” (p. 307) In the light of A Single Man this sounds prophetic enough, for the real conflict in Isherwood’s post-war work is between the homosexual narrator and the hostile world.

11The First World War is another haunting theme in Isherwood’s novels. In Lions and Shadows, for instance, it is never allowed to be forgotten for long and keeps intruding into the characters’ lives. We have seen that Isherwood devised the Test to make up for his failure to take part in the War. At once fascinated and horrified, he listens to the war stories of Lester, an ex-service man, characteristically refusing to imagine that such things could happen to the men of his generation. Yet his sense of security is shaken, and it is partly to recover it that he starts studying medicine: a doctor is usually safe; he is respected, and if there is a war, he won’t have to fight. Nevertheless, it was not through his medical studies, but by writing a novel about it that Isherwood freed himself from his “War complex.” “The Memorial was to be about war: not the War itself, but the effect of the idea of ‘War’ on my generation. It was to give expression … to all the reactions which had followed my meeting with Lester at the Bay.” (p. 296) It is well to remember, however, that when he wrote this novel, Isherwood was under the influence of an American psychologist, Homer Lane, to whose theories he had been introduced by Auden. According to Lane, there was only one sin, “disobedience to the inner law of our nature.” Man being naturally good should never control his desires, for when these are thwarted, as they often are by conventional education or by the pressure of society, he becomes diseased or inclined to selfishness and crime. “The disease of the soul is the belief in moral control: the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, as against the Tree of Life.” (pp. 300-1) Diseases are warning symbols of a sickness of the soul and can only be avoided by being pure in heart. This became a key phrase among Auden’s friends and prompted Isherwood to give up his medical studies, leave England and settle in Germany.

12The Memorial (1932) is divided into four sections which deal respectively with one day in 1928, in 1920, in 1925 and 1929. The characters live and re-live in imagination significant experiences which took place within a period extending from the years just before the First World War to the late Twenties. The central event, the dedication of a War Memorial in 1920, is the climax of the novel; it makes clear what the War meant to each character and how it shaped their lives. The old squire, who has had a stroke, is no longer able to understand what the Memorial stands for. His degeneracy is the symbol of the disintegration of the family and of the social order he represents. His daughter-in-law, Lily Vernon, has brought him to the dedication ceremony because she wants him to play his part as the village authority; she becomes indignant when he is ignored by many villagers and by the middle-class people who live without romance in their ugly villas. Lily’s husband, Richard, has been killed in the War, and she cultivates her grief deliberately to such an extent that she herself becomes unable to distinguish the genuine from the sham in it. She lives exclusively in the past, in “the old safe, happy, beautiful world” which she had thought would be preserved for ever. She uses what love and vitality she is capable of to coerce her son Eric, whom she wants to take his father’s place. For years Eric exerts himself to please her, but as he becomes a man, he sees through her sentimentality and can no longer comply with it. She becomes spiritually dead and clings more than ever to the past.

  • 8 Christopher Isherwood, The Memorial, London, 1952, pp. 112-13.

13Mary Scriven, Richard’s sister, is the opposite of Lily; she is truly “pure in heart” and has always acted according to her own nature. To her, the War meant more hardship than ever, because her husband had deserted her, and her family, who had been opposed to her unconventional marriage, were unwilling to help her. An energetic and sane woman, she refuses to be impressed by the War Memorial because she lives in her time, not with the dead. “All this cult of dead people is only snobbery. I’m afraid I believe that. So much so, that the attitude which we’re all subscribing to at this moment seems to me not only false but, yes, actually wicked. Living people are better than dead ones. And we’ve got to get on with life.”8 Mary’s strength and good nature are appreciated by all; the parishioners of Gatesley and the London Bohemians appeal to her in the same way, and both old and young feel her strength and rely on her. Yet even a full life is not wholly rewarding in the post-war years: as she becomes older, Mary feels she has always been alone and taken for granted in her attempts to be useful. Her friends’ insistence on her acting Queen Victoria over and over again at parties is a significant evidence of their lack of initiative and imagination, of the aimlessness of their generation imprisoned in the past and incapable of purposive action.

14To Edward Blake, the shell-shocked ex-airman, the Memorial is a symbol of his own deadness. His disappointment in Richard and Mary after their respective marriage, Richard’s death and his own war experiences have made of him a human wreck, homosexual and neurotic. He now goes from one psychoanalyst to another and carries through the cities of Europe a doom which he is unable to shake off. In 1928 he tries to kill himself and fails. It is through him that we are made to feel the more obviously destructive effects of war; some passages in the novel echo the torments of Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, though Edward’s predicament is deliberately reduced to a wretched but meaningless situation. The novel starts with his abortive attempt to commit suicide; it ends with the trivial, yet ironical, comment of a German boy: “that War … it ought never to have happened.” (p. 294) The insignificance of Edward’s experience is the more striking in the face of the young people’s indifference and of the gap which alienates him from them. They are restless, irresponsible, and dissatisfied, eager to enjoy themselves, though most of the time bored. Only Eric takes everything seriously and starts a brilliant career at Cambridge, which he leaves suddenly at the time of the General Strike to dedicate himself and his fortune to welfare work. With his torments, his fears, his inability to cope with the realities of ordinary life he is a fairly typical Weak Man until he passes the Test by leaving Cambridge and doing what he likes. His conversion to Catholicism gives him the feeling of security he has always craved for; it illustrates the longing for stability and order characteristic of the men of Isherwood’s generation.

15In The Memorial Isherwood opposes two attitudes to life, the one valuing a dead past, the other rejecting meaningless conventions and obsolete values. The two, however, are equally sterile. His characters are bereft of individual or social support and unable to give their life significance through human relationships. Isherwood pictures a neurotic generation selfishly turned upon itself and incapable of development. Even the “pure in heart,” though achieving some kind of fulfilment, are inevitably frustrated by the circumambient nothingness. Most characters do not develop at all; the glimpse we get of them at various periods of their life shows them hopelessly static. Isherwood implicitly criticizes the hypocrisy, conservatism and blindness to new social realities of the English upper-middle class. This Portrait of a Family, as the novel is ironically subtitled, is a story of disintegration, of which the War Memorial is a cruel symbol. At the end of the novel Mary, Edward and their young friends visit the Hall, the seat of the Vernon family; it belongs to the past, however, and has nothing to offer them. In fact, Eric has just sold it to a Manchester industrialist; the old squire is dead, and Lily’s world has vanished for good.

  • 9 Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, London, 1954, p. 13.

16All the Conspirators and The Memorial are the fruit of young Isherwood’s reaction against English society. With the Berlin stories he becomes a “well-meaning tourist” and places himself in the position of a self-effaced yet all important narrator. We learn from Isherwood himself that he wanted to renew the English novel by applying to it the technique of the cinema: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”9 However, if he does indeed look at his characters from the ouside and carefully keeps them at a distance, the author is nonetheless responsible for selecting and arranging the significant features of their behaviour as well as for revealing implicitly the relation between their plight and their historical background. In their limited way the Berlin stories are short masterpieces, for Isherwood struck a perfect balance between what he wanted to express and the technique that was most congenial to him as a novelist. The stories remain unsurpassed for their evocation of the last days of the Weimar Republic. The characters stand out against a background of unrest and chaos and are diversely affected by it; a subtle interplay of political factors and personal motives determines their existence. Their fate is inescapably linked to that of the nation: as the political background becomes more obtrusive and their situation more desperate, they grow accustomed to violence and hatred, and, apart from the workers, most people are soon prepared to accept the leadership of Hitler with indifference or relief. Before the final downfall of the Republic there is a sense of excitement aroused by the uncertainty of the political situation and by the climate of moral freedom which many foreigners found so congenial. Yet there is little to rejoice about: the social disintegration is complete, the old values have collapsed, and many people feel justified in their moral relaxation by the unusual and unprecedented chaos prevailing everywhere.

17To the British observer this moral relaxation was often an indication of broad-mindedness, while the political agitation gave him the feeling that he was at the heart of things. This is the impression created by at least two thirds of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), the story of a Firbankian masochist and crook, who has always lived by his wits and exploits the corruption of German society for his own benefit. There are elements of farce and tragedy in the way in which Mr. Norris, perverse and unscrupulous, yet also naive and defenceless, takes advantage of the economic and political situation. Isherwood romanticizes him and makes him a pleasant character in spite of all. To relate his adventures would be pointless. But they bring to light his own immoral resourcefulness and the equally immoral lawlessness of the people he deals with. No one is immune from corruption because no one, apart from a few privileged industrialists, is left untouched by the catastrophic economic circumstances of the country. Though these circumstances determine the characters’ attitude to life, the Berlin stories are anything but polemical literature. True, the narrator is elated when he attends a communist meeting and feels the workers’ strength of purpose. He is impressed when he watches them marching in the streets, silently opposing the police and the Nazis. However, in spite of his sympathy for their cause, he does not romanticize it, and he does not commit himself to it but clings to his private values. Individual human beings are more important to him than any political ideal. Isherwood describes Berlin in a state of civil war, the dubious shifts and devices the unemployed resort to in order to survive, the indifference of the German public to shootings, arrests, acts of violence committed under their very eyes and the satisfaction of many of them after Hitler’s coup d’état.

  • 10 Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Penguin Books, 1955, p. 181.

They smiled approvingly at these youngsters in their big, swaggering boots who were going to upset the Treaty of Versailles. They were pleased because it would soon be summer, because Hitler had promised to protect the small tradesmen, because their newspapers told them that the good times were coming. They were suddenly proud of their being blonde. And they thrilled with a furtive, sensual pleasure, like schoolboys, because the Jews, their business rivals, and the Marxists, a vaguely defined minority of people who didn’t concern them, had been satisfactorily found guilty of the defeat and the inflation, and were going to catch it.10

18Still, the fate of individuals is more impressive than the anonymous outburst of hatred and violence. Fräulein Schröder cries because her boarders leave the country and she cannot pay the rent; Otto is tracked by the Nazis because he is a communist; Baron Pregnitz commits suicide in the station lavatory: these personal tragedies are more easily grasped and felt than the big-scale tragedies which Hitler’s coming to power foreboded.

19In Goodbye to Berlin (1939) the hopelessness of Germany’s political plight and its pressure on individual life are intensified. Isherwood’s field of observation becomes wider, while the characters’ despair is the more intensely felt as the tension grows and they feel trapped. Sally Bowles is not one of the desperate. Like the narrator, she is English and therefore a mere spectator. But unlike him, she is not interested in the German situation, only in the moral laxity of the German capital, where a dissipated middle-class girl, fascinated by what she takes for the romance of prostitution, can indulge in debauchery as she pleases. Like Mr. Norris, she is redeemed by a kind of innocence which makes her as often a victim as a victimizer. She has one lover after another in the hope of eventually finding one who will take her to Hollywood. Isherwood has a particular talent for rendering the mixture of sham and ingenuousness in human beings. Otto Nowak is another of those attractive characters equally apt to deceive or be deceived, with no definite notion of right and wrong. For him, as for most boys of his age who have never had a steady job, anything short of crime is excusable. Isherwood first meets him on Ruegen Island, where Peter, a neurotic English boy has brought him. Soon, Peter’s psychological complexity and illness are too much for Otto’s healthy animalism; he goes back to Berlin, where he later gets in touch with Isherwood. The Nowak episode is considered by many as the best among the Berlin stories. Its success in the Thirties may have been partly due to the fact that it was mistaken for proletarian literature, though Berlin’s Halleshes Tor is simply another place where Isherwood went “on a visit.” However, the story is really an epitome of the desperate predicament of millions of Germans, and, without saying much about poverty, the author suggests with remarkable truthfulness the psychology of the poor. Frau Nowak, ignorant, sentimental and good flies into sudden rages for trifles but suffers many hardships silently, wearing herself out for her big family. The description of their everyday life is among the most lively and humane in Isherwood’s novels. Frau Nowak is childishly happy when Otto and the narrator visit her in the sanatorium; but “Herr Issyvoo” is utterly depressed, frightened even, for the despair he reads in the eyes of some women is the most eloquent expression of the German people’s hopelessness:

Erna was clutching my hand as though she were drowning. Her eyes looked up at me with a terrifying intensity of unashamed despair…. They all thronged us for a moment in the little circle of light from the panting bus, their lit faces ghastly like ghosts against the black stems of the pines. This was the climax of my dream: the instant of nightmare in which it would end. I had an absurd pang of fear that they were going to attack us – a gang of terrifyingly soft muffled shapes – clawing us from our seats, dragging us hungrily down, in dead silence. (p. 215)

20From the rich Landauers Isherwood has nothing to fear; he can remain perfectly detached towards them, for they make no appeal to his sympathy. It is only in retrospect that he understands Bernhard Landauer was serious when he suggested they go on a world tour together. Bernhard is a Jew who has a premonition of his doom and does nothing to avoid it. This fatalism is discernible in his enigmatic self-revelations during the party at his country-house. The guests make a pretence of being amused, though they are anxiously waiting for the results of the election. Isherwood conveys admirably the pent up tension of the scene, which he describes sympathetically but from the outside, like someone who is immune from threat and will be quietly crossing the border when Bernhard dies in a concentration camp. This mixture of sympathy and detachment is felt throughout the book. In the last chapter Isherwood describes the effects of the terrible winter that preceded Hitler’s coming to power: boys are chased from their villages, attracted towards the city, which glows brightly and invitingly though it is in fact cruel, cold and dead; they starve and freeze on benches in the Tiergarten. The narrator visits a home for delinquents, which is like a minor replica of the disintegrated and diseased German society. The Nazis take possession of Berlin; if people in the streets are sometimes surprised at their acts of violence, they carefully avoid protesting or interfering. The only feelings expressed openly are hatred and a desire for revenge. The ordinary people adapt themselves to the new situation: “After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” (p. 316)

21Isherwood never deals directly with important issues; he interprets them in concrete and personal terms. These issues affect the characters in their everyday life, and it is through their effect on individuals that we discover their nature or understand their consequence. The collapse of the Weimar Republic or Hitler’s coming to power are seen through what they mean to a stricken Fräulein Schröder, or through the tragic fate of Bernhard Laudauer. When the German government closes the “Darmstädter und National” Bank, Isherwood does not discuss the consequences of the event but shows how it affects people:

A little boy was playing with a hoop amongst the crowd. The hoop ran against a woman’s legs. She flew out at him at once: “Du, sei bloss nicht so frech! Cheeky little brat! What do you want here!” Another woman joined in, attacking the scared boy: “Get out! You don’t understand it, can you?” And another asked, in furious sarcasm: “Have you got your money in the bank too, perhaps?” The boy fled before their pent-up, exploding rage. (p. 94)

  • 11 Christopher ISHERWOOD, The World in the Evening, London, 1954, p. 134.

22In the same way, Frau Nowak’s unequable temper, Otto’s resentful laziness, the apathy, indifference or satisfied smiles of passers-by witnessing acts of violence are merely the outward signs of a deep social disease. Like Elizabeth, the writer in The World in the Evening, Isherwood translates everything into terms of individual human beings: “Elizabeth transposed everything she wrote into her own kind of microcosm. She never dealt directly with world-situations or big-scale tragedies. That wasn’t her way. But she tried to reproduce them in miniature, the essence of them.”11 However, precisely because he wants to convey individual tragedy, Isherwood’s external approach has its limitations. Indeed, it is only by viewing his characters from different angles that he finally hints at some inner life which, nevertheless, is never discovered. The result is that few things seem really important to the characters and that personal relationships, which, according to Isherwood himself, are the basic theme of his work, never seem really essential to them, an impression often strengthened by the narrator’s own indifference. Few writers, it is true, suggest so much by saying so little, a fact which gave rise to the assumption that Isherwood was more deeply committed to man’s condition in the Thirties and to the human predicament in general than he actually was.

  • 12 Lions and Shadows, p. 259.
  • 13 Ibid., pp. 304-5.
  • 14 Goodbye to Berlin, pp. 317-18

23Two obvious reasons have prevented Isherwood from developing as a writer. The first is a question of technique: he himself said of his characterization that it was “flashy but thin; I was a cartoonist, not a painter in oils.”12 Moreover, the “documentary novel,” as G.S. Fraser calls Isherwood’s fiction, is essentially a static genre which leaves little room for development. Its significance is drawn from the particular posture in which the characters are caught, but the characters themselves are static, viewed in relation to a particular moment, yet as evanescent as the moment itself. Another reason which explains why the Berlin stories constitute a climax in Isherwood’s work, and not a promising beginning, is the narrator’s refusal to become involved with other human beings. As Lions and Shadows clearly shows, his initial revolt against the established order was gradually transformed into a sterile rebellion not only against all that might thwart his individual freedom but also against all that might enrich him as a human being. Analysing his motives just before his departure for Germany, Isherwood admits that fear has always been the dominant influence in his life: “just plain, cold, uninteresting funk. Funk of getting too deeply involved with other people, sex-funk, funk of the future. I was eternally worrying about what was going to happen to me – in 1930, in 1940, in 1950; eternally building up defences against attacks which were never launched.”13 Fear and the desire to protect himself have always dictated “Herr Issyvoo’s” attitude. In the Berlin stories his non-commitment is not quite distinguishable from his detachment as an artist, though we do get an occasional glimpse of his indifference: “The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city. The sun shines, and dozens of my friends … are in prison, possibly dead … I catch sight of my face in the mirror of a shop, and am horrified to see that I am smiling. You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather.”14 This passage conveys the cruel inequity of life but also sounds cynical and jars with the narrator’s sympathetic rendering of the German situation. However, if the author sometimes gives evidence of the same levity as his more eccentric characters, he has nonetheless rendered the spirit of an age with incomparable talent and made real the fear and insecurity which pervaded the everyday life of ordinary people, the ineluctable impact of historical events on individual existence. The Berlin stories are a sequence to The Memorial; together they sum up the inter-war period, the plight of man caught between two world catastrophes.

24Given his reputation as a Left-wing writer in the Thirties, it is perhaps worth specifying that Isherwood never committed himself wholeheartedly to a political ideal. He rebelled against anything that threatened individual freedom and, like many intellectuals in the Thirties, he may have thought for a time that his search for freedom was compatible with Left-wing politics. But he never made the mistake of deluding himself into believing that he sincerely wanted a revolution. “A young bourgeois intellectual … enthusiastic within certain limits. Capable of response if appealed to in terms of his own class-language” is how he sees himself in Mr. Norris Changes Trains (p. 67). In the same novel he describes a communist meeting and concludes: “One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it.” (p. 52) In Goodbye to Berlin as in Prater Violet (1946) he alludes to his “parlour socialism.” Even the plays he wrote in collaboration with Auden and which made them known to a large public are a long way off from real commitment. They satirize the smugness and dreariness of English lower-middle-class life, but only The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) contains an appeal to action. Its main theme is a denunciation of middle-class complacency, hypocrisy and cowardice as they are exemplified by the Army, the Church and the Gentry. The play is also a satire on capitalism; it caricatures small and despotic Balkan monarchies, a fascist state, its leader and the hysteria of the people. On the Frontier (1938) is mainly a condemnation of war, while The Ascent of F6 (1936) points to the corrupting influence of power. The same absence of ideological commitment can be observed in Journey to à War (1939), in which two pictures of lacerated human bodies are published side by side with the legends: “The Innocent,” “The Guilty.” The book is an indictment of war:

  • 15 Christopher Isherwood in collaboration with Wystan AUDEN, Journey to a War, London, Faber, 1939, p (...)

War is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it, and killing a few old women. War is lying in a stable with a gangrenous leg. War is drinking hot water in a barn and worrying about one’s wife. War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth. War is waiting for days with nothing to do; shouting down a dead telephone; going without sleep, or sex, or a wash. War is untidy, inefficient, obscure, and largely a matter of chance.15

25War, as we know, is usually much more terrible than that. The book was published in March 1939 at a time when, for many people in Europe, war was the only way in which Hitler and his allies could be finally broken down. But Isherwood, who was already withdrawing from the European scene, had become a pacifist and thought at the time of Munich that

  • 16 Down there on a Visit, pp. 201-2.

nothing, nothing, nothing is worth a war…. My friends, and thousands of people like us, said that a great betrayal had taken place. I said so, myself. And I wasn’t being exactly insincere. Only, every time I said this, it was as if I mentally added: yes, but a war has been postponed – and a war postponed is a war which may never happen.16

  • 17 Journey to a War, p. 253.

26Isherwood, it must be remembered, was never a supporter of action. His conclusion on the Chinese War is fairly typical of his general attitude: “And the well-meaning tourist, the liberal and humanitarian intellectual, can only wring his hands over all this and exclaim: ‘Oh dear, things are so awful here – so complicated. One doesn’t know where to start.’”17

27A well-meaning tourist is, in fact, how Isherwood-the-narrator sees himself in Down there on a Visit (1962). But in his post-war novels the tourist is as important as the people he meets, and Isherwood, who had always been extremely reserved about himself, gradually drops his old reticences. The historical back-ground, which was an essential element in his pre-war work, no longer determines the life of individuals. It is described but defiantly ignored by the hero, who disclaims any kind of commit-ment to society. In The World in the Evening (1959) Isherwood’s characters react against the Second World War as Isherwood himself had reacted against the First, and they re-enact the Test. But proving one’s Manhood now means asserting one’s right to be a homosexual: “Compared with this business of being queer, and the laws against us, and the way we’re being pushed around even in peacetime – this War hardly seems to concern me at all,” (p. 311) one of the characters says. In Down there on a Visit the narrator is more outspoken yet in his refusal to let the outside world impinge upon his private life. His approach to the main characters is fairly the same as in the Berlin stories: Mr. Lancaster, Ambrose, Waldemar, and Paul are presented in concrete situations or through conversation; each represents a period in the author’s life and is observed in relation to him. Christopher, Christophe, Christophilos or Chrissikins, as his friends call him, is in fact the main character. We see him as a young man impatient of the older generation, as an individualist determined to forget the German tragedy on a Greek island, then unhappily confused at the time of Munich. After the War he is shown as a converted spiritualist still unwilling to commit himself and failing to save his friend Paul. He is still the same Christopher who resents being forced to care and whom experience never touches deeply enough to change him. “My reasons for taking this particular trip” he explains on his way to Greece, “have nothing directly to do with the Nazis. They are quite unserious. And I suppose they show how little I’ve changed, in some respects, since the days of my visit to Mr. Lancaster.” (p. 66) The “Down there” of the title is the characters’ inner being, into which Christopher gets an insight before each in his turn disappears from his life without his being particularly affected. For each of them the “Down there” is a kind of hell, the hell of Mr. Lancaster, who desperately wants to be loved and commits suicide when he realizes that he never will be, the hell created by Ambrose on his island, where perversion and crime are the outcome of loneliness and despair, the hell of Waldemar, an unwanted refugee, who eventually goes back to Hitler’s Germany, and finally the hell of Paul, a drug-addict and “the most expensive male prostitute in the world.” Christopher has visited them all; he has felt the characters’ loneliness, their despair; he has drunk with them, slept with them, taken drugs with them, he has gone through a “short attack of workerworship,” has practised meditation with Paul and become a vegetarian. But it is always other people’s hell that he penetrates. He doesn’t die of anything. Above all, as one critic remarked, he hasn’t died for anything.

  • 18 Christopher ISHERWOOD, A Single Man, London, 1964, p. 118.

28How proud the “I” of the novels is of having survived! Survival is the main achievement of George, the 58-year-old hero of A Single Man (1964). He belongs to a minority because he is a homosexual but above all because he is alive, and the living are the people who haven’t given up, who, like himself, can still “get by.” “I am alive” he repeats exultantly as he comes out of a hospital where he has just visited a dying friend. His exultation is natural enough; anyone who has looked death in the face has experienced a feeling of satisfaction at being alive. But we remember other occasions when the narrator expressed a similar joy of living because he could escape, while other people were being led to death. In Down there on a Visit he is no longer unwilling to describe his true state of mind at the time he left Germany: “And now I have to admit to myself that I have never been seriously involved, never been a real partisan; only an excited spectator.” (p. 74) And further: “somehow I can no longer quite care … I feel I ought to feel guilty. But I don’t.” (p. 106) Yet Isherwood’s work is pervaded with a sense of guilt at not having committed himself, and this makes him first apologetic, then defiant about it. Moreover, in spite of his compassion for his characters, he doesn’t reach deeply enough in the presentation of their predicament to be aware of its full significance and to convey it to the reader. The feeling of impotence which underlies the Berlin stories is partly due to the fact that Isherwood does not explore the full implications of the situation he recreates. In the light of Down there on a Visit we understand that the narrator in Isherwood’s novels is too preoccupied with himself to be deeply concerned with the plight of other men. It also sometimes prevents him from acquiring the necessary distance towards his own experience, as appears from A Single Man. This work is a sad comment on the narrator’s career. “The past is just something that’s over,”18 George says. He is indeed without a past, utterly alone, yet afraid of giving too much of himself unless it is to someone with whom he can have sexual intercourse. He has formed no lasting relations and is still on the look-out for new friends and acquaintances. He starts the day bemoaning the death of his love and ends it looking for a new mate. But, somehow, this lonely man is pathetic. By ignoring the past systematically, he refuses to learn from experience and to be enriched by it; yet he also knows that the future is necessarily limited in time, and anxiety underlies the determination with which he clings to life. Moreover, his assertion that he is still of the living rests mainly on his capacity for sexual pleasure, as if sex were the only symptom of life. Despite his attacks on the American way of life, despite his claim that because he is a homosexual he is a rebel who stands apart from the crowd, from the dead, we feel the narrator’s old secret wish to be accepted even by the neighbours he despises, by his students, by the young, whom he cleverly, though often unconsciously, coaxes into liking and admiring him. In Isherwood’s latest novel, A Meeting by the River (1967) the narrator seeks salvation through self-annihilation by becoming a monk in a Hindu monastery. But his encounter with his brother is like a re-enactment of the conflict between two aspects of his own personality: the homosexual fake rebel and the mystic.

29The early novels and stories of Christopher Isherwood are, like the period they so well mirror, full of a promise that was never fulfilled. Within their limits, however, they are also a unique expression of the spirit and moods of the inter-war period. The social significance of his work arises from his dispassionate, yet imaginative, recording of the surface life of his characters, mostly weak, perverse, or else very ordinary, people. These characters are the symptoms of a collapsing world, a world which offers no sense of values or of permanence. Only the fragility of the passing moment is real and stirs up avidity for what life has to offer before an inevitable catastrophe. Isherwood conveys the impact of historical events indirectly through trivial incidents in the life of individuals; he makes very real the interrelation between personal life and society, not only by showing how the social and the political inevitably shape the individual’s existence, but by presenting the individual as a victim of a situation for which he is also accountable. Thus in All the Conspirators and The Memorial the post-war generation are confused and suffer from a lack of real guidance, but they also wish to ignore the grim realities of life, and their weakness and neuroticism makes them incapable or unwilling to act. In the Berlin stories the characters’ amorality reflects corruption on a grander scale, the tension in their lives is an effect of the paralysing fear through which the German nation feels it is becoming trapped; yet both the prevailing anxiety and the atmosphere of corruption are seen paving the way for Nazism. However, Isherwood always carefully refrains from judging his characters; they are never presented in relation to a set of values, whether personal or social. If anything, he is inclined to romanticize his more pervert characters, who are always redeemed by a certain innocence and by their own experience of a wider and irresistible form of evil.

30Isherwood’s technique in The Memorial and the Berlin stories is well suited to convey the image of a dislocated world. His rejection of chronology and of all forms of transition between a series of episodes gives us unrelated snapshots of the social scene taken at different moments from different angles. The discontinuity of the narrative is paralleled by his presentation of the characters in a succession of flashes which throw light on the salient features of their personality but never reveal the complete man. In the Berlin stories these characters are mostly uprooted and isolated people, outsiders all, who come and go at a moment’s notice. They are made equally fascinating whether they are rich business men, poor boys lost in the Berlin underworld, or the small ordinary people one meets in everyday life. Even the brevity of their pause in the narrator’s field of vision emphasizes the instability of life in the Weimar Republic. Only the narrator remains unchanged, a detached observer who carefully keeps at a distance. As a connecting link, however, he gives the narrative some continuity, and by his very approach to his subject, his selection of significant incidents, his arrangement of them, his tone, he stamps the story with his own personality. Indeed, in spite of his detachment, few writers identify themselves so completely with their work as Isherwood. It reveals his contempt for ideas or ideals and his interest for the concrete reality in man’s life, but it also brings out his particular blend of the frivolous with the serious. His high sense of the tragicomedy of life does not altogether account for this; one cannot but feel that, to Isherwood, life is often a game between conspirators and poshocrats and that even in the late Thirties he still sees it in terms of his own immature revolt against anything that thwarts individual freedom.

  • 19 A Single Man, p. 73.

31If the narrator in Isherwood’s stories cannot be ignored, it is not merely because his characters are seen in relation to himself. His detachment is a felicitous component of his stories but it is also a deceptive one. Isherwood is more obtrusive than it first appears if only because he feels it necessary to explain why he remains a mere spectator. His detachment is not merely a literary necessity; it is also a moral attitude. Actually, he is more timorous than detached, divided between his inclination to look at the world from outside and his wish to share in its life. The narrator in his novels never lived down what he called the neuroticism of his generation: “In all those old crises of the twenties, the thirties, the war – each one of them has left its traces upon George, like an illness – what was terrible was the fear of annihilation.”19 In Isherwood’s pre-war work fear and anxiety are to be detected in his characters’ foolish behaviour, in familiar gestures, in the uncertain reaction of the German people towards the rise of Nazism. His post-war work lays bare his personal dilemma and shows him still fighting the somewhat imaginary “enemies” of his youth. His staunch individualism and his plea for complete freedom lead him in the end to claim nothing for the individual but the right to be a homosexual. Frivolity and amoralism become the symbol of a capacity to remain young. Isherwood’s post-war work expresses an increasing nostalgia for youth, an intense desire to live and to enjoy the present moment, the need for the narrator to prove that he survives and is still among “the living.” He certainly does survive, and his latest novel describes a new search for salvation. On the whole, however, it is unfortunate for Isherwood the artist that the hopes and fears of a generation should have crystallized into a mere assertion of the aberrant.


1 Christopher Isherwood, Down there on a Visit, London, 1962, p. 349.

2 Christopher Isherwood, Lions and Shadows, London, 1953, p. 13.

3 “Conversation with Edward Upward,” The Review, 11-12, 65.

4 Julian Symons, The Thirties, London, 1960, p. 25.

5 Christopher Isherwood, All the Conspirators, London, 1957, p. 255.

6 G.H. Bantock, “The Novels of Christopher Isherwood,” in The Novelist as Thinker, p. 49.

7 Cyril Connolly, quoted by G.H. Bantock in “The Novels of Christopher Isherwood,” in The Novelist as Thinker, p. 50.

8 Christopher Isherwood, The Memorial, London, 1952, pp. 112-13.

9 Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, London, 1954, p. 13.

10 Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Penguin Books, 1955, p. 181.

11 Christopher ISHERWOOD, The World in the Evening, London, 1954, p. 134.

12 Lions and Shadows, p. 259.

13 Ibid., pp. 304-5.

14 Goodbye to Berlin, pp. 317-18

15 Christopher Isherwood in collaboration with Wystan AUDEN, Journey to a War, London, Faber, 1939, p. 202.

16 Down there on a Visit, pp. 201-2.

17 Journey to a War, p. 253.

18 Christopher ISHERWOOD, A Single Man, London, 1964, p. 118.

19 A Single Man, p. 73.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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