BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 5, 1954
Fear is the dominant mood of Christopher Isherwood's earlier novels. To understand the situation Isherwood dramatizes think of a young man trying to write a lyric poem about Identity or Love or Life in the midst of a demolition squad busily destroying his house, his home, his country. What does history have to do with me, the composite hero ponders, and I with history? In such a world as this what meaning can be attached to private acts of art and love.' InThe Memorial the fearful mood of England after the first World War is presented through the breakdown of a family. Nobody loves nor understands anybody else, and the new blind generation either gropes in darkness for some kind of communion or else abandons itself to fads and sensuality.
The next three novels are about the long Hitlerian night over Europe, and can be read as one book: the narrator of the first two. The Last of Mr. Norris, and Goodbye to Berlin (which Isherwood considered calling, rather explicitly. The Lost), is a sensitive young artist, nominally a Communist, actually a spectator of history, a camera not much involved in life. Goodbye to Berlin contains an epiphany of these novels in Herman Muller's funeral procession seen from a balcony:
"Say, who was this guy anyway?" asked Clive looking down. "I guess he must have been a big swell?"
"God knows," Sally answered, yawning. "Look, Clive darling, isn't it a marvelous sunset?"
She was quite right. We had nothing to do with those Germans down there. . . . In a few days . . . we shall have forfeited all kinship with ninety-nine percent of the population of the world. . . . Yes . . . I've done it, now, I am lost."
In Prater Violet, the demolition squad is more active, the narrator, even more of an observer. Isherwood's retreat from politics is evident here. The novel concerns an artist-director who is tapped by history (his family is caught in Austria during the Dreyfuss betrayal of 1934). He sums up his dilemma as a man in history and out of it: "To make such a picture at such a moment is definitely heartless," his poetical self says; "It covers up the dirty syphilitic sores with rose leaves." While the director is suffering, the narrator watches, sympathizes, ends by thinking long on Love and Fear.
In Isherwood's latest novel, The World In the Evening, the time is 1941-42, and though the demolition squad has lighted all its fuses, the detonations smack of movie track sound effects. The narrator, Stephen Monk, is, first of all, in America, three thousand miles away from the mess. Monk is concerned less with politics than with self=discovery. Married to Elizabeth Rydal, a novelist, he then has a passionate affair with a young man, next with a young fleshly All-American girl whom he marries the after the death of Elizabeth. He spends most of the novel re-reading Elizabeth's letters to discover what It All Means.
At the end of Prater Violet, the question is asked: "Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it?" Stephen Monk thinks he has the answer: "Life is bearable because we know, or think we know, that it has a meaning." Where is the meaning to be found? In an "escape from the world of the newspapers into the world of Elizabeth"— that is, Isherwood joins Waugh and Greene and Huxley in an escape from history.
Meaning can be found in Belief, in Togetherness, or in the discovery that all are part of "the wave of love" or the spiritual It. Meaning is to be found in the measurable experiences of individuals, not in the events of history, which, for the past twenty-five years, have babbled absurdity or hate.
But the old Isherwood world in which fear dominated :the feelings of his characters is still present in The World in the Evening. It is contained in the letters of Elizabeth Rydal and in Monk's reminiscences of her. She is another Isherwoodian artist in the modern world but, far superior to the earlier characters, she is involved in life. N o t only is she a sensitive human being almost paralyzed with t h e fear of Europe's "hate-disease," but she also lives in covert fear of her own death. Awareness itself, she is doubleness itself: she fears hate and finds herself powerless to stop hating. Like the artist of Prater. Violet she wonders in 1933 what meanings can be attached to "one's private aches and woes" while "that hideous screaming voice of Hitler's" celebrates hate. And what about art? She asks:
"What's the use of this game with words and shades of meaning and feeling? Oughtn't I to be doing something to try to stop the spread of this hate-disease? . . . But, of course, this very feeling of guilt and inadequacy is really a symptom of the disease itself The only way I can fight the disease effectively is to go on with the work I understand . . .Then at least I shan't feel paralyzed."
The new thing in this book is the extra dimension given to the artist. She does succumb to the' hate-disease, not through fear of Hitler but through fear of growing old, of losing her attachments to the real world. Twelve years older than Stephen, unable to bear him a child, knowing of his bi-sexual infidelities, she gives away to hate: "I do sometimes hate the young vital people I see on the beach," she writes; "I shouldn't grudge them their little hour of health and strength, I tell myself— and yet I want to spoil it, like some evil old witch. I want to make them aware, just for one instant, of their latter end. I want then to suffer fear, and smell the smell of death. Yes, God forgive me, I do."
Before her death Elizabeth comes to understand why life is bearable. Her own life, betrayed though she might have been, has meaning outside of history, as part of a spiritual It which teaches her love and forgiveness, the lessons all the good characters—and there really aren't any who aren't good —learn in this book. It is suggested that love and goodness rub off one character on to another and that in this way malice and ugliness are transformed.
Homosexuality is proposed more explicitly than in any of the earlier novels as an honest, passionate relationship between men of strong character. There is even some talk about the laws of the land becoming aware of the facts of life. One of the "good" characters has two experiences of great meaning in this book, one when she seems to project a spiritual calm which is supernatural, the other when she realizes how narrow minded the Quaker community has been about two male, lovers. Stephen Monk at the end of the novel is counseled by his divorced second wife to become a confirmed homosexual. All discussions are straightforward, friendly, grownup.
But don't get the idea that this is a book of resolution—many of the resolutions come after the characters have had five pr six drinks—even though it does end "happily" with Stephen being forgiving and forgiven all over the place, and with all the good characters showing just how good they really are. The doubleness remains. The same man who seeks human and spiritual love is a prey to sensuality; and though individuality is a means of salvation, the ego is a force for destruction.
This article originally ran in the July 5th, 1954, issue of the magazine.