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A Weakness for Past Masters: The Modernist Isherwood

By J. S. Loveard.

Picture Christopher Isherwood and the first image to come to mind is probably that boyish young man of the thirties, pals to Auden, Spender, Upward, training his I-am-a-camera gaze on the streets of Weimar Berlin. The second image? Most likely to be of sunny Santa Monica and the older Isherwood of the sixties who wrote his magnum opus, the 1964 novel A Single Man, about a day in the life of the English Professor George Falconer mourning his partner.

During this slim and powerful work, George visits his friend, another expatriate, Charley, who dreams of returning to home to England, and he remonstrates with her:

The Past is over. People make believe that it isn’t, and they show you things in museums. But that’s not the Past. You won’t find the Past in England. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

One of the keynotes of Isherwood’s fiction is this rejection of, and struggle with, the past; important enough that he often gives the word an imposing capital P. And while Isherwood often saw himself as an iconoclast, crusading against the Past — its quaint country houses, its conservatism, its hypocrisy — he also understood the human weakness for its song. George renounces the Past, but moments later, ‘with the movement of a child wriggling free of a grown-up — old guardian Cortex,’ he flees to the memory-soaked bar where he met his late partner, Jim. Not only this, but the novel itself (while fiercely present — it opens: ‘Waking up begins with saying am and now’) is a return to the influences of Isherwood’s youth — the there and then heyday of the Modernist twenties presided over by Woolf, Joyce and others. The book bears the mark of those writers; its pages are attentive to immediate experience and the consciousness of an ordinary person beset by memory and desire over a single day. Too often it’s forgotten that while Isherwood was a novelist of the so-called thirties generation, he had (as the subtitle of Lions and Shadows goes) his education in the twenties. However, his works of that time, All the Conspirators (1926) and The Memorial (1932), are rarely given the recognition it deserves. A shame — these are strong books, the prose musical, providing the opening movement of a long career that would span the century. These are the books of Isherwood before he became Isherwood (or Issyvoo), before the Berlin of Cabaret, Sally Bowles and the Nazi ascension. They are what might be called his English novels; for sometimes you will find the past, and in England too.

In 1939, Cyril Connolly wrote an introduction to the first of these English novels, describing the book as ‘a study in weakness,’ with The Memorial as a spiritual sequel — the leading two books in a kind of trilogy of weakness. All the Conspirators is a novel of aporia, ‘a queer atrophy of the will’ in which Philip Lindsay, the protagonist, is trapped in the family home, ‘confused by irrelevant memories, associations suggested by the stair-carpet, the lithographs and the little rugs.’ The title of the book is taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In his fictionalised autobiography Lions and Shadows (1938), Isherwood guiltily remarks ‘the life of Julius Caesar couldn’t be related to the squabbles of a middle-class family in North Kensington.’ Though, of course, one could ask what the jaunts of Leopold Bloom really have to do with the voyages of Odysseus. The title is, in a way, the first trap, in a novel of feints and trickery.

During this period, Isherwood thought a novel should be like ‘a contraption.’ His point of comparison was the late plays of Ibsen where ‘something dreadful that happened twenty years before suddenly rears its head and the whole machinery starts to work.’ It is characteristic that the idea of the past as a trap to be sprung should appeal to Isherwood, and All the Conspirators has various trapdoors into unexpected streams of thoughts: of schooldays past, afternoon summer meetings, confrontations with bosses, of why Phillip and his friend Allen had even come to the Scilly Isles in the first place:

An ordnance map spread out under the lamplight on the tablecloth in Allen’s lodgings. Menavawr. Inisvowels. Nornor. Ganilly. Hanjague. Miles and miles out in the Atlantic. Absolutely no question of meeting anyone. They’ll never guess. A poster seen in the Warren Street tube station had released sensory and motor images of gulls, passing, repassing.

The novel is small and contained, like a coiled spring. Isherwood’s other schema for what novels should be like was ‘the detective story’ where ‘every single word ideally ought to be a kind of clue, leading to a discovery of some sort.’ And All the Conspirators, written in the new climate of opinion that rose up from the writings of Freud, considers people themselves as cyphers to be decoded: ‘Observable tendencies to Narcissism and Claustrophobia revealed by four team-groups, two Hockey, one Cricket and by the leaving open of both windows and the bedroom door.’

In some ways, the novel is a portrait of would-be artist, Philip Lindsay, as a young man, alongside his friend, the would-be doctor Allen Chalmers — as well as Philip’s sister, bride-to-be Joan and Victor Page, his maybe brother-in-law. They together are the younger generation — pitched against the older, chiefly represented by mother Dorothy Lindsay. And while not exclusively confined to Phillip’s family home, the novel almost feels like it is. In fact, the atmosphere of the book feels even more claustrophobic than that — nothing so expansive as the house in Bellingham Gardens, Kensington, but Philip’s sitting-room alone: ‘bluish and stale,’ or further still trapped inside the man’s very skin, beset with the aches and pains that he neurotically fixates on. The novel is dense with the malaise that often afflicts the young. There are headaches, bouts of queasiness, chills on the liver. Boredom is viscerally detailed, belonging — as experienced by Allen — ‘to the group of cancerous diseases’ and feels ‘like hunger or love, curdling the food in his stomach, making him feel helpless and physically sick.’ It isn’t a book that reaches out for grander struggles with religion or goes gallivanting on Wanderjahre across the continent. Rather, it is full of journeys not taken, plans scuppered, of moments not quite forced to crisis; a novel trained like a magnifying glass on a small situation deeply felt: a mother’s attempt at control, a son’s bid for freedom, a chronicle of passive aggression all conveyed through Isherwood’s characteristic laconic voice:

He asked her if she thought it would rain for long. She replied: ‘I don’t know.’ Her tone was neither reproachful nor hostile. She spoke as though someone in the next room were dying.

Isherwood attributes some of the modernist surface that glitters over the novel as signs of agitation and aggression beneath; later he describes how ‘you almost feel the clenched fists of the author as he approaches his material.’ It is fair to say the book isn’t without misfires; it judders awkwardly here and there, sometimes appropriately, but at other times the trap snags, fails to quite catch. Not unexpected in a first novel, even a strong one such as this.

However, these shortcomings were enough for Isherwood to think the book would prove a liability when the publishers-to-be of The Memorial asked to read his debut before making a decision. It didn’t dissuade them. I have an early copy of The Memorial; to my great personal pleasure, it has ‘Published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press’ on the title page.

The Memorial is the greater accomplishment. Far more controlled than its predecessor, the world Isherwood creates is airier, the themes larger, the emotional range broader. The writer has unclenched his fists, the surface is smoother. Rather than moments of taut distortion, scenes stretch out reflectively, the prose chugging along according to an elegant rhythm more Bloomsbury than Joycean. The subject is the post-war world and the novel merits a place among the great modernist works about the conflict and its aftermath: David Jones’ In Parenthesis, Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Mrs Dalloway. The major difference is generational: Isherwood was only fourteen when the war ended – he never knew much different.

Again, the model is the detective story. In Isherwood’s notes for the book, he writes that:

the facade of the characters’ lives in 1928 is first presented (corresponded to the given “situation” after the murder before the detective arrives. These people’s lives are, so to speak, the “murder”.) Then – moving back in time to 1919, and moving forward to, say, 1923 – we elucidate the significance of the 1928 section.

The ‘these people’ Isherwood describes are a single family and their friends and acquaintances. And who is to solve the murder of their lives?

Eric Vernon, the son of this family, can remember ‘just how the weather vane on the church tower above the trees had looked’ when his father, Richard Vernon, began to tell him about Sherlock Holmes. But Richard Vernon is killed in the war and the last time Sherlock Holmes is seen (in the story “His Last Bow”), he’s retired and warning of an east wind: ‘cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.’

Time is out of joint, but there isn’t anyone to set it right, no detective to solve the crime. So their lives are a murder, and in Isherwood’s sixties lecture he says: ‘the family is a memorial, a war memorial.’ The past is written on them: they re-enact it, repeat it, rehearse it. They are trapped within it. The novel, though it has a flashback to wartime, is essentially about the twenties and crosses almost the entire span of the decade, but does so out of order, swirling about itself. Valentine Cunningham writes how: ‘Suddenly towards the end of the ‘20s, the blocked-up dam of bad memories, nightmares, trauma had burst and memoirs, volumes, novels, autobiographies and other troops- (rather than generals-) centred books started to pour torrentially forth.’ And through this time-as-crime-scene structure, Isherwood’s novel re-enacts this rupture, time slipping back on itself, unable to simply progress. In Lions and Shadows, Isherwood wryly describes the time-scheme as ‘the fish holds its tail in its mouth, and time is circular, which sounds Einstein-ish and brilliantly modern.’ And circularity is linked to trauma. World War I historian, Jay Winter notes that: ‘Shell shock placed alongside one line of temporality, in which there is antebellum and postbellum, another sense of time, what some scholars call “traumatic time.” It is circular or fixed rather than linear.’

Edward Blake, the friend of the family, a shell-shocked soldier, paused in Berlin, the year 1928:

For it had suddenly struck him — how queer; ten years ago I wasn’t allowed to come down this road. Now it’s allowed again. And in ten or twenty years’ time perhaps it won’t be allowed. How bloody queer. In 1919 we were going to have bombed Berlin. Mathematically speaking, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be dropping a bomb on myself at this very moment.

The novel beautifully brings to the fore the paradox that everything changes, and everything stays the same. Their lives are a murder, the dead won’t quite stay dead.

Lily, the mother of the family, thinks she sees the ghost of Richard on the stairs; Eric has a horror of his father returning: actually ‘a shell-shock case, unidentified in a far-away hospital.’ The actual shell-shock case, Edward Blake drifts across the world, looking like a dead man, comic and tragic. He finds a Dutchman who has devised a new aeroplane engine, and funds this enthusiastically. He believes this scheme to be ‘a genuine Resurrection of the Dead’ for him, a situation where he finally can be useful. In true Forsterian fashion, the Dutchman dies a page later, ‘an elementary piece of carelessness on the part of the mechanics.’

Mary, the aunt of the family, at a memorial service for the fallen, thinks:

All this cult of dead people is only snobbery. I’m afraid I believe that. So much so, that the attitude 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.

The subtitle is: ‘portrait of a family.’ This idea of portraiture is central to the Isherwood canon, and the use of the word here anticipates his later work, and what The Memorial achieves so elegantly is to capture a series of situations and people, caught in a kind of suspended animation set at different times, through free indirect discourse and direct thought, to create an internal picture, a postwar picture of what time and wartime can do. In the novel:

Richard, the father, supposes: after the war everything would go on much the same.

Edward Blake, the friend, thinks: time beyond the war was unimaginable.

Mary, the aunt, thinks: time changes everything.

And of course, the first world war did change much, and provides one of the major fault lines that made Modernist art possible. Katherine Mansfield wrote of Virginia Woolf’s 1919 realist novel Night and Day that it wouldn’t do — it was ‘a lie in the soul. The war has never been: that is what the message is.’ And through the twenties, Woolf created a post-war art, luminous yet always darkened by death — Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927).

But even so, while watching G. W. Pabst’s 1931 film Kamaradschaft about coal miners, Isherwood told his friend Stephen Spender that it ‘makes Virginia Woolf look pretty silly.’ In 1939, when Cyril Connolly wrote about a trilogy of weakness, there was no third volume to be had. Time changes everything, and Isherwood’s attention had shifted elsewhere, his techniques had changed.

And through the thirties, Isherwood created an interwar art (with Mr Norris Changes Trains acting as a kind of bridge): a new form of fiction beginning what he called his method of portraiture, as deployed in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), and further into Prater Violet (1946) and Down There on a Visit (1962). In these works, plot falls out of focus, and character is brought into relief: sharp, from different angles, in depth.

But what might be the best candidate for this third volume of this hypothetical trilogy of weakness? For Isherwood never leaves something alone. The past is never really over for Isherwood. Like many writers, struggling free from old guardian Cortex, he keeps returning to it, circling back, always circling back — whether in his novels, or in his memoirs that revisit his novels. He never leaves those past masters alone — in Down There on a Visit, Forster, that modernist of ‘the middle lights’ is movingly praised: ‘he and his books and all that they stand for are all that are truly worth saving from Hitler.’ In the unfairly maligned The World in the Evening (1954), the novelist Elizabeth Rydal is a kind of composite figure of Woolf and Mansfield. But it isn’t a return in style and sensibility to the modernism of the twenties and his twenties — that will have to wait, if only for a decade.

That’s where we come back to the am and now of where we started, his 1964 novel A Single Man, his novel about the weakness of the grieving man, but also a perceived weakness, a weakness that isn’t a weakness — George’s (and Isherwood’s) ‘weakness’ for men. For the gay men of Isherwood’s generation and before, the capital P-Past is a kind of trap, a place of blackmail, subterfuge, secrets. A bedroom could be, in effect, a crime scene. The earlier generation of English writers — Somerset Maugham (who said to Woolf that Isherwood ‘holds the future of the English novel in his hands’), Hugh Walpole (who in 1933 marked out All the Conspirators as one of six novels unjustly neglected since the war), and most importantly to Isherwood, E. M. Forster, were never able, or never felt able, to say their loves aloud and in public. Maugham and Forster wrote quasi-autobiographical novels (Of Human Bondage, A Longest Journey) and gave their protagonists Phillip Carey and Rickie Elliot each a club foot, a substitute ‘weakness’ in place of homosexuality.

The time when these gay writers were born wasn’t kind, but time also changes everything. Isherwood’s writing, as the century rolled on, became more explicit, more open, more out. We can see this through the reviews of his fiction:

The Memorial, for one reviewer, was a book with a disproportionate number of homosexuals, (though the reviewer also reflected there were more of them around these days). Down There on a Visit had ‘the nauseating reek of homosexuality’ and was ‘an apologia for abnormality.’ One headline simply read: ‘World is Just One Big Sodom to Him.’ A Single Man itself. The headline in the LA Times was: ‘Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga.’ One review described the novel as a ‘horrible little book.’

The time was Isherwood’s — though it was his time before this, and it remained so afterwards too — in the am and now. In the same way that Woolf’s time was the twenties, but it remained so afterwards, speaking across the years to the Isherwood of sixties Santa Monica. While writing the book, Isherwood read Mrs Dalloway. He wrote in his diaries as he read:

Reading Mrs. Dalloway, which is one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have ever read. It is prose written with absolute pitch, a perfect ear. You could perform it with instruments. Could I write a book like that and keep within the nature of my own style? I’d love to try.

Everyone is a photograph album — spanning many times and stages and places. That Berlin should be there, quite rightly so. And Santa Monica too. But as Isherwood knew, the past is always there, really. It can be found just by turning back the page. And his English work is well worth turning back for.

J. S. Loveard is a writer. He is a PhD student at the University of Warwick. He lives in Leamington Spa, England.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 29th, 2017.