A review of Down There on a Visit by Christopher Isherwood, written by Dachine Rainer.
CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD'S NOVELS HAVE ALWAYS received a fair share of attention; nevertheless, his work has been seriously misappreciated. Because of his seeming frivolity — an Oxonian bravura he shares with the name most closely associated with his own — that of W. H. Auden, his one time collaborator — it has been relatively simple for even Mr. Isherwood's admirers to ignore the profound merit of his work. By his creation of living characters — himself a minor character and the uniting link in each of his several works — and by his casual assumption of the variety and uniqueness of human beings, he succeeds in asserting the prior rights of the individual over against a dulling and damning society.
His joie de vivre bubbles to the surface and although it sinks from view when the individual flounders under the oppression of his own temperament and his social condition, it re-emerges, too, like a buoy in a rough swell. It is this individual, his artistic and spiritual integrity that most terrifies the state — the political state and, I sometimes think, the literary state as well. (There was no more specifically political reason than this, for example, that made the Communists liquidate their greatest modern writer, Isaac Babel.)
This respect for the individual and his rights — not to be happy. Necessarily — (only few are chosen) — but to be alive, is the mark of any distinguished writer. Isherwood is, among British writers of his generation (he remains British although he has long been in self-imposed exile in several countries, primarily Germany and the U.S.) the most distinguished just as E. E. Cummings, more than a decade his senior is the conspicuous example of an American intransigent.
Isherwoodian characters and the unfolding of their stories suggest that however fascinating, gay, tormented, revolting we make our lives, if we do not succumb and exist passively, if we I]live[/I] it, that is all that may be reasonably expected of us. In not accepting the criteria of an ordained way, one is open to error. With few measuring rods, save one's individual convictions, life must be lived pragmatically and by intuition. This may be considered heroic — some might say foolish — for life is not overly long and the possibility of error is infinite, but at least it is lived. This improvisational way of life exists not in contrast with a more intelligently arranged life, but with an unlived one. Consequently, Isherwood is to the common run of writers what any bohemian is to any IBM automaton.
His characters are not mechanized; they assert life over death. They find no merit in altering the face of nature (by nature I mean to include all that any complexity of arrangement our passions will) nor in examining, pondering, and ultimately intellectualizing the meaning out of life. Isherwood, as each novel's privileged character, so to speak, does take the liberty of a commentary on the others (and himself). He does this in an oblique way and with consummate artistry, so that his fiction — actually the best in personal memoir that the decades of this century have produced — is remote from dogma. It is a significant entertainment, moving and delightful.
If a man is sound to begin with, he will, like wine, improve with age. Down There on a Visit, his most recent1 is the best of Isherwood's novels. The Down There of the title, despite the critics and the raving of the blurb, has no metaphysical significance; it is not the nether world, nor the private hell of the individual. Partly, the reference is temporal: Isherwood returns to his youthful adventures in Germany; later, on a Greek island and lastly, in Hollywood. In order to re-investigate his past he must capture the Down There within himself which time — a private time, but not unlike the geological time of earth — has buried, layer upon layer. This is Proustian, not in style and execution but in intent, a recherche du temps perdu. This is the primary intention; a corollary is that there exists, even in the present, these layers, a Down There in each individual, which is buried by the inconsequential. As with past time, Isherwood permits the significant in present life to emerge from its obscurely hidden places. There is no indication of hell; hell is an ominous and dreary place. This book is too this-worldly and too funny.
But how does Isherwood set about his task as social critic? He doesn't rave like the angry men of the generation following his. He is too talented an artist to believe in the efficacy of direct propaganda. Look how he speaks of Waldemar, the companion of his Berlin days and after, of the depraved, yet curiously idyllic life on the Greek island to which they repair:
"… he didn't care to work for more than a few weeks at a time. Mostly, he tended bar, or helped out at bakeries or butcher's shops, or set up pins in a bowling-alley. He seemed to have acquired, from his early days in Mr. Lancaster's office, a contempt for desk-work. It was a bore, he said, and spiessig — a word which he used to mean bourgeois, stuffy, timid, respectable, as opposed to proletarian, forthright, physical, sexy, adventurous. I rather liked Waldemar for taking this attitude, absurd as it was."
But does Isherwood really think it is absurd? Then why does he select his characters from those outside, and sometimes far outside, middle-class society? Why is he so unlike those writers who manage to acquire a reputation for reflective disassociation from our times, but whose work occurs in the laboratory or the classroom?
Who does the desk work in literature? Is it not those angry young men, like Kingsley Amis? — that Academy of Angry Young Men who seem "timid, stuffy, respectable" indeed? But is it not the middle-brows in critical authority who select and establish the rebellious of any literary period? And how are they to know? Do not critics have most rapport with those writers espousing their own position?
Why do so many of our naughty and daring novels take place in a college? Because that's where the critics live. Their humour is college humour, their opposition to society ardent, ill-thought-out and of short duration (only until they are accepted) and inevitably amateurish. Isherwood is no amateur in living, politics or art.
Consider Waldemar's definition of desk work. Our society could be reduced to some semblance of attractiveness and order in one day. Just think what improvement a twenty-four hour moratorium on literacy would make; who would write the orders that are so unreasoningly obeyed? Waldemar, as a simple fellow, is in a position not unlike that of Shakespeare's fools; his person incorporates an impressive objection to the status quo.
I do not single out Waldemar. As I've said, Isherwood's characters generally exist somewhat out of ordinary society, at a tangent to it. Waldemar is particularly important, however. It is through his life during the Munich crisis that Isherwood is best able to portray the political senselessness of events. The tragic note is struck when Waldemar turns relatively square, his wild life reduced to piddling mediocrity. He adjusts, marries conventionally, has an ordinary job, tries to con Isherwood into subsidizing the family's move to the U.S. But all this occurs in the latter part of the novel, decades after Waldemar's first appearance and deep involvement with the author. He has turned from a major to a minor character; he is lost to himself, to his youth and former effervescence, lost to Isherwood and so, to us. Waldemar's appearance is a coda, like that of Fortinbras, urging that life go on, even though in the face of tragic waste there is little motive for it to go on.
This fourth section, less successful that the first three, is interesting for a variety of reasons. Isherwood who is, and with significant modesty, a minor character, is sometimes more in than out of the world he despises. One of his difficulties is that he understands the "wrong" people correctly and that his sympathetic nature draws him into involvement with these as with the others. This section which takes him to Hollywood — the setting for the meretricious in everything and of the phoney novel especially — shows him wavering among a variety of influences. (In the United States Hollywood and Madison Avenue rival the college and suburbia as "angry" settings). His most pressing problem is economic success. Its concomitant is a fruitless, joyless and uncommitted life. Paul, a near nihilist, and in serious difficulties himself, appears to save Isherwood. The blind leading the blind and, as is often the case, it works. Their salvation lies in sensuality, discipline and humour. I know no better life, no way of having more fun and of being satisfied in the acts of living than in a relationship — usually in its early stages — where there is the same rhythm and unity between the physical and the intellectual.
Isherwood rediscovers himself, as much as anyone can, and in the process is converted to, but becomes detached from Yogi philosophy. Detachment is Isherwood's great saving and it is his major flaw. There is a certain shallowness — partly artistry — a facile talent — partly high spirits — even when he is most disassociated, most anguished, he bubbles up to the surface. But it is something more; fear, perhaps?
He is terribly moving to anyone of sensibility. Although he shows enough of the false and futile to warrant nihilism, his belief in individual dignity — conviction rather than compassion — rescues him from this philosophy. Like most sensitive people, his pity has been larded with toughness. He is further sustained by perversity and contradiction.
Isherwood is a pacifist. In two sentences in this novel he provides what seems to me the best reason for being one. He happens to be a rather freewheeling Quaker, too, and in his previous novel, The World in the Evening, gives an hilarious, damning portrait of a Quaker lady. Nothing is sacred to Isherwood, save man. He is scrupulously honest (particularly about himself) perceptive, generous. I think we may call him a romantic ironist. He is a comedian, in the sense that Dante's Inferno can be described as a comedy. Isherwood sees comic flaws in tragic wastes.
Although his good humoured contempt for the square is evident — sometimes simply by omission — as though these people don't even exist in several of the worlds he inhabits — he is free of sanctimony and malice. (These are my particular criterions for spiritual greatness). And I wish I could say this about more orthodox bohemians and anarchists I have known. Isherwood is the sort of man I have always imagined in a free society, perhaps because he has always had at least one foot out of this one — and is likely to have at least one toe out of any more humane one.
Needless to say, I recommend all his writings; this novel, his best, in particular because apart from all considerations which point to his art as being an edification, Down There on a Visit happily fulfils the prime function of fiction: it is an Entertainment. And a grand one, too!
- 1Down There on a Visit, by Christopher Isherwood (Methuen 21s.).