Judging from his writing, Christopher Isherwood must have been an ideal guest at a dinner party: intelligent, witty, interested in and insightful about others without seeming judgmental. In some of his best books (Goodbye to Berlin, Down There on a Visit) his narrator is named “Christopher Isherwood,” but you’d never accuse him of the self-absorption found in any number of best-selling memoirs or the multivolume autobiographical novels currently clogging bookstore shelves. When he finally wrote an actual memoir (Christopher and His Kind), he wrote it in the third person, as if he needed to make an other of himself to justify the self-examination. It seems likely Isherwood always made the person sitting next to him feel like the most interesting guest at the table, which is, after all, one definition of charm.
Sandwiched between some of Isherwood’s better-known books and often overlooked is a slim 1945 novel called Prater Violet, a mini-masterpiece that’s well worth hunting down, whether or not you’re already a fan. The book contains much of Isherwood’s understated elegance, his insight into behavior, and all of his powerful charm. As an added bonus, it’s a literary novel about that decidedly unliterary global obsession: moviemaking.
It’s 1933 and “Christopher Isherwood” is hired by a British studio to work with an Austrian director named Friedrich Bergmann—a fictionalized Berthold Viertel, a semi-successful director with whom Isherwood worked in the 1930s. For Bergmann—Jewish and Austrian—the political situation in Europe is a lot more urgent than for most of the British characters in the novel.
“‘Cousin Edith’s dentist,’ said my mother, as she passed me the teacup, ‘seems to be quite convinced that Hitler’s going to invade Austria soon.’”
“Isherwood” criticizes her sources, but admits to being “in a very good humor” as he does so. After all, he’s just been offered a job in “pictures”! The movie “Isherwood” and Bergmann are working on is called “Prater Violet,” a trifle replete with disguises, mistaken identities, and an implausibly happy ending. The triviality of the material is an ironic counterpoint to the dire political situation looming in Bergmann’s home country.
Prater Violet contains much of Isherwood’s understated elegance, his insight into behavior, and all of his powerful charm.
As Bergmann and “Isherwood” collaborate on the screenplay, Bergmann coaxes dialogue out of “Isherwood” by acting out full scenes, inhabiting multiple characters, limning their psychologies, and laughing and weeping as they would. In the same mode, he acts out the proceedings of the Reichstag Fire Trial taking place in Berlin. “Isherwood,” like his mother and brother, sits back enjoying the performance, detached from its content. It’s a striking example of Isherwood’s willingness to portray the naiveté of his fictionalized self as equal to that of everyone else.
Isherwood’s flawless powers of description make the process of shooting the movie feel immediate, even when some of the techniques employed are primitive by today’s standards: “The problem of camera noise is perpetual. To guard against it, the camera is muffled in a quilt, which makes it look like a pet poodle wearing its winter jacket.” But there’s nothing dated about the mix of flimsy illusion and artistic magic that defines the atmosphere of the set. On the one hand, “This is literally a half-world, a limbo of mirror-images, a town which has lost its third-dimension”; on the other, “Bergmann’s concentration is marvelous in its singleness of purpose. It is the act of creation.”
My love of Isherwood stems primarily from his ability to bring characters to life on the page, contradictions and all, with a few simple strokes. When I’m stuck in my own work, I often pull a volume of Isherwood off the shelf and open at random to a passage that describes a person with what I can convince myself is attainable brilliance. (Versus, let’s say, the showy, utterly unobtainable genius of Nabokov.) Here’s one such passage from Prater Violet: “Lawrence was the head cutter on our picture: a short, muscular, angry young man of about my own age, whose face wore a frown of permanent disgust. We had made friends, chiefly because he had read a story of mine in a magazine, and growled crossly that he liked it.”
I especially love “growled crossly.” It burns the irascibility of the character into your mind while illustrating “Isherwood’s” eagerness to accept flattery, even when delivered with a cranky rumble.
As characters go, Bergmann is the triumph of the novel, an outsized presence physically and intellectually. His long diatribes on love, politics, and industry gossip anchor every scene, and the presence of this Austrian Jewish man in the midst of a largely detached British public is both a reproach to political indifference and a harbinger of things to come. Thanks to Isherwood’s observational prowess, Bergmann remains plausibly human in his complexity: “The face was the face of an emperor, but the eyes were the dark mocking eyes of his slave—the slave who ironically obeyed, watched, humored and judged the master who could never understand him.”
So verbose is Bergmann, so heavy his directorial hand, it’s sometimes easy to forget “Isherwood” is an actual player in the production of the film and action of the novel. Isherwood practiced self-effacement over the course of his career. His most famous line, after all, is: “I am a camera … quite passive, recording, not thinking.” And yet, the reader is always aware of him manipulating the camera, outside the frame, but ever present.
In Prater Violet, the author steps into the frame in the splendid final pages. Bergmann and “Isherwood” are walking the streets after a wrap party for the film. “It was the hour of night when the street lamps seem to shine with an unnatural, remote brilliance, like planets on which there is no life.” Bergmann is, for once, silent, and for the first time, we glimpse “Isherwood’s” life. (Even the most “charming” dinner guest has to give something of himself lest he appear voyeuristic.) His homosexuality is unspecified, but clearly indicated. His musings on his love life, death, and the oppressive power of fear serve, in the matter of a few pages, to connect the thematic dots of the novel. The yearning that has trembled under the surface of the book’s comedy emerges powerfully, and what had been an entertaining novel suddenly becomes an unforgettable one.
Mr. Isherwood, the dinner invitation’s in the mail.