No 4 - 1975
'A Kind of Left-wing Direction'
An Interview with Christopher Isherwood
A NOVELIST’S appearance may often serve for us as an emblem of the kind of book he writes. Thus, for instance, Graham Greene himself would seem the perfect casting for one of the wry tormented sceptics who inhabit the Jansenistic darkness of his novels; thus George Orwell’s dour seamed face at once transports us to a dilapidated quarter of poverty and hopeless indignity; while the portly tweediness of Evelyn Waugh, one shade too blatant for complete plausibility, gives us ample warning that for him life is apt to be absurd. This applies equally to Christopher Isherwood, virtually the exact contemporary of these three novelists; with the sole difference that the image of him with which most of us are familiar tends also to evoke a specific period, the thirties. How, one wondered, visiting him early in 1970 to record the interview which follows, would he have changed from the dapper bright-eyed Novelist-hero of the Auden circle, the greatcoated ex-public-schoolboy leaving by train on a dangerous mission, the camera-eye, as William Plomer describes him, with a uniquely diamond-like twinkle?
Six years earlier Isherwood had completed a novel — A Single Man — which takes as a main theme the business of ageing and death. Its hero, George, is moving reluctantly into late middle-age, abdicating by stages from control over his body, and drawing ever nearer to the heart-attack that on the book’s last page will leave his corpse ‘a cousin to the garbage in the container on the back porch’. But it is not for nothing that George can still think of himself as a contender, a tough, triumphant survivor — words which could, with perhaps even more justice, be applied to his author. Face to face, Isherwood looks astonishingly youthful — one can still see why the young Stephen Spender, meeting him for the first time in Auden’s rooms at Oxford, should have likened him to a schoolboy playing charades. Moreover the bantam-like trimness and vitality which his friends have always pointed to, is now accompanied by the curious serenity of a completely untramelled spirit. The course of his life, as he himself has chronicled it — that long catalogue of impulsive choices, indiscretions and exiles, given a shape if not a termination by the long-delayed but evidently decisive leap of faith that made him a Vedantist — surely needs no further vindication.
Few writers can be easier to interview. Our conversation took place in the small Sloane Street flat where he was staying while in London. It was mid-morning; a lady cleaner was at work, and during the hour that followed we had to progress from room to room in advance of her vacuum cleaner, ending up finally in the kitchen. All this time Isherwood remained unflaggingly articulate, answering my questions always with the greatest of friendliness and candour.
The following transcript represents only a part of our recorded conversation. Isherwood began by talking of his friendship with Henry Green, and his deep admiration of the other novelist’s work — an admiration of which he gave proof by reciting, unfalteringly, a short lyrical passage from Living. We moved on to the topic of the book which he was then in the process of writing — Kathleen and Frank, a biography of his mother and father which also takes in a good deal of his own early life. Much of what he had to say here devolved upon technique; for it is clear that Isherwood is a very conscious craftsman, who brings to the writing of a biography all the technical expertise that one would normally only think of in connection with the novel. What in particular engaged his interest was the question of narrative point of view. Curiously he himself appears in the third person throughout, for the book’s narrating voice is virtually a fictitious persona, an ‘economics and history don’ who keeps the reader at a good distance from the sometimes very personal material with which Isherwood is dealing. It is, perhaps, a significant irony that many of the writer’s apparently fictional works have made use of a narrator to whom he has given his own name.
My own concern at the time was with the novel in the thirties, the subject of my doctoral dissertation; and as a result most of my questions were concerned with Isherwood’s early work. In one sense this was a pity. Isherwood has more than once been accused of living in the past, of trading on his reputation as a writer of spicy stories of Weimar Berlin; but in conversation with him one soon sees how impatient he is with that view of his development. It is his more recent works which particularly excite him; talking of his earlier productions he generally assumes a tone of ironic deprecation, the final dismissiveness of which is only tempered by his constant underlying sense of fun. It is, perhaps, the tone of a writer who now feels closer to the secrets of his craft and his own nature than he ever was between the wars. Attentive readers of Down There on a Visit, A Single Man and Kathleen and Frank may well, I think, be able to endorse his verdict.
At Cambridge, you’ve written, you and Edward Upward found politics ‘boring and vile’. What made you change your attitude?
Isherwood: Yes, what did? Well, it was really Edward’s attitude basically which changed, as it seems to me. But at the same time I was undergoing an experience which made his attitude make a great deal of sense to me. I had left England and was living in this situation in Berlin where I really saw a great deal of the other half. I thoroughly enjoyed myself; I didn’t feel deprived, but I actually had very little money. What money I did have, however, was guaranteed. I had a little allowance from an uncle, and then I made some money by teaching, and that’s how I lived. And this really meant living in the slums, and by ‘the slums’ I mean a specific slum with some people I liked and was fascinated by; so that, you know, it was great. I didn’t mind a bit; it was one of the happiest periods of my younger life. And so of course when Edward suddenly came on with Marxism very strong, it was all being classically illustrated to me every day. And also of course Berlin, as you know, was intensely political in a very complex manner, with various kinds of constellations of parties grouping and regrouping themselves.
You went along, then, with many of Edward Upward’s Marxist ideas at this time?
Isherwood: Yes: it was a very jerky kind of uneven orientation or jiving of two things. And of course it’s terribly, terribly misleading when talking about your past life to talk as though you were a rational being and made decisions for reasons and all this kind of thing. You have to remember that this whole business of the United Front against Fascism, which included all kinds of parties — many of them very ill-matched — made it very easy in that period to go in a kind of left-wing direction. Further more, being profoundly antiestablishment in my feelings made me feel a natural sympathy with at least the Labour party. I was certainly a kind of left-wing liberal, and have been all my life. On the other hand, the conformism which was demanded by Communism, although it was kind of thrilling at first, and had exactly the kind of appeal that the Catholic Church has for some people — the idea of casting oneself bound and gagged into their mercy — really didn’t appeal to me in my deepest temperament. I was particularly jarred by the fact that Soviet Russia was betraying Marx on the level of the personal life: that is to say they interfered with the personal life and reversed a great many of the more liberal legislative acts which they’d done at the beginning of the revolution; and what particularly concerned me was the persecution of homosexuals, who were not only persecuted on general puritanical grounds, but with the ghastly hypocritical lie that they were all really Fascists — which was really too much. I protested a great deal to Edward about this, and this was one of the things one kept discussing. He was very bothered about it himself.
There’s a considerable amount of political material in the plays you wrote with Auden. Did you and Auden agree politically when you came to write these plays together?
Isherwood: Yes, although I think we were both making kind of ‘party’ noises, ‘solidarity’ noises . . . I mean we were sounding very much more committed to the Popular Front when in truth we were both extremely individualistic people and not fundamentally good joiners at all. The way this expressed itself later was that Auden’s inherent Christian background, that was very strong through his mother, began to come out much more and be admitted to; and I began to show what I think were also deeply ingrained symptoms of pacifism. I think this was something that was connected with my father being a soldier and my entire background; in fact I think that pacifism in my case was just another anti-establishment symptom.
Would you say that any of your novels were written with a deliberate political intention? That is, did you ever write with the intention of attempting to change the structure of society in a radical way?
Isherwood: Well, I would never think of a novel as being the right way to change the structure of society. Auden has put this very well somewhere in his writings. I mean, if you want to do that you should write a pamphlet or take part in some kind of demonstration or teach people — all of which to some degree I have done. But the novel would be the last place. I mean, to my mind, supposing I did get involved in some political action, the progression would be that I would first of all talk about it, do something about it, write articles or whatever about it, and then later, in tranquillity, would perhaps write about myself taking part in the action, but as a psychological phenomenon. Now I might imply the greatest approval in my novel of what I did or what my friends did, but that wouldn’t be the same thing as making the novel itself a political tool.
Edward Upward stated in ‘A Marxist Interpretation of Literature’ that no novel written at that time — this was in the thirties — could be good unless it was written from a Marxist or near-Marxist point of view. How did you feel about that?
Isherwood: I suppose I didn’t really go along with it, but on the other hand my deep friendship for Edward and the enormous respect I had for the integrity of absolutely anything that he did, prevented me from criticising it.
Do you think it could be said, though, that certain of your writings in that period — The Nowaks, for example — can loosely be squared with his Marxist criteria? That is, without being too explicit about it, they do uncover the workings of society and the moral bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie?
Isherwood: Yes, I would always try to do that, and I would always try to root the characters in a kind of dialectical way, and I would always be concerned with the question of where their money came from. I was so stirred the other night seeing Widowers’ Houses — what a marvellous play that is! Where being a slum landlord is made on the stage really to seem as shocking as syphilis! And when it comes out that they really have got it! — it’s terrific, you know! It’s almost like Ghosts . . . But what I was going to say was that to this day I always want to know these things about my characters, and I always see my characters as social phenomena as well as everything else, and show how they’re structured by their society and background. My work’s political in that sense, certainly.
That would be in the sense Auden means when he says of Jane Austen that she exposed ‘the economic basis of society’.
Isherwood: Yes, that’s very true about her; and it’s a very good example to take because it’s surprising when he first says it, and when you look at it you see that that was their whole approach to love — ‘How much has he got?’
What was your attitude in the thirties to the Spanish Civil War? You don’t seem to have answered any of the surveys of writers’ opinions on the question that the little magazines carried out at the time.
Isherwood: I can’t even remember why I didn’t, because my attitude was extremely positive. And indeed on two occasions I was on the very brink of going there as an observer. I very nearly went with Graham Greene, who said, ‘You come out and I’ll show you that there’s a strong Catholic element which favours the Government. And we’ll fly to Bilbao.’ I know I felt rather squeamish, but I thought, well, we’ll get through it somehow. And the Spanish Government never provided the plane in the end, so we didn’t go. Then after that I was all signed up to go on a delegation to Madrid. I think personally they probably did more harm than good, but . . . It’s described in Stephen Spender’s World within World. Stephen would have been along, and Auden of course, and Epstein was coming, and Paul Robeson, and a number of other artists and writers. Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rose Macaulay I think were coming. Now they went. But the thing was delayed and delayed, and in the meanwhile we’d had this opportunity of going to China, Auden and myself. And we thought: well, we’ll have a war all of our very own. And go there, because nobody else was going there. And Spain by this time was absolutely bursting at the seams with people who’d gone out to express their solidarity. But there was no question in my mind about the whole thing. Absolutely none. In fact, though people have chosen to forget it now, most of us — including me — were terribly shocked by Orwell’s revelations in which he showed that the Communists had pretty well double-crossed the Anarchists. Of course, nowadays I should be firmly on the side of the Anarchists as against the Communists.
Did your experience of the Chinese War change your opinions in any way?
Isherwood: I think the Chinese War absolutely put the lid on the pacifist thing, yes. Or rather took the lid off. Because I realised there in the simplest way that war involves a most awful lot of people who never asked for it, didn’t want it, don’t want it, and have been simply dragged into it.
Were you much involved in the political life of Berlin? I mean, did you attend demonstrations and meetings and so on?
Isherwood: Oh well, yes, I would go along and liked to watch them, you know — I didn’t march with a banner. But there again my general sympathies were entirely with the Communists. Of course, there again, there was believed to be a United Front. The only thing was that in the face of Hitler’s aggression it fell apart immediately. It fell apart at the first tap. We all firmly believed — and a great many experts in German affairs at that time believed — that if Hitler ever really tried to take over he would be immediately checkmated by a general strike. But the general strike just didn’t happen, because it would have required not only the Communists but also the Social Democrats — in fact the whole left-wing group. And, needless to say, I would have been in favour of that. It would also have stopped the war.
One thing that has struck me about virtually all the writers of the thirties is that for all their political bias they seem hardly at all interested in the actual machinery of government — Parliament and elections and so on.
Isherwood: Well, it’s funny because now I’m quite the other way around. I feel that the only issues where one can be of any use are quite local issues. I’m much more concerned about the police force in Los Angeles, or getting rid of the present Mayor, whom I happen not to approve of, than great causes far away somewhere else. But it’s perfectly true, and I’ve heard it said by other people, that that was what was the matter with all of us. Here we were carrying on so about all these distant lands, and while it’s perfectly true that it all came home on to our own doorstep, yet there was so much in England itself that was wrong, and, if you were going to get political, where you could have concerned yourself.
It seemed odd that in left-wing satirical poems one would hardly ever come across a reference to, say, Stanley Baldwin.
Isherwood: Well, there’s possibly a certain amount. But there’s a funny thing, you see: you take Baldwin. I suppose that of all the people that I never met and just viewed abstractly, I hated Baldwin more than I have probably hated anybody in my entire life. What he stood for in my mind, I mean. Symbolically hated him — I never met him, of course. I took fearful sides over Mrs Simpson and the Abdication, and I regarded Baldwin and the Archbishop as figures straight from Hell! Although they were probably doing their absolutely obvious duty, according to their own beliefs.
In The Nowaks your narrator says that he can’t get on with a novel he is writing about a country house in which everyone is very unhappy. The narrator has just published a novel called All the Conspirators; is the novel which he is writing in the Nowak household to be called The Memorial?
Isherwood: Oh yes, it was, pretty much. And indeed, so far as I recall, there was a specimen line given from the novel about, ‘Edward — can’t you see,’ or something. And there is a character called Edward in The Memorial. I very much dislike this rather masochistic, self-criticising, Russian spy-trial tone of saying that one’s guilty of having written something that wasn’t . . . on the beam. But I was very busy with that at that time, you see. I started a terrible kind of puritanical snobbery of saying that all the exquisiteness of literature should go, one should only deal with the real ‘nitty-gritty’ of experience. Why the devil the experiences of people in slums should be any more real than any other kind of experience I can’t now see. It s simply not defensible on any sort of philosophical basis. If you say that conditions ought to be improved, that’s quite another matter. But there’s nothing sacred about the experiences. If fact they are exceedingly dull, and consist of boredom, frustration, hunger, disease and ill-temper, and consequently bad marital relations. But I’m afraid I did have that attitude, and I took a very sort of high-minded attitude towards all of this. And yet as a matter of fact, slum or no slum, right on the kitchen table, I was finishing off this novel. And there it was.
I must avoid causing certain misunderstandings here. I keep harping on this slum thing because you asked me in the first place if I’d been in contact with these conditions. Actually, although I lived very inexpensively, I did move to a slightly — well, a great deal — better place than that. For most of the time I lived with this dear woman, Fraulein Thurau, who is the basis of such a lot of my Berlin experiences. But the slum part is described in the story The Nowaks.
Were you ever interested in writing what was called at the time a ‘proletarian novel’?
Isherwood: Well, you see, I thought I was doing my little proletarian bit in The Nowaks. I thought to myself: I’m damn well going to show them that the working-classes, who are always spoken of as something apart, are really very like other people, and can be just as neurotic, and behave just like other people, except for the fact that of course you must never forget their economic context. In fact, amusingly enough, I was taken quite seriously, and this is the only work of mine that has ever been translated into Russian. The Russians immediately fastened on this story, which came out separately in John Lehmann’s New Writing, and made a little booklet of it which I have a copy of to this day. And I suppose somewhere far away in the vaults there’s even a few roubles waiting for me. There was a considerable introduction written to it by the Russians, but I’ve never managed to get anyone to translate this for me. I guess they thought that it was sadly bourgeois, but they thought it was worth printing, anyway.
Walter Allen has written that you had to go to Berlin in order to find a working-class you could write about. Do you know what he meant by that?
Isherwood: Well, it’s one of those remarks that I’m always battling against. People are always asking me, ‘Why did you go and live in America?’ And really in the end I feel inclined to say it was the will of God or something, because it’s so impossible to answer those questions. I mean, you can analyse the thing blue and pink, but in actual fact the whole concept of oneself as a Planner who plans his own life is completely ridiculous to me. I know that there is a Planner inside me, certainly; I’m well aware that the unconscious will or whatever you call it is planning things, and sometimes I try very hard to stop it, because I don’t like the plans.
Walter Allen has also written that your first two novels can be seen as equivalents in fiction of Auden’s early verse. It does seem to me that you can find traces in the two novels of the psychosomatic theories of Groddeck and Homer Lane that Auden was interested in at the time. For example, there’s the description of Eric in The Memorial as being tall and bony. That rather reminds me of Auden’s explanation of why Stephen Spender was so tall — because he was trying to get to heaven early.
Isherwood: I was well aware, of course, of these theories. I was hearing them from Auden day in day out, and probably they did influence me, you know — at least to the point of making private jokes about them. All the Conspirators has a great many obviously private jokes — ‘gang’ jokes — in it. The point is that these theories were very much part of my scene, and for that reason may be reflected in my writing of that time.
You wrote in the foreword to All the Conspirators that the novel carried echoes of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and James Joyce, but you didn’t consider the influence of Joyce to be very well digested. Did you turn your back on modernist experimentation after this novel, apart from the experiment with time in The Memorial?
Isherwood: Yes, I would certainly feel that. I suppose that I do to this day — for myself, not for other people — subscribe to the idea that style is like the perfect suit of clothes: you hardly know whether you ye got it on or not. Therefore anything very noticeable I would think would be interfering with what I’m trying to put across to the reader. But on the other hand I would say that certain psychological states that I’m trying to convey can only be put across by a very charged kind of writing. The most obvious thing is: when you get drunk. And there are in fact passages of very stylised writing in all my books. Like in A Single Man, where they go swimming. The description becomes quite hysterical — deliberately so, because that’s the only way you can convey it.
This is all to do with a thing I’m always getting at in one way or another: the nature of experience. What is life like? One of the letters which really pleased me, really deeply complimented me, that I’ve ever received, was from somebody who said: ‘When I read you I feel that you’re telling me what it’s like to be alive.’ Well I mean whether it’s true or not is another thing altogether, but the point is that it’s what I would like to do. To give a feeling of the texture of life.
The Berlin stories and Mr. Norris Changes Trains were originally parts of an unfinished novel which you originally intended to call The Lost. Can you tell me what the structure of The Lost was to be?
Isherwood: Well, it was terribly loose, of course, and really quite unnecessary, but I just, out of a kind of tidiness or whatever, thought how amusing to get everything inter-involved. And then I realised that in the effort of getting it inter-involved I would throw away the thing which was really precious to me, which was dealing with the experience itself; and that all this plottery which occurs in Mr. Norris is really what makes it an inferior book to Goodbye to Berlin, where the stuff is just handed you in a slab, and you don’t have to fuss with some wretched plotting. But roughly speaking, the construction was that you started with the Englishman called Peter Wilkinson; and Peter Wilkinson is alone in Berlin, and very unhappy, and terribly neurotic and worried about being away from his analyst for the first time and everything. He’s got a date to meet some friends of the family, who are in fact the Landauers — that’s to say, both Natalia and Bernhard Landauer, who also live out on these lakes — the Wannsee; they have a house down by the water. When he goes down there: on the beach he meets this boy Otto, and you are led to suppose that they go into the woods somewhere and ‘make it’. Anyway, you go from there to this houseparty by the lake. And here are all these people together. And suddenly a boat appears. And here is this rather frigid, dreary boy, Peter Wilkinson, absolutely beside himself, laughing like a jackass and rowing in great spirits — transformed by this kind of instant therapy. He arrives at the party and is very amusing, and everyone reacts to him rather, and he gets to first base with all these people. I can’t remember exactly what was supposed to happen at the party, but I do remember that Otto has told him to meet him in town later that night at a bar, and when he goes to the bar, who do you suppose is sitting up there but Mr Norris. And so I brought all that m. It’s a very awkward sort of stitchwork. And I think that Sally Bowles was at the party at the Landauers. Anyway, that was the kind of loose, messy, bad construction. And what have you got out of it all? Nothing whatever. There isn’t the slightest value in any of these people meeting one another: what do you prove by it? Which I realised, of course. But it was a bitter moment when I disentangled all this stuff. I felt I was tearing the thing to bits and I was really scared; I thought I’d really upset the applecart and wouldn’t ever get the apples together again.
The confrontations of the characters with one another weren’t dramatic enough, you felt?
Isherwood: They were too dramatic, in a way. I mean, they were dramatic for no reason. You know, when you’re young, if you’re a writer or artist of any kind, some of the most blinding moments of insight are about things that are so ridiculous that they seem as obvious as tea-cake. I said to myself, ‘Why, if I do that, there’ll be nothing but just bits and pieces.’ And then a sort of voice said. ‘And what’s wrong with bits and pieces?’ And this was like, you know, a sort of vision. I thought: ‘God! I’ll write a book of bits and pieces!’ Then I felt utterly released, because I no longer had to worry over this kind of beastly Balzacian structure. I mean, it’s terribly like the way Balzac strings things together just because — because they’ve got to be together, no matter what. You get it very much in all those things about Vautrin — the ridiculous plot-making that really obscures any kind of portrait of the characters.
When did you first meet E. M. Forster?
Isherwood: Well, I think it was approximately . . . I might have been coming back to England at some time around 1932, or it might have been late ‘33. I met him through William Plomer, and the reason why he wanted to meet me at all — I mean, in so far as there had to be a reason other than that I was just a friend of William — was that he liked — quite liked — The Memorial. So of course I was overwhelmed. I said, ‘Well, it’s no use, I’ve nothing more in the way of a career. If Forster likes something that I’ve written there isn’t any other kind of honour I want.’
Forster was the literary hero for you then, you would say?
Isherwood: Oh, absolutely. In a way he very much still is. Only there are others that have moved in alongside. I think Virginia Woolf has been tremendously suggestive. And D. H. Lawrence, of course, enormously.
What sort of effect did D. H. Lawrence have on you? I know he was important to Auden at one point.
Isherwood: Well, Auden, you see, went very much for the Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious — those books.
You weren’t so interested in that side of Lawrence’s work?
Isherwood: No, from Lawrence I got another insight which sounds equally banal. It suddenly occurred to me that you didn’t have to describe things as they are — which of course is in itself philosophically indefensible: they aren’t anything — but as you saw them. This came like another stroke of lightning — the idea that you could disapprove of a landscape in the sense that you disapprove of a person. Or vice versa, be prejudiced in favour of it. And Lawrence, I think, was one of the great masters who taught that, because he was so intensely subjective. I mean his wonder at the mountains above Taos, you know, and then his rage at Lake Chapala. And the characteristic methods of his attack were so marvellous. I mean, he was in a bad temper about Lake Chapala, so he just said, ‘The lake looks like urine.’ He meant, ‘It looks like urine to me,’ you see. That was what was so releasing to me: the thought that you could just say such ridiculous things if you wanted to.
Wouldn’t you say, though, that the device of the Christopher Isherwood narrator distances the reader in a way that you would never get in Lawrence’s work?
Isherwood: Well, you needn’t tell me. I’m absolutely through with Christopher Isherwood the narrator — I think that was a deep mistake. It all happened because I thought, ‘Why call him something else? There he is: I just want him to keep quiet and watch these people.’ But of course you can’t just keep quiet and watch people because it’s like the canvas duck, you know, that you put out to lure the other ducks. But then the other ducks come up to this thing, and sort of peck at it, and say, ‘Haven’t you got a quack in you?’ So then Christopher Isherwood says, ‘Shut up — I don’t, you know . . .’ and, ‘I work here,’ and this kind of thing. And this got more and more evident. I think that Christopher Isherwood works in only one story, and that’s the novelette called Prater Violet, because Bergmann talks so much that Christopher Isherwood doesn’t get a word in edgeways; and the idea that Christopher Isherwood would have a private life which Bergmann doesn’t know about is rather amusing. But then I realised that in the end it was unworkable, and I think that in Down There on a Visit, although I like certain things about that book, but I just try to make Christopher Isherwood participate more, and it just doesn’t work because he isn’t really a character, you see. He isn’t me, and he isn’t anybody else either.
You don’t feel, then, that the oddly ambivalent, detached character of the Christopher Isherwood narrator contributes something of value to the Berlin books?
Isherwood: Stephen Spender in World within World remarks that as a matter of fact the Christopher Isherwood figure is very misleading. Because, far from standing aside like a camera, I was involved up to my neck with all the people who are described in Goodbye to Berlin. Which is true, I think. And I’m not, as you probably have realised, a sort of violet who sits in a pot in the corner, you know. So I think the Christopher Isherwood character is profoundly misleading. It is literally a scanning device and not a character.
You don’t think that the feeling one has about the Christopher Isherwood narrator, that he is concealing or at any rate omitting something, has its own sort of relevance to the theme of the Berlin books? That is, although the effect might initially have been accidental, it does seem to me that the books gain their own particular kind of nervous tension from the ambivalence of the Christopher Isherwood character.
Isherwood: Well, it’s very nice of you to say so, if nervous tension is a good thing to have in a book, but . . . I don’t think it’s fatal or anything, you know. I just think there might have been some other way of doing it. As a matter of fact, technically speaking — but of course you could only use that for very special material — I think that the device used in A Single Man is the best narrative method that I’ve hit on. But you can only use that when you’re concentrating on one figure. Because what you are, as narrator, is a familiar, or a nonhuman person. And I don’t think you could do it with a group: it wouldn’t work very well. Unless you were dealing in Gestalt psychology and entered into the group as a group.
You’ve translated some of Brecht’s songs from the Dreigroschenoper in an English translation of the Drei Groschen Roman. Did you and Auden see the Dreigroschenoper in Berlin when you were there?
Isherwood: No, we never did. As a matter of fact I think I’m right in saying it was performed the year before I came there. It probably would have been available. But you have to remember that when I got to Berlin I hardly spoke any German, and certainly not the kind of difficult witty German of Brecht. I only started to pick it up while I was there.
Did you see any of his works in Berlin?
Isherwood: Not as far as I can remember. The one that I liked in some ways better than the early ones was Der Stadt Mahagonny. But I don’t remember ever having seen any of these. A lot of them of course were written after my Berlin period — he went on writing very actively and produced some of his best things later.
You would have read Brecht, though, at about that time?
Isherwood: Oh yes, when the time came around I started to read them.
Did you meet Brecht at any time?
Isherwood: Yes, I met him quite a number of times when he was in Los Angeles during the war.
But not in the thirties, in Berlin?
Isherwood: No, I’d never met him before that.
Would you agree that Brecht was the only major writer of that time who completely succeeded in integrating full commitment to Marxism into his art?
Isherwood: I suppose that’s true — I always shy away from statements like that. But it sounds kind of true: I can’t think of anybody else, let’s put it, who could oppose that position. I think it must never be forgotten that Brecht was a very very strong individualist, at the same time. He undoubtedly thought that he could handle the Communists. I actually heard him asked this question at a party in Hollywood. They said, ‘Mr Brecht, you write these plays. Would you really submit them absolutely to a committee made up of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker?’ And he said, ‘Listen: if I can’t convince those people that my way of writing the thing is right, then I deserve to have it changed.’ Well now, these words in due course came back, as words will, because they did in fact censor or change his Lukullus, didn’t they? But I felt that he was a man of great individualism. And so was his father, who was a merchant in Hamburg or Bremen, you know. They shipped all Brecht’s books through, and his father was a man of good standing with the Nazis, but he nevertheless openly corresponded with his son. And they said, ‘But Herr Brecht, you must destroy these books — they’re subversive.’ And they were rather frightened of him. He said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ And a few days later they came back and Brecht said, ‘The bindings were so good I couldn’t bear to, so I sent them all on to Copenhagen, to my son. Brecht told me these stories himself. He was amazing in that way. And his brother, who won a Nobel Prize of some kind — he was a physicist. And he was asked, when he was going to Stockholm, if he was going directly there, and he said, ‘No, of course not. I shall stop over and see my brother.’ They really rammed it down the Nazis’ throats.
Do you feel that the plays you wrote with Auden were influenced by Brecht?
Isherwood: Not awfully much, because really we hadn’t seen that amount of Brecht. I do remember consciously only one thing: putting in a detail about the diner who orders chorus girls to eat, to be cooked. This was slightly reminiscent — I was thinking of the eating competition in Der Stadt Mahagonny. But I think the idea that Brecht influenced us is wildly overplayed, because we simply didn’t know that much about Brecht at that time. For example, if you go right back to a much earlier period, when Auden wrote The Dance of Death, he had a speech to the audience about, ‘We show you death as a dancer,’ which sounds Brechtian on the surface, but I don’t think he could possibly have read this stuff then. I don’t think it was physically possible. So that, you know, maybe we influenced Brecht — who knows? If such blasphemy can be permitted.
You’ve always been interested in films . . .
Isherwood: Yes, very.
Has the medium had much effect on your style, do you think?
Isherwood: Well, I think it had an over-all effect on my style. I think that an absolute sort of change took place at the time I was writing Mr. Norris, because I’d done a film just before that, the first time I’d worked on a film, and it certainly meant that I visualised much more strongly from then on.
Leslie Fiedler has written that few novelists seem to have been able to put the best of themselves into their work for Hollywood. How do you feel about your own writing for the screen? Would you feel that it belonged in a different category from your other writing?
Isherwood: Well, yes, to an extent, because it was kind of inhibited by the proposals set — I mean the kind of material. What I do find of enormous interest — and I think I’m not even bad at it — is constructing. I love writing for the movies because I love the whole problem involved, the sort of chess game of: ‘How can we tell this story in a visual way?’ But I’ve never really had an occasion to do a film exactly as I would like. It may very well be that in the not too distant future — well, it had better not be too distant — I’ll be doing something like a film of A Single Man, where I have absolute control over the presentation. Tony Richardson, incidentally, who knows what he’s talking about, remarked about A Single Man that it was so achieved, visually, that he wouldn’t want to make a film out of it because, he said, it would be just repeating what I’d already done. Which was very complimentary, coming from a professional. This is an example of what you were asking. I do think, yes, I’ve been very much influenced by the film. A Single Man is extremely visualised in many aspects.
Edward Upward, you’ve written, was violently opposed to the public-school system as a schoolboy, but your attitude seems from Lions and Shadows to have been rather more ambiguous. Did you come to disapprove of the system later in the thirties?
Isherwood: I think I was opposed, all right; it was just that Edward was more drastic, you know, about it. Yes, certainly I was.
Cyril Connolly, in Enemies of Promise, suggests that public school was perhaps the strongest conditioning influence on writers of his generation; and by his account the influence seems to have been a bad one. How would you feel about that?
Isherwood: Well, you see, it’s such an awkward thing to say because looking back I regret absolutely nothing. Because I feel that unless you’re exposed to something of this kind, what have you got to react from? And that’s my life — I mean to react from these forces has been very wholesome. Perhaps I’m basically a kind of timid boy, you know; if there hadn’t been a kind of push of that sort I wouldn’t have, you know, plucked up a little courage to do this or do that. It’s nice if you can survive it, so to speak. But that’s not to say it’s a good system. It’s so difficult. I mean, that’s the worst thing about the life of the — well, any kind of a life. I was going to say ‘the life of the artist’, but why should you limit it to that? Supposing you say, the slums are awful. But if you make your way out of the slums, then in a way the slums have acted for you personally as a kind of gymnasium in which you’ve gained strength which otherwise you wouldn’t have. That is not to say one good word for the slums, and it’s perfectly true that they degrade the mass of people who live in them. So what are you going to say? Yes, of course I’m opposed to the system in a way. But on the other hand it is frightfully hard to find a really adequate method of education. I’ve seen so much of the other thing in the States: of the blandness and ‘nicey-niceness’ of the other side of the coin, the permissiveness and so on — which is not wrong because it’s wrong to be permissive, but because it gives you no leverage. And so finally you’re just a stray, wondering what on earth you might do that might shock somebody.
I suppose the Marxist point of view would be that all forms and levels of bourgeois society were corrupt and corrupting.
Isherwood: Oh, doubtless, yes.
Did you, in the thirties, ever believe you could remove these problems by changing the structure of society?
Isherwood: I don’t really know any more what I thought. I might have thought I thought it. But I think the real dreadful truth is that I hadn’t thought very deeply about any of it. I was too busy just kind of protesting and taking an attitude.
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