August 26, 2015
Whether wandering Berlin backstreets or reposing in the Malibu sun, CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD (1904–86) feels out and reveals the underside of dignity, modesty, the human mask; his achievement is to make the world feel emptier for his characters’ absence. Like many of the finest English novelists, he’s so subtle as to seem, sometimes, merely entertaining: such a faceted trifle as the Hollywood fable Prater Violet (1945) shines with elegantly clipped sentences, direct characterization, an absence of descriptive clutter. In other books, patiently laid themes take shape, culminations approach, and random encounters cohere into sad fates and fleeting connections. The discrete but interrelated novels Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) — later conjoined as The Berlin Stories — are both poised at that moment after Hitler showed his knife, but before he held it to Europe’s collective throat: as sinister and sardonic, piquant and perverse as the history they record, they are also as dry and haunted as lost time itself.
Later novels like The World in the Evening (1954) and Down There on a Visit (1962) show the older Isherwood as the gentle philosopher, searching for peace and resolution via comradeship, nature, and the body. Outstanding in this group is A Single Man (1964), a day in the life of an English expatriate teaching literature at a Los Angeles college: an uncloseted (and pioneering) gay romance; a foreigner’s slice of midcentury American life; a character study fusing narration and interior monologue in an organic voice; and one of the most emotionally devastating novels you’ll ever read.
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) Generations.