Published by Methuen & Co Ltd
This was my first experience of Christopher Isherwood. Or rather, of his writing. I was well aware of him before now. My close friends had read his work and always talked highly of him. I had seen the movies “Cabaret” (1972) and “A Single Man”(2009) – both of which were based on his novels and both of which I had thoroughly enjoyed. I knew that he was a great friend of the poet W.H. Auden and I knew that Gore Vidal had described him as “The best prose writer in English”. I even took in the occasion when the good Doctor, Matt Smith, played him in the one-off BBC television drama “Christopher and his kind” (2010). All this I knew; I just had never read one word of his work. So it was with some sense of anticipation, and a little trepidation if truth be told, that I started reading “Prater Violet”.
The book revolves around Isherwood’s relationship with the Austrian Jewish film director, Friedrich Bergmann, during their time together in the mid 1930’s. It begins with Isherwood, an aspiring screenwriter, going to meet Bergmann in London to discuss his latest project: a historical romance called “Prater Violet”. Isherwood is cajoled and flattered into knocking the script into shape in collaboration with the brilliant but temperamental Bergmann. However, it becomes clear that his role also involves helping the studio to manage the great director’s moods so they can be channelled creatively into finishing the movie. These ‘moods’ come about inconveniently for the studio as the director’s thoughts turn, understandably and increasingly often, to his endangered family and his endangered homeland as Europe teeters perilously towards the Second World War.
The novel, though perfectly plausible as a piece of non-fiction/autobiography given what we know about Isherwood’s life as a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, is actually a fictionalised first-person account which was written looking back at the 1933-34 period from the hindsight of 1945. This is not a criticism but it does explain Isherwood’s standpoint and reasons for writing the novel. In Jonathan Fryer’s biography of Isherwood, imaginatively titled “Isherwood: A Biography” (1977), he asserts that “Prater Violet” came out of Isherwood’s experience working as a screenwriter on the movie “Little Friend” (1934) for British Gaumont. “Little Friend” was directed by Berthold Viertel, whom we can assume may have been the inspiration for Friedrich Bergmann in this novel.
In terms of the quality of the prose, Isherwood is invariably deft of touch. The attention to detail in his descriptions of the chaos and jolly bonhomie in the production of this fatuous movie are extremely evocative. “It must have been exactly like that” you think to yourself. Isherwood, though perhaps an unreliable narrator, is great company to observe the entire goings on as he humorously makes comment throughout the 103 page entirety of the novel. Indeed, the novel is short and it is slight. Very little happens of consequence. Isherwood himself does very little as our central character, he merely observes. He does not act. There is no action.
This then is why he is an unreliable narrator. The apathetic Isherwood is a character, a fiction as much as Bergmann. All the while, the Isherwood character is describing frothy scenes of sound engineers joshing with over-officious producers, he feeds his writer’s fury (the fury and frustration born of the hindsight of 1945) to Bergmann through his dialogue. As the “crazy”, “temperamental” director rants and raves on set about his worries about Hitler’s influence spreading like a pestilence, his worries for the welfare of all Europe and the international community’s inaction, it sinks in that Isherwood the writer has seen it and felt it too. The storm clouds of Nazi Germany gather and rumble loudly throughout this novel. They are ever present and yet no one is listening. Or perhaps they are choosing not to hear.
Hence, 1930’s England’s soft underbelly is exposed viciously by Isherwood the writer. The idea that these portents will sort themselves out through a misplaced trust in our political leaders – using common sense (or appeasement) or whatever – is held up for ridicule. Likewise, the ‘splendid isolation’ attitude of looking after what is closer to home – these are “far away places with strange sounding names” after all – as the most sensible approach to navigating your way through shared global political issues is similarly punctured.
What is unsettling is just how virus-like these attitudes are. It is clear to see, both in terms of national and international politics (since the end of the Second World War and up to the present day) how short people’s memories can be and how limited & short-term our thinking can be in terms of how far we tend to extend our duty of care. It reminds me of the poem by the German pastor, Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This poem, like “Prater Violet”, was supposed to have been written in 1945-46. Like Isherwood, Niemoller had become disillusioned following his experience during the war and long before it (Niemoller was a one-time supporter of Hitler who later opposed him and was consequently arrested and imprisoned in Dachau for not being enthusiastic enough about the Nazi movement).
With such a well-documented time period as this there is the danger that fatigue sets in for the reader or viewer of any piece of art we come across that seeks to depict it: there is a ‘we’ve heard it all before’ attitude. Perhaps, this too affected me as I mistakenly dismissed “Prater Violet” as a bit of whimsy on first reading.
On the contrary, Isherwood’s prose fizzes and bubbles lightly like an alka-seltzer in water before sinking like a brick in the pit of your stomach. It sits with you and stays with you. I think more of it as each day passes. I can see parallels every time I switch on the TV news.
IN SHORT – A deceptively frothy tale with hidden depths. Easily devoured in one sitting.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
What do you think about the book yourself?
Watch Matt Smith in a trailer for “Christopher and his Kind” (2010) here
Watch Colin Firth in a trailer for “A Single Man” (2009) here:
Finally, if you like “Prater Violet” may I also recommend a very different, but equally good, alternative which similarly depicts the pre-Second World War era. This is a graphic novel entitled “Maus” which concerns the wartime experiences of a Polish Jew. All the characters in this must read novel are metaphorically, perhaps controversially, presented as different animal species. It won a “Pulitzer Prize” in 1992 and I think it is a terrific read but don’t just take my word for it. Go check it out and judge for yourself.