Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Young Man on the Staircase

Ah, I feel much better now: done with My Queer War, a hundred pages into Christopher and His Kind.

Maybe it's unfair to compare the two, since Isherwood was one of the great English prose writers of the twentieth century. I last read (or reread) Christopher and His Kind a quarter century ago, and I worried just a little that it wouldn't work for me now, but I'm getting enormous pleasure from it. Not just the writing, either: Isherwood's portraits of the people he knew and loved in Berlin from 1929 to 1939 are wonderful. This one, for example, of his acquaintance with Chris Wood, the partner (as we'd call him today) of Gerald Heard, "then a prominent figure in the British intellectual world" who "gave BBC radio talks explaining the latest findings of science in popular language" (101) :
Since Wystan [Auden] was primarily Gerald's friend, the two of them would withdraw to Gerald's room for abstruse scientific conversation, leaving Chris and Christopher alone together. Thus they quickly became intimate. It may even have been at their first meeting that Chris coyly asked Christopher if he had been at the Hirschfeld Institute on such and such a date. Christopher couldn't be sure but thought it was probable. Chris then told him that this was the day on which he had visited the Institute and had very briefly glimpsed, going up the staircase, the most attractive young man he had ever seen in his life. Chris implied that this young man might have been Christopher. He also implied that Christopher, as Chris now saw him, was sadly inferior to that glimpse. Therefore, the attractive man was either an untraceable stranger whom Chris could never hope to meet again; or he was Christopher, in which case he didn't exist ... Chris cherished frustrations of this sort. He would gloat over the impossibility of finding the delicious marmalade which he had had for breakfast when he was six. The young man on the staircase was to become a private joke between Chris and Christopher for many years [103].
You'll notice that Isherwood refers to his younger self in the third person, as "Christopher," though he often speaks in the first person as well. This is partly because of the forty-year gap between Christopher in Berlin and the writing of Christopher and His Kind, but also because Isherwood had written about himself and many of these people in his earlier fiction, especially the Berlin Stories that were adapted as I Am a Camera and Cabaret. "Christopher Isherwood" is a fictional character as well as the writer who created him, and part of Isherwood's aim in this book was to "be as frank and factual as I can make it, especially as far as I myself am concerned" (1), and he's often critical of his younger self. I still feel guilty when I read of young Christopher's war with his mother Kathleen, recognizing in it some of my adolescent rebellion against my own mother, which I regret now.

I wonder, though, how Isherwood's style will look to people much younger than I am. I've become aware of just how rapidly language changes: not just over centuries but between generations. I've noticed, when rereading some writers of even my parents' generation, let alone my grandparents' (Isherwood was born in 1904), that prose that felt 'modern' when I read it in high school, in the 1960s, has begun to look old-fashioned to me now. In Laura Miller's The Magician's Book she describes her surprise that she couldn't connect with the work of George MacDonald, the 19th century fantasy writer C. S. Lewis loved as Miller had formerly loved Lewis: "By all rights, the book that had had the same effect on Lewis ought to move me deeply, but it doesn't ... How to explain why certain stories exert a power that feels virtually biological over me, while leaving other readers cold?" This isn't purely generational, of course -- most of Lewis's peers couldn't see what he saw in MacDonald's writing either -- but I think it is a factor. The conventions not just of storytelling but of style and sentence-making, and the English language itself, have changed since the 1800s. And also since the 1920s and 1930s. It often takes patience to hear again the writing voices that moved us decades ago, and even more to encounter them for the first time as their day recedes further into the past.

Christopher and His Kind is about a period that was already past when it was published, the world of Europe between the World Wars. The double vision Isherwood employs -- his older self looking at his very well-documented younger self -- helps to bridge the gap. It also helps that Isherwood was, by temperament and conscious choice, so upbeat about being a "bugger." (That was Isherwood's term of choice in the 30s, a reminder of how acceptable labels cycle and recycle. Like many buggers of his generation, he hated "gay.") There's no apology, no self-pity here, and it makes Christopher and His Kind still refreshing to read, even compared to later writing by much younger writers.