By Ian Mackean
Christopher Isherwood (1904-86) was among the most celebrated British writers of the 1930s, the others being his close friend and collaborator W H Auden (1907-73), Stephen Spender (1909-95), Louis MacNeice (1907-63), and Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-72). Isherwood is probably now remembered mainly as the author of the stories set in Berlin which, after being dramatized for the stage as I am a Camera, became the basis for the 1972 film Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli.
Christopher Isherwood's first novel, All the Conspirators, was published in 1928. Influenced by Modernist writers of the Bloomsbury Group, such as Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and E M Forster (1879-1970), the novel is characterised by a conscious use of Modernist techniques, following the inner thoughts and perceptions of the characters and jumping between viewpoints with no omniscient narrator to function as an intermediary between the reader and characters.
Isherwood's style of writing is highly complex and concentrated, making a lot of demands on the reader, but at the same time providing lively entertainment. The difficulty arises from the absence of a central point of view, or author's voice, and from the author's technique of not telling us 'what happened next', but leaving us to find out later. For the most part we are placed in a position rather like that of a cinema audience; we are not told what is happening but shown, scene by scene. At times it seems as if vital scenes have been cut, but with a little effort we can accept the book on its own terms, and everything makes sense.
During the first few pages we realise that the author is not going to make it easy for us to find out what the story is about. As we observe the characters and listen to their conversations we come across lines such as, 'No chance of meeting anyone. They'll never guess', which leave us guessing as to what is going on. Not until the fourth chapter, when Philip arrives home, are we given enough information to understand the situation and become involved in the plot.
The same technique is used in the opening scene to inform us of the location of the characters. By indirect reference we pick up first that they are indoors, then that they are in a dining room, and finally that it is the dining room of a hotel.
This effect is largely due to the author's use of a fundamentally dramatic technique. Throughout the novel, with the exception of chapter seventeen, which is unusual in being entirely in the omniscient narrator mode, we gain important information only as it is perceived by one of the characters. The viewpoint is divided between four characters; Philip, Allen, Victor and Joan, and the author. Sometimes the author indicates a change of standpoint, from his voice to the mind of a character by a simple 'he thought' but more often it is up to us to detect the change. For example:
This paragraph begins as if it were an authorial narrator, and ends in the mind of a character. The references to nausea and the ironic tone are associated with Allen, so the whole passage must be understood as taking place in Allen's mind. The reader must be continually on the lookout to detect the intended source of any patch in the fabric of the narrative.
The author seems very conscious of his Modernist position, and is trying to establish a new approach to the representation of life. For the most part this technique is very effective, and presents us with information equating to the form in which it actually exists - in the character's mind. For example chapter eight occurs entirely in the mind of Victor Page. We learn a lot about his character, his sexual and social fears, and his relationship with the Lindsays by looking directly into his consciousness as thoughts and memories come to him. The passage works well because we are frequently reminded of the situation in 'real time' (Victor attempting to write a letter) and because only two categories of experience are involved - the immediate situation, and memory.
The technique comes close to failure when reference points to a base level of reality are not clearly made, and a multiplicity of types of information become jumbled. For example at the beginnings of the sixth and nineteenth chapters, located in Allen's mind, his real situation, including a conversation, is jumbled with snatches of memory, and remembered conversation. These passages are just about decipherable, but the effort and repeated re-reading required disrupt our engagement with the narrative, and hinder enjoyment of the book.
It is by this means, of presenting the inner drama of characters’ minds, that the author achieves the psychological reality of his main characters. The psychology of the characters and their relationships is so realistically portrayed as to approach the complexity and depth of relationships in real life. Philip and Victor particularly are thoroughly convincing as ‘real’ on every level, from their speech and actions to their innermost feelings.
The deeper regions of Philip’s mind, concerning his reluctance to adhere to the norms of his society are conveyed using two memory flashbacks [Chapter 2, p. 24, Chapter 15, p. 132], from which we deduce that fears he experienced in early life are still operating and determining his behaviour in adult life. His emotional struggles in day-to-day life are also seen from the inside. He borrows emotional strength from Allen, and we see how ideas derived from Allen appear in Philip’s mind when he is in difficult situations. [Chapter 2, p. 23-4, Chapter 9, p. 78]
Often the author's voice and the perceptions of a character become fused. For example:
This tell us something about the Philip and something about the author. It indicates Philip's sensitivity to the environment outside his home, and his distaste for 'common' people. But the author has obviously enjoyed writing the passage. With its emphasis on unpleasant sensual detail (there are many such passages in the book) he is undercutting any possible 'heroic' or 'romantic' elements in our approach to his writing, and going out of his way to emphasise his 'realism'.
A similar observation can be made about the scene in which Victor presents a ring to Joan [Chapter 11, p. 100-1]. This scene functions on a number of levels. The clumsiness and anxiety portrayed are in keeping with Victor's personality, and the episode is an amusing and touching part of the psychological realism of the book. But in his rather excessive emphasis on clumsiness, 'They fumbled together clumsily. The ring dropped. He nearly trod on it. It was on', it seems the author is enjoying the deliberate destruction of a conventional fictional 'romantic moment'.
As part of his Modernist approach the author experiments with language itself as well as with narrative methods. He has abandoned the conventional rules of grammar. Many of his sentences are not, strictly speaking, sentences; they cannot be divided into subject and predicate, and have no verb. At times he even uses a single word as a sentence. Certain categories of experience, separate from the main body of the narrative, are treated in this way.
The author has left out the usual link words, such as 'he thought' or 'there was' in order to represent the way thoughts build up in the character's mind.
In chapter three, during a passage of Victor's inner thoughts, we have this sentence:
The sentence makes no sense at all by itself. But eight lines earlier we have read, 'Heavens; he felt awkward'. We are supposed to have held onto the idea of feeling awkward, and slotted it in with 'feel he didn't'. Even this would not make the sentence complete, grammatically, and we have not actually been told that it represents Victor's thought.
The author is experimenting with a new relationship between words and the information they convey. The sentences are like blobs of paint in an impressionist painting. Individually they are meaningless, but from a distance they convey a huge amount that is not directly stated. It is a grammatical shorthand, which aids verisimilitude by taking the reader one step closer to the characters' experience, and by which the author achieves a massive concentration in his use of language.
The author's intention is to show us, in considerable depth, the relationship between a particular group of people during a family crisis. Philip's desire to devote his life to art is contrary to the expectations of his social group, and especially of his mother. There is no doubt that the author is on Philip's side in the battle. His mother is portrayed as hypocritical, possessive, and domineering. It is a sensitive portrayal though; she is thoroughly human and we can feel a little sympathy for her as a victim of her own limitations. In this respect the author's view transcends Philip's, but we are never taken inside Mrs. Lindsay's mind. She is a kind of touchstone, influencing the behaviour of the other characters, and the whole of the plot, by her presence.
The absence of Mrs. Lindsay's viewpoint might be regarded as an evasion. It is unreasonable to presume that she is merely shallow and predictable while those around her have deep complex personalities. But it would have been a completely different kind of novel if the author had treated her in depth. She is the stable hub around which the plot and characters revolve, and giving her depth would result in the collapse of the structure of the novel.
As the novel reaches its end the author does not allow any thinning of the depth of his psychological realism. Philip at last gets time to write and paint, but is more than ever dependent on his mother. It must be said that Philip's illness is extremely convenient, both for himself and the author, as a means of frustrating his attempt at a complete break from home. The author seems to have introduced it as a means by which he could avoid a full examination of Philip's emotional attachment to his mother, and the problems he would face if he did break away from her.
In spite of the essentially serious and 'deep' content of this book it is lively to read, and the author avoids letting himself become bogged down in Philip's problems. The overall tone is light and lively and there is plenty of humour, both in the characters and in the author's treatment of them. Allen's viewpoint, for the most part ironic and detached, is an essential foil to Philip's rather priggish seriousness; and Victor, in so far as he represents a 'type' is a foil to the author's social satire.
In conclusion I should like to quote the following passage as illustrative of the concentration of language, strength of visual imagery, and sheer ingenuity of thought demonstrated by the author in his best moments.
Isherwood, Christopher. All the Conspirators. Penguin. 1976
© Ian Mackean March 2008