Isherwood on Writing (ed. James J. Berg, U. of Minnesota Pr., 2007) is a series of lectures by Christopher Isherwood at California universities in the 1950s and ‘60s. Isherwood is mostly remembered now as the author of The Berlin Stories, which would inspire John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera (a play and then a film), and then Cabaret (a musical and then the chilling film with Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, and Michael York). But Isherwood also wrote hard-to-number (more than 30) other books: novels, stories, translations, a travel diary, biography, memoirs, and more. This in itself is some sort of object lesson for writers, though I’m not sure what it means.
(Editor James Berg has some ideas on how writers make themselves classifiable and therefore popular [or not] with critics, professors, and bookstore clerks—the propagators of reputation. Berg in his long introduction intends to correct the canonical classification of Isherwood. “[M]y aim here is to examine his reputation and to…lay out a new of Isherwood, an American Isherwood on equal footing with the English or European Isherwood,” he writes.)
The book is divided into three sections: “A Writer and His World,” “The Autobiography of My Books,” and “Lecture Notes,” along with the critical introduction and editorial notes throughout. The main interest for me is listening to Isherwood deliver what amounts to a long craft talk. “[His] observations are those of a practitioner rather than a theorist,” Berg says.
In the first section, a talk titled “Why Write at All” outlines his understanding of how stories come to us. Sometimes “writers are supposed to hear yarns from old sea captains, or people they meet in bars, and they write them down. […] The only trouble is that stories seldom spring full-armed like this out of experience, and it’s only when they’re absolutely right, in this sense, that they can be transposed into art without any trouble.” Other times, “I get interested in a situation or in a person,” he says.
And then the question arises, how can this person, or this situation, be best presented? […] Well, in a way, the whole of the piece of fiction which grows out of meeting this person or encountering this situation is really a way of putting the person or the situation through its paces. If it’s a person, he or she must of course have a supporting cast and they must go through adventures, but the object of all these adventures, the object of the plot and the action, is simply to show how this person reacts and to get them to react in the maximum way so that you see every facet of this person. This is more or less how the circumstance of the story and how the setting and everything else grow up, out of the first initial excitement.
Similarly, there are “two aspects of a work of fiction,” he says: “[T]o make the whole area that you’ve chosen glow with life,” and “to engage to say, however indirectly, what does it signify?”
In another lecture, titled “What is the Nerve of Interest in the Novel?,” Isherwood speaks of the “transcendental vitality” that all great books have in common. For him this means a total immersion in “the circumstances of everyday life”—“mud and blood, fighting and suffering”—as well as being “the eternal, who looks down upon everything and enjoys it.” He offers examples from Forster, Dickens, Proust, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, who look down on their characters like God and say, “They are all My children and, in the last resort, I care nothing for their righteousness or unrighteousness. I only love them.” For Isherwood, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is “one of the severest tests of this theory,” because, “in spite of its appalling subject matter [it] leaves one with a strange kind of exultation….”
There are also lectures on the writer in relation to the theater, film, and religion. These are good and have amusing digressions, such as the idea of lecturing to students as a form of live theater: “I am really here and you can’t be absolutely sure what I will do, in consequence. […] You simply don’t know if I won’t fall down dead in front of you. If I do, that will be a new event, something not planned—and well worth having been here to see.”
In his “Last Lecture” he offers various advice to young writers, including,
It is also very important not to tell the young that fame or celebrity is nothing. Of course, it is something! As a matter of fact, it is a most valuable and chastening experience, and for every one person whom I have known who has been, as they say, spoiled by celebrity, I have known at least ten who have been enormously improved by it. It’s very sobering to have even a little praise, and it turns the eyes inward, and the true quality of one’s work is apt to be seen in a much humbler perspective.
In the second section of the book Isherwood evaluates and explains his own work in what he calls “the autobiography of my novels.” Readers don’t have to have read his work to get something out of the discussion, so that even when he says, “In my opinion this novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is very much overcontrived,” he’s working from a more general definition, meaning a plot-driven work in the manner of, say, Graham Greene, rather than a portrait of individuals in a group. On The Berlin Stories (one of those portrait-driven books), he says, “These figures were also to be ‘the lost’ in another sense, that’s to say people whom established society rejects in horror: a sort of bachelor girl, a boy of the underworld, an old crook…they were to play a butterfly dance against the approaching thunderstorm of violence which was the coming of the Nazi Party into power.”
Later, in an analyis of his The World in the Evening, he says, “With this method I’m attempting here…it really is quite irrelevant whether I’m right or wrong about the book. The point is, I’m making certain generalizations about writing, and even if these generalizations are not true about my book, they’re certainly true about a lot of other books so that whether I’m being unduly severe or not is really not the point. Otherwise this whole thing would become a most distasteful display of masochistic coquetry, but I don’t mean it like that at all.”
The third section, Isherwood’s lecture notes, is of more limited value as it repeats much of what’s been said already, but as mere prompts. Still, the relation between brief notes and explicated prose is interesting, and the prompts might serve as organizational models for those who have to lecture to large groups.
I’ve always enjoyed craft talks as much as I have authors’ primary works—Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature and Henry James’ prefaces and letters qualify—and I enjoyed reading Isherwood’s lectures enough that I’m led back to the quantity of his writing I’ve never read, reason enough for their publication.