Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood

WH Auden is my favorite poet on the days that distinction doesn’t belong to WB Yeats, Robinson Jeffers or Anne Porter. I first heard of Christopher Isherwood, to pay attention to him at any rate, in a biography of Auden. They were friends and off and on lovers throughout their lives. I knew Isherwood was a writer as well, but hadn’t read anything by him until I stumbled on this at a library book sale four years ago. This blew me away. Then I read his memoir written late in life, Christopher and His Kind, Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin and A Single Man. Goodbye to Berlin is the basis (by way of a stage play, turned stage musical) of the movie Cabaret, and is what Isherwood is most known for these days. I’ve liked or loved everything I’ve read by him, but this most of all, and it is, for the nonce, one of the books I read every year.

This is an utterly successful novella/short novel. It is both a farce, and an examination of how to live in dangerous times with all the anxiety that can bring. It’s surface tone is light, but it carries an undercurrent of sadness that lingers. It begins with several pages of dialog as a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood, presumably the same version from the Berlin stories, takes a phone call from English movie people who want him to write the screenplay for a movie based on a failed musical, the titular Prater Violet (the Prater being a park/amusement park in Vienna). He affects not wanting the job, but takes it immediately. He’s working with a director called Bergmann, a Jewish director who has fled Germany as this in the mid 1930s and Hitler is on the rise. A lot of the farce is based on the fact that they think they’re too good to work in film (Bergmann says they are like “two married men meeting in a whorehouse”). There are smooth talking executives, movie fixers and craftsmen working on the picture. The absurdity of one person taking full credit for a work in a collaborative is well illustrated. The Coen Brothers films Barton Fink and Hail Ceasar share some DNA with this book. There is a real puncturing of the pretense of artists and calling attention to the craft of movie making here. It’s all very funny stuff.

But that farces is skating on the surface of a world that is about to plunge into World War II. The book was published in 1945 so even its first readers had knowledge that the characters could not have. It lends an earned melancholy to the book. Bergmann’s family is still in Germany, and Isherwood’s homosexuality is there, but hidden. These various subtexts give weight to Isherwood’s musings on why someone would choose to keep living in such bleak times. Unlike Pale Fire, another book in which the narrator weighs the possibilities of suicide, there is a real sense that Isherwood would keep going.

It’s an extremely relevant book, especially to anyone who loves movies (or books, or any art) and is alive now. The rise of various forms of nationalism around the world is alarming. How does one justify consuming or making art when there are such horrible things going on. Prater Violet answers that question mostly by example by both being entertaining and funny and by not letting the reader use it as just escapism. And by some real self examination. I cannot recommend this highly enough. When I envisioned this blog as a compilation of a personal canon, this book was very much in the inaugural induction class.


Annual Reread  2020 2/8
Rereads, Library Books Etc. 5/35

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