CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD: A Critical Biography by Brian Finney


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An intelligent and mostly clear-eyed study (unlike Jonathan Fryer's fawning Isherwood, 1978) that nonetheless fails to cohere either as a biography or as a critical overview of the Isherwood canon; it's beginning to seem as if any attempt at treating Christopher Isherwood as a major literary figure is somewhat doomed. Certainly Finney is right that Isherwood's autobiographical novels and novelized memoirs invite""biographically informed criticism,"" and he has done a conscientiously cross-indexed job of tracking the shifting Isherwood persona through the books, of identifying the various Others who appear under fictional names, and of discerning the influence of Isherwood's current religion (Vedanta) and politics (gay militancy) on his recent writing. Isherwood's technical gifts, too, are analyzed sprucely: ""the effects of spontaneity"" achieved by ""the application of pure craftsmanship."" But craftsmanship does not a major figure make; and, though he starts out hoping that ""biographical investigation might well uncover the reason for the astonishing variations"" and unevenness of Isherwood's work, Finney never really uncovers such a reason, nor any continuing dramatic motif. So here it all is again--the Twenties' rebellion against conventionality (and Mother), the flight to bawdy Berlin, the quasi-radical interlude with Auden/Spender politics (Finney's weakest area, largely dependent on quotes from Samuel Hynes), the emigration to America, the conversion to Vedanta. And Finney tells it crisply, with a sure selective instinct and enough insight to know when not to take the selfmythifying Christopher at his own word. In postwar America, however, Finney becomes less incisive, probably because his interest here is to bolster the standing of the later writing, particularly Down There on a Visit (""deserves. . . the same critical attention that has been devoted to Goodbye to Berlin"") and A Single Man. These slightly pedantic paeans are less than compelling, and the book ends on a terribly weak note, murmuring that ""no final estimation"" is possible yet. But the probing, book-by-book analyses that Finney offers in place of a developing thesis are valuable (as is the biographical sketching-in), even if this book may work best as a signal to scholars that Isherwood's thin oeuvre is far from fertile territory.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press