Thursday, May 27, 2010

Isherwood's Documentary Styles

Over time, without real reading knowledge of the referent, I have come across numerous allusions to Christopher Isherwood’s “documentary style,” which I think is mostly used in reference to The Berlin Stories[1] and its phrase “I am a camera.”  This style, accordingly, records the surrounding scene, theoretically “not thinking,” as the narrator of Goodbye Berlin explains.  (The narrator is called Christopher Isherwood; in the first of the two books, the Last of Mr. Norris, the narrator’s name is William Bradshaw, Isherwood’s two middle names.)  This claim is not quite true: most of the charm of the book is in its humor, which gently exposes the flaws and quirks of its various figures.  This includes the narrator (under both names) himself, who perhaps because limited to description often ends up coming across as helplessly naïve.  In Mr. Norris this is explicit: the plot revolves around Bradshaw being taken advantage of by Arthur Norris while at the same time priding himself on seeing through Norris’s mannerisms.  The humor in that case is played to a great secondary effect for readers keyed into queer subtexts: the book does finally reveal exactly how[2] (1935/39) Bradshaw has been used in relation to Baron Pregnitz (I’ll stay quiet on that point for anyone who would want to read the book), but Isherwood also describes the situation so as to carry the suggestion that Norris has been prostituting Bradshaw to the Baron.  Bradshaw, not knowing this, keeps failing to respond to the Baron’s overtures.  This is funny, but also irritating for anyone who knows Isherwood himself was gay and the novel autobiographical is thus likely to read his eponymous narrator as excessively coy.

However, having just read that book after A Single Man, I think the phrase “documentary style” could be used differently in regard to Isherwood—and in a way that I frankly found much more wonderful to read, balancing humor and sympathy in a way that The Berlin Stories does not.  The excerpt I posted the other day is a good example of the specific documentary voice I mean.  It comes out in the minute descriptions of daily routine—the book, following the day of a single man, has the title of a promotional documentary or a pre-film newsreel (essentially advertisements) that would do exactly the same thing, cataloguing the normal, technologically advanced life offered by the suburbs.  This is a documentary voice that is already itself a little coy and jocular, even when describing events that are essentially sad. 

What is so pleasurable is the way that Isherwood camps up this narrative voice in a way that undercuts suburbia and also gives us a more authentic sympathy for George, its protagonist.  First of all, it takes the documentary narrator’s explicit concern in describing characters’ feelings and problems and uses it to approach a character who himself finds suburbia and his fellow suburbanites obnoxious.  Whereas the traditional promotional documentary would describe and show the character’s problem only to reveal its solution in modern living, George’s problems don’t get solved.  His critiques are not overcome; they remain critiques of suburbia and the oppressive abundance of the nuclear family.  And yet he is also shown to be more of a suburbanite than he would like to be, including in his suppressed rage at those around him, which the novel reveals to be not only a product of anger about Jim’s death (although it is in part due to and sometimes about that), but also and even more a nasty side-effect of suburban modernity, including its signature commute:

But does George really hate all these people?  Aren’t they themselves merely an excuse for hating?  What is George’s hate, then?  A stimulant, nothing more; though very bad for him, no doubt.  Rage, resentment, spleen—of such is the vitality of middle age.  If we say that he is quite crazy at this particular moment, then so, probably, are at least half a dozen others in these many cars around him, all slowing now as the traffic thickens, going downhill, under the bridge, up again past the Union Depot.

The sympathy I think is obvious towards the end of the quote from the previous post: the narrator’s description of a now-demolished morning routine manages to be both detached and intimate in its description of the everyday eroticism that George shared with Jim.  The homoeroticism in A Single Man seduces the reader, and when George feels himself attracted to other men in the story yet unable to be direct about it, the effect is much sadder than The Berlin Stories, in which Isherwood sometimes comes across as scornful towards all those missed connections.

All in all, I enjoyed A Single Man much more than I thought I would: while on the surface level an easy read it does very interesting things with form.  The Berlin Stories I liked less, though maybe that comes from having read it immediately afterwards.  It is a book that likely will most engage people interested in the early-1930s milieu he’s describing.  There is some heartbreaking material towards the end with the rise of fascism and its attendant anti-Semitism: Isherwood is at his most interesting when he is less invested in plot and more committed to figuring out the people he describes.

Just as an aside: I have not seen the recent Tom Ford film version of A Single Man (I missed my window at the local art theater), so I have no idea if it preserves any of what I’ve said above.  From the trailer I’ve seen I would guess no.

[1] Warning!  There is a misprint in this book—page 96 in the first of the two novellas has been replaced by an extra copy of p. 96 of the second.   According to Amazon reviewers the book is supposed to come with an errata sheet, so make sure you get yours…
[2] Armistead Maupin accounts for this frustration in his introduction to the text by saying that if Isherwood had been more forthright about his narrator’s sexuality, it would have distracted contemporary audiences too much from the portrayals of other outsiders (largely sexual, sometimes gay) in the text.  I find this more or less convincing, but frankly it doesn’t make the narrator less irritating—in fact more and more so as the book continues.  Another thing, while I’m on complaints: Sally Bowles is completely obnoxious.  I want to see Cabaret even less now than I did before reading the book, although I suspect (hope) that in writing the musical they at least got rid of her casual anti-Semitism.

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