Sunday, July 15, 2007

Christopher Isherwood – ‘Prater Violet’

Christopher Isherwood’s name seems to have cropped up a lot this year, here and there. I don’t remember hearing it before, but this is often the way with names: they embed themselves and you become more alert to them. He featured in BBC 4’s programme on W. H. Auden (from what I remember the two were lovers in New York), and John Boorman mentioned Prater Violet in Memoirs of a Suburban Boy as being the last word on director / writer / studio relations. And so here we are. With a slim volume from 1946 which recounts fairly straightforwardly the making of a fictional film, Prater Violet (based, according to Wikipedia, on the real film The Little Friend) by a real-life screenwriter (Isherwood) and a fictional director, Friedrich Bergmann (based on Berthold Viertel). I have no idea how closely the fiction matches the fact, but the book’s events certainly seems real enough.

There is a story arc of sorts, but the form here is more chronicle than fiction. Isherwood finds himself working on the film without having sought the job (he pretends briefly to his mother and brother that he’s playing hard to get, and to himself that ‘chapter eleven’ of whatever he was working on when it came up has a higher claim on his time); its director is scarcely more enamoured of it, and neither, particularly, are the money / studio men Chatsworth and Ashmeade. The only clue to the production’s existence is Chatsworth’s flattering view of himself: ‘“I bet I know what Isherwood’s thinking,” he told Bergmann. “He’s right, too, blast him. I quite admit to it. I’m a bloody intellectual snob.”’ (p. 24) Isherwood at this point is not thinking of Chatsworth at all – he sees him merely as a suit who might be good for a few months’ salary – but of Bergmann, who fascinates him. Chatsworth is a snob in the worst sense: he is concerned that people see him as an intellectual film maker, without being at all interested in the content of the films his studio makes. He wants the veneer of an intellectual, being unaware that the one thing an intellectual will always lack is a veneer.

This is largely unimportant though, and Prater Violet shows how a group almost entirely at cross-purposes with one another can be pretty effective at turning out a film. Chatsworth’s real talent is management: he can bring people together, infusing them with a sense of purpose and that all-important salary. He can also reel them in when they get out of hand. In return the creative types (Bergmann and Isherwood) will flatter his sense of cultural elitism without believing in it for a moment themselves. They will struggle – as they perceive it – against the philistine studio mechanism to write something which is good, hoping to smuggle Art into the cinema. Once the wheels are in motion, all being well, this happens:

‘Do you know what film is?’ Bergmann cupped his hands, lovingly, as if around an exquisite flower: ‘The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion.’ (p. 33)

In this particular case, there is a major wobble in the dynamism of the infernal machine, when Bergmann, frightened for his family back home in Vienna (there is some Nazi-related violence reported in the papers mid-shoot), loses interest in the film he is making, and it is then that Chatsworth comes into his own, pretending to be about to give Prater Violet to a different director (the efficient but Art-less Eddie Kennedy) in order to have Bergmann fight to remain in control. The loathsome journalist Patterson is a willing pawn in this. Bergmann comes through, and comes into his own during the re-shoots which follow. No-one but a Chatsworth can get a film project underway, and no-one but a Bergmann can finish it off.

The last three or four pages of the book contain a remarkable shift, from the constant now! now! now! of film production, to a longer view. Isherwood reflects on his relationship with the director:

We had written each other’s parts, Christopher’s Friedrich, Friedrich’s Christopher, and we had to go on playing them, as long as we were together. The dialogue was crude, the costumes and make-up were more absurd, more of a caricature, than anything in Prater Violet: mother’s boy, the comic foreigner with the funny accent. (p. 126)

He also muses on what he has kept hidden from Bergmann over the course of their brief and intense association: his love life. More than anything else it is this passage which makes the book feel more like a diary than a novel. The main subject of the book is Bergmann, and what have Isherwood’s weekends to do with him? They relate to nothing that has gone before. And yet it would have been a great shame not to have been able to read:

It seemed to me that I had always done what people recommended. You were born: it was like entering a restaurant. The waiter came forward with a lot of suggestions. You said: ‘What do you advise?’ And you ate it, and you supposed you liked it, because it was expensive, or out of season, or had been a favourite of King Edward the Seventh. The waiter had recommended teddy bears, football, cigarettes, motor-bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love: a very strange dish. (p. 123)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Did you see the great Jane Bown picture of Isherwood on the back page of Sunday's Observer review paper? A topper!


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