Monday, November 17, 2008

Christopher Isherwood – ‘All the Conspirators’

Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt something like this?

And then, look at it in another way. This is a whole-time job. A whole-life job. Well, put aside everything I’ve said so far. Imagine it absolutely perfect. It’s still a job for somebody who’s got nothing else they want to do. I have. I want to paint and write. Of course, I see now that Mother would never allow me to do that and nothing else. But if only I had some work which gave me time for other things as well, I’d be quite contented. I do think I ought to be allowed that. (p. 171)

I don’t want to paint, particularly, but I wouldn’t mind singing a bit more than I do, and writing things to sing. But somehow it just doesn’t come together when I’m working full time – evenings and weekends aren’t enough. Elsewhere in All the Conspirators, Philip’s mother suggests that they should be quite sufficient for his purposes, as though his writing and painting are hobbies: pastimes to fill an idle hour, rather than work in their own right. Because he doesn’t get all creative the moment he arrives home he she thinks he can’t possibly be serious about it. But there are two things which could be happening here: he could be lazy, or it could be that the things he wants to do require more alertness, concentration and time than is left over at the end of the working week. Philip is certainly convinced that he has the talent, but he also caves in rather easily, leaving off his writing just so he can show Mother that this is what employment does to him. Maybe if he could blog, that would be an acceptable compromise – but, it being the 1920s, he can’t.

Cyril Connolly’s introduction says that the book is ‘a study in weakness’, and reveals that ‘Behind the ending “a decrescendo of anti-climaxes” is the ghost of that other ending, with Victor murdered and Allen hanged or married’. It’s Bernard Shaw’s point again: ‘Crime, like disease, is not interesting’. Or the gradual diminution of melodrama through Chekhov’s plays, the gun shot off stage in the final scene remaining until The Cherry Orchard, which manages to do without it. With the crime, All the Conspirators would have been a weaker book – as it is, it is courageously spineless. The reader’s sympathy is with Philip and his sister Joan, but neither really merits more than pity. Her misfortune is to be engaged to Victor, who is decent enough, but a sportsman with all of the sensitivity of Mr Brisk from ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’. An early put-down comes when Victor, on finding that Philip writes as well as paints, compliments him: ‘You seem to be a regular all-round man.’ Philip is not impressed: ‘Imagine feeling flattered at his ridiculous sporting terms. One might think, to hear him talk, that one was useful in the slips.’ (p. 33). It is Victor who comes up with the idea of sending Philip off to a Kenyan coffee plantation as a way of providing him with a better work / life balance (or employment / work balance), a move which infuriates Joan. Victor can’t see the problem: ‘Philip said he wanted fresh air, time to write, an outdoor job, and so forth.’ (p. 194). The situation is funny, but it is not played for laughs. Much of the book is like this: the tragedy is light, little more than discontent, quiet desperation. It can be amusing, at a slight distance. It only becomes serious when Philip runs away near the end, becoming ill from the soaking he receives. And the, er, dirty sheets at the squalid lodgings he ends up in (it really isn’t high tragedy: one night in a poor person’s bed – gosh!)

What is really disturbing through all of this is that the Wrong People are in charge: it is Victor, his father, and Mrs Lindsay (Philip and Joan’s mother) who cause all of the events in the book. The likeable characters – Philip, Joan, Allen, Currants – are totally ineffectual, and ultimately Philip’s art descends to the level of kitsch that is the limit of his mother’s comprehension. Maybe All the Conspirators is a greater tragedy than it seems.

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