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Books & Arts

In Hollywood with Christopher Isherwood

11 December 2012

Richard Johnstone reviews the newly reissued Prater Violet

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Director Berthold Viertel (right), on whom Christopher Isherwood based the character of Friedrich Bergmann in Prater Violet, shown here with Celia Lovsky and Peter Lorre. peterlorrebook.com

Director Berthold Viertel (right), on whom Christopher Isherwood based the character of Friedrich Bergmann in Prater Violet, shown here with Celia Lovsky and Peter Lorre. peterlorrebook.com

Prater Violet
By Christopher Isherwood | Vintage Classics | $12.95


FOR the generation of writers who grew up with cinema, the arrival of sound was an opportunity not to be missed; suddenly the actors needed lines, which meant that somebody had to write them. For the young novelist Christopher Isherwood, who was very much part of that generation, the chance to work in pictures offered a break from the book-lined study in favour of the glamorous and quintessentially modern world of film, where lay a seductive treasure trove of writerly material and, moreover, the promise of material reward. Born in 1904, by 1932 Isherwood had published two novels – All the Conspirators and The Memorial – both of which had been moderately well received; well enough, at least, to mark him as someone up-and-coming whose career should be watched. Well enough, too, to bring him to the attention of the Austrian director Berthold Viertel, who had been engaged in 1934 by Gaumont–British Picture Corporation to direct a film, based on a novel by Viertel’s fellow Austrian Ernst Lothar, with the unpromising title of Little Friend. Viertel was looking for a writer to replace the one with whom he had just parted ways, evidently over what would now be called “creative differences.”

In a strange mixture of cinema, fiction and reality too complex to untangle, Isherwood’s name was put forward as the man for the job by a friend he had met during his time in Germany in the 1920s, Jean Ross. Ross was not, as it happens, a little friend so much as a larger-than-life one. (Her larger-than-lifeness was destined to reappear in the striking and enduring character of Sally Bowles, in Isherwood’s best-known and most successful work, Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939). Ross gave Viertel The Memorial to read, as a way of demonstrating her friend’s qualifications as a wordsmith. Viertel liked the book, and he also liked the author when he met him. Isherwood was duly employed, first as a kind of script doctor and later as dialogue director, a combination of duties that highlighted the paradoxical nature of the film world – there might be a night without sleep, working frantically with Viertel to fix the actors’ lines for the next day’s shooting, or there might equally be a long morning of pointless inactivity. During one such morning, Isherwood later recorded, his only task as dialogue director “was to say the German for knitting.”

Ten years on, and Isherwood was mining the experience of working on Little Friend for his short and deceptively slight novel Prater Violet, which was duly published in 1945. It appeared first in America, where Isherwood had been living since the outbreak of the war, and in England the following year. The title of the novel echoes the title of the film on which the narrator, “Christopher Isherwood,” is engaged to work. The year is 1934 and Friedrich Bergmann – a character based closely, and accurately by all accounts, on Berthold Viertel – is enticed from Vienna to London to direct a film called Prater Violet. In the Prater district of Vienna, during the first years of the twentieth century, a handsome student who is really a prince meets and falls in love with “a girl named Toni, who sells violets.” Such is the plot. The other-worldliness of the film, and its apparent irrelevance to anything of importance or substance, is occasionally counterpointed in the novel with brief descriptions of the increasingly dangerous political climate of mid-thirties Vienna, the details of which Bergmann follows closely through letters from home.

Prater Violet has now been reissued as a Vintage Classic, along with All the Conspirators and The Memorial, to be followed next year by several more of Isherwood’s lesser-known works. Of all of them, Prater Violet, which fell rather flat when it first appeared, is the one that most merits another look, partly for what it says about the often fraught relationship between literature and film. Christopher feels a certain resentment at being relegated to a supporting role, joining the ranks of screenwriters who must spend their days developing treatments from bad books and delivering lines to order. (“I was betraying my art,” he says, with a combination of pomposity and self-mockery.) It is not, Isherwood seems to say, only writers who risk being pushed lower and lower down the creative hierarchy, but writing itself, in deference to the increasingly comprehensive gaze of cinema. The young Christopher, who is labouring unconfidently away on his next novel when he is recruited to work on Prater Violet, seems to pale against the formidable Bergmann, who is master of his medium.

“I am a camera,” says the Christopher Isherwood character in Goodbye to Berlin, as though challenging cinema at its own game. It is a phrase that has long since taken on a life of its own, signifying many things to many people. For Isherwood, the idea of writer as camera seemed to capture something of the ambivalence that is crucial to all his work. On the one hand, the camera, like the writer, stands outside the action, recording what is in front of it. On the other hand, it defines and manipulates the action, and is impossible to ignore. “The problem of camera noise is perpetual,” Christopher, newly wise to the ways of film-making, informs us in Prater Violet. “To guard against it, the camera is muffled in a quilt, which makes it look like a pet poodle wearing a winter jacket.” For most of the novel, the character of Christopher, quietly recording what he sees, also takes care to keep himself well muffled up. In a clever, extended scene, he likens himself to an extra on the set, a player who doesn’t really belong but has managed to slip in unnoticed. Dining one day with Bergmann and other studio bigshots, he orders the cheapest item on the menu. A friendly waiter suggests he try the lobster newburg instead, at no charge. “The other gentlemen have ordered it,” the waiter whispers. “There’ll be enough for one extra.”

Isherwood understands very well that this kind of self-effacement is really egotism by another name. In a series of lectures he gave in the 1960s on the theme of “A Writer and His World,” he nominated Prater Violet as probably “his most successful use of the ‘Christopher Isherwood’ method” – the method, that is, of deploying a version of himself as both character and narrator, and giving that character his own name. The method works, says Isherwood disingenuously, because Bergmann, like Viertel, “talked so much that really nobody else got a word in edgewise… I was just nothing but a kind of straight man for all the anecdotes, jokes, carryings-on of Viertel himself.” In other words, in Prater Violet, Bergmann is the larger-than-life character, and Christopher is the little friend. But of course, it is not so straightforward. The self-deprecation never really convinces. “As a sort of added little joke at the end,” Isherwood continues in his lecture, “I suddenly reveal that I have a whole private life of my own.” Christopher does indeed assert his own independent identity at the end of the novel, from which we learn that he is not just an extra after all. •

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