Sunday night, inspired (perhaps) by the Oscars, I read Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Prater Violet” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 128 pp., $14 paper) which has just been reissued in a new paperback edition.
Originally published in 1945, six years after the author left Europe for Los Angeles, it offers a semi-autobiographical look -- the main character is a novelist named, yes, Christopher Isherwood -- at the particular sadness of the screenwriter, who, in this telling anyway, is both collaborator and hired hand.
The novel does not take place in Hollywood but rather London, and is based on Isherwood’s experience working on the 1934 British film “Little Friend” with Berthold Viertel, the Austrian director whose home in Santa Monica Canyon would later become a center of the émigré community in Southern California during World War II.
Viertel’s wife, Salka, published a vivid memoir of that time, “The Kindness of Strangers,” in 1969, and his son Peter was also a writer, both for the screen (he worked on “The African Queen” among other pictures) and for the page; his novel “The Canyon,” a idyllic coming-of-age story, was published in 1940, when he was just 19.
Isherwood was a member of the Viertel’s expatriate circle; one of my favorite passages in his diaries involves a November 1939 hike and picnic in Tujunga Canyon with them, Anita Loos, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Greta Garbo. “Prater Violet” was written during this period, when Isherwood was writing screenplays, most of which went unproduced.
“Really,” the character’s mother proclaims early in the novel, “the films nowadays seem to get stupider and stupider. No wonder they can’t persuade any good writers to come and work for them, no matter what they offer.” I’m reminded of Tennessee Williams, who once described screenwriting as “one of the funniest but most embarrassing things that ever happened to me. ... I feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver.”
This quality of not quite futility but frustration permeates “Prater Violet,” which packs a lot into its 128 pages -- a satire of the movie business but also a trenchant allegory for the looming terror of the Second World War. The director in the novel, a Viertel manqué named Friedrich Bergmann, is Jewish and has left his family behind in Vienna, while he comes to London for his work.
A key turn in the novel involves the Austrian civil unrest of February 1934, which led to street fighting and martial law (and, ultimately, the assassination of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, in an attempted Nazi putsch).
“You are very kind, Christopher,” Bergmann says. “... But you cannot understand. You have always been safe and protected. Your home has never been threatened. You cannot know what it is like to an exile, a perpetual stranger. ... I am bitterly ashamed that I am here, in safety.”
The line recalls George Orwell’s writing of the era, especially his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” with its admonition that, “[w]ith all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality.”
Still, as essential as politics may be to the movement of the narrative, Isherwood has something more elusive, more interior in mind. His characters are artists, yes, caught in the slipstream between creativity and commerce, beset by executives who want to look at their rushes, by the threat of a new director coming in. But they are also people, flawed and isolated humans, struggling to make their way in the world.
“There is one question which we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal,” he writes, in the novel’s most astonishing passage. “And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travelers. What makes you go on living? Why don’t you kill yourself? Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it?”
There’s an irony, of course, in asking such a question from within the landscape of a movie set, which is all about illusion made real. At the same time, Isherwood means to tell us, this is the case with existence itself, which requires “a kind of balance, a complex of tensions.”
He elaborates: “You did whatever was next on the list. A meal to be eaten. Chapter eleven to be written. The telephone rings. You go off somewhere in a taxi. There is one’s job. There are amusements. There are people. There are books. There are things to be bought in shops. There is always something new. There has to be. Otherwise, the balance would be upset, the tension would break.”
It’s an unexpected moment, and yet it centers “Prater Violet,” which reminds us that even illusion must have a context, that the machinations of the industry can’t help but mirror, or reflect, those other machinations, political and personal.