I’ve been on an Isherwood kick lately, years after first reading The Berlin Stories. His prose is so crisp and perfect, and he seems to have attended every kind of party and debaunch available in the early twentieth century. Down There on a Visit (the mundane title clicks into place in the final pages) is a series of four interconnected character studies, all narrated by “Christopher Isherwood”, from 1928 to 1940. They cover London, provincial Germany, a tiny Greek island, Los Angeles, but circle Berlin – in the book he only visits the city once, briefly. But the rise of the Nazis and WWII are shown in their psychically insidious and brutal effect on everyone, particularly the writer, who chronicles his attempts to find sanctuary. Isherwood doesn’t spare us his ego, and he unpicks his own failings with the same crisp brilliance he examines the people around him.
Each section is more or less about the confrontation between him and those parts of the world he dreads but can’t quite resist. The first section is about Mr Lancaster, a pompous old fart who he endures a tragi-comic visit with as a young, ambitious & horny upstart. He shows how desperate he was to throw off the weight of history and the sheer bore of what the older generation considered sacred. In a throwaway line, he mentions the germ of his fateful decision to visit Berlin, based entirely off of Mr Lancaster’s denunciation of the city as a moral-free cesspool teeming with deviants.
The next section has the narrator leaving Berlin and the Nazis behind for a seeming idyll in Greece, funded by a young wastrel called Ambrose. He’s one of Isherwood’s grotesques, you think at first, another monster like poisonous blonde Maria, socialite and parasite, or braying fool Geoffrey. But as everything on the island descends to squalor, he witnesses the toll of not belonging to anything that has wrenched them both adrift. That sense of estangement continues to haunt the third section, named after his German friend Waldemar. With the war, Isherwood hunches in London. He struggles with relentlessly human failings, resentment at not being able to indluge in self-pity, admiration for E.M. Forster, angry sex, and constant frantic newspaper reading (he would’ve been a devil on twitter).
The final section is a virtuosic piece of writing. Named after another monster, Paul, a southern Dorian Grey clone he encounters in Hollywood, he manages to write about spirituality and his quest for enlightenment without ever becoming soggy or indulgent. The last meeting with Paul is a devastating scene, unstintingly beautiful as it unfolds and we watch him disappear into the Parisian night.
Down There on a Visit is as witty and sharp as Evelyn Waugh at his best, but it’s also sad and sometimes sublime. A masterpiece by a writer who was there for the hangovers as well as the parties.