Friday, 6 January 2012

Battered Penguins XVI

Prater Violet is Christopher Isherwood's novelised account of his time working with an Austrian film director who he calls Friedrich Bergmann, a character believed to be based on Berthold Viertel. The novel is set in London in 1934 and, in telling the story of his time as a scriptwriter for a film called Prater Violet (the film he actually worked on was called The Little Friend), Isherwood highlights the almost wilful complacency of pre-war Britain, while providing a vivid portrait of his central character and juxtaposing the increasingly serious political situation in the wider world with the frivolity of the movie that is being made.

At the start of the novel, Isherwood, rather endearingly, presents himself as a hopelessly blinkered prognosticator pompously explaining to his mother and brother how unlikely it is that the rise of Hitler will ever lead to war. He goes on to describe the mood in Britain in that pre-war interlude:

"The newspapers were full of optimism. Things were looking up: this Christmas was to be the greatest ever. Hitler talked only of peace. The Disarmament Conference had broken down. The British Government didn't want isolation: equally it didn't want to promise military aid to France. When people planned their next summer's holiday in Europe they remembered to add: 'If Europe's still there.' It was like the superstition of touching wood."

Against this backdrop, he presents the film director, Bergmann, who we are encouraged right from the first moment to see not only as an individual but as a representative of a whole culture and territory. When Isherwood meets him, he explains:

"There are meetings which are like recognitions; this was one of them. Of course we knew each other. The name, the voice, the features were inessential: I knew that face. It was the face of a political situation, an epoch. It was the face of Central Europe."

Luckily, Isherwood does not merely assert Bergmann's emblematic quality but also provides many of his features, however' inessential' they may be. A vivid figure is created whose 'head was magnificent, and massive as sculptured granite', whose 'stiff drab suit didn't fit him' and whose 'shirt-collar was too tight', his 'tie ...askew and clumsily knotted', his face 'the face of an emperor, but [with] ... the dark mocking eyes of his slave - the slave who ironically obeyed, watched, humoured and judged the master who could never understand him; the slave upon whom the master depended utterly - for his amusement, for his instruction, for the sanction of his power, the slave who wrote the fables of beasts and men."

Through Bergmann, Isherwood is given a new perspective on his own home:

"Bergmann showed me London: the London he had already created for himself in his own imagination - the dark, intricate, sinister town of Dickens...He was always the guide, and I the tourist...We visited the Tower, where Bergmann lectured me on English history, comparing the reign of the Tudors to the Hitler regime...I had some difficulty in getting him out of the Bloody Tower, where he was inspired to a lurid reconstruction of the murder of the LIttle Princes, amazing the other visitors, who merely saw a stocky, shock-headed, middle-aged man pleading for his life to an invisible assassin, in German, with theatrical falsetto accents...In the National Gallery he explained, with reference to the Rembrandt portraits, his theory of camera-angles and the lighting of close-ups, so loudly and convincingly that he drew a crowd away from one of the official lecturers, who was naturally rather annoyed."

Also through Bergmann, Isherwood discovers the world of movie-making:

"'You see, the film-studio of today is really the palace of the sixteenth century'", Bergmann tells him, "'There one sees what Shakespeare saw: the absolute power of the tyrant, the courtiers, the flatterers, the jesters, the cunningly ambitious intriguers. There are fantastically beautiful women, there are incompetent favourites. There are great men who are suddenly disgraced. There is the most insane extravagance, and unexpected parsimony over a few pence. There is enormous splendour which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery. There are vast schemes abandoned because of some caprice. There are secrets which everybody knows and no one speaks of. There are even two or three honest advisers. These are the court fools, who speak the deepest wisdom in puns, lest they should be taken seriously. They grimace, and tear their hair privately, and weep.'"

Bergmann's mood regarding the film they are working on oscillates between a fierce desire to maintain his artistic integrity - he insists at one point that the flimsy love story is not silly but "political", a "symbolic fable" - and a despairing contempt for the whole enterprise - "Yes, by all means. Let us shoot it again. Perhaps we can achieve something worse," he cries, "I doubt it. But let us try". Simultaneously, his view of what is going on in the world outside the studio becomes gloomier by the day. He regales Isherwood with "apocalyptic pictures of universal doom" and when a journalist tells him that the Austrian civil war and the resulting political changes in Austria are not "our affair. I mean you can't really expect people in England to care -", he transforms into a terrifying oracle:

"His fist hit the table, so that the knives and forks rang. He turned scarlet in the face. He shouted: 'I expect everybody to care! Everybody who is not a coward, a moron, a piece of dirt! I expect this whole damned island to care! I will tell you something: if they do not care, they will be made to care. The whole lot of you. You will be bombed and slaughtered and conquered."

Hindsight tells us that Bergmann was very nearly right. Millions were slaughtered and much that was wonderful was swept away and destroyed. Whether things would have been different had the voices of Bergmann and others like him been heeded sooner is a question that Prater Violet does not attempt to answer. What it does do is provide a fascinating and often amusing reminder of a period of equivocation, as well as a wonderful picture of a wild, lonely, enormous personality who for a brief period came into Isherwood's life, impelling him with the force of his own character to question the way in which he had:

"always done whatever 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 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."

At the end of the book, the reader knows that the war will soon be coming and any remaining certainties will also be swept away. The minute concerns of the various characters - the actress who offers her face to the make-up man "as impersonally as one extends a shoe to the bootblack; this anxiously pretty mask, which is her job, her source of income, the tool of her trade"; the technician, Teddy, who is delaying marriage for five years until he has a better job; Roger, the sound man, for whom the best things in his life have been "Good unexpected lays" - appear silly when set against the huge political convulsions that are already rolling towards them. Yet, in the end, Isherwood tells us, all that matters is love. For him, Bergmann transcends the events that are coming. "He was my father", Isherwood tells us, "I was his son. And I loved him very much".

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