Charles Lambert was born in the Midlands, but has lived in Italy for most of his adult life. His first novel, Little Monsters, came out last year and is now available in paperback. He is currently working on a new novel, set in Rome and entitled Any Human Face, and has just finished a ten-part virtual book tour to talk about his recently-published collection of short stories, The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories. Information about the Cyclone tour, 'Something Rich and Strange', can be found here. Charles blogs at Charles Lambert. In this post he writes about Christopher Isherwood's The Memorial.
Charles Lambert on The Memorial by Christopher Isherwood
The Memorial came out in 1932, four years after Christopher Isherwood's debut novel, All the Conspirators, which sold fewer than 300 copies and was barely noticed. In today's publishing world, a second novel might never have seen the light of day and, in many ways, The Memorial is still a young man's book, not quite apprentice work but not quite fully achieved either. It's an odd amalgam of faux-modernism and the traditional novel, as though Isherwood still hasn't made up his mind what kind of writer he plans to be: Virginia Woolf or Hugh Walpole.
Its time scale is distinctly modern: four sections dated, in order, 1928, 1920, 1925 and 1929, which might have unsettled readers accustomed to a more orthodox chronology but is unlikely to do so now. There's a modified stream of consciousness technique adopted in some sections, with the writing eliding from third to first person and back again in a rather unresolved way, as though Isherwood is worried he might be accused of eavesdropping or impersonation, while in other sections the narrator's eye is objective, external, a foretaste of his 'I am a camera' mode of the Berlin novels, which came soon after.
In the Berlin books, narrative consistency is achieved, but at a price. In this book, which is less perfect but more intriguing than its successors, Isherwood may have felt that he could do pretty much what he fancied, welcoming the freedom offered by the modernists while remaining within the confines of the well-bred middle-class novel, because modernist freedom also involved intellectual risks he wasn't quite prepared to take, or the meaning of which he didn't fully grasp. In a sense, this reflects the way Isherwood appears to have understood the knotty, unsatisfactory issue of his life at this time, outwardly privileged, inwardly - and ironically - distraught, and this understanding is spiced with a resentment that gives the whole thing far more flavour than may at first be apparent. And it's that flavour, sharp, slightly bitter, occasionally over-larded, that's stuck with me and made me want to write about the book, almost 40 years after I first read it.
My hardback copy has an inscription on the first page, written with a fountain pen, my name in the slightly ornate style I affected at the time, along with the place and date of its purchase: Cambridge, 1971. I must have bought it when I went there for my interview. In those days, as soon as I'd bought a book I read it, so some time between my interview and preparing for the entrance exam I needed to pass that autumn to be offered a place the following year, I'd have read this:
And if, at that moment, Eric could have given the order, the Round Church and the Hall of Trinity and King's Chapel and Corpus Library and dozens of other world-famed architectural lumber-rooms of priceless venerable rubbish would have gone up sky-high with enormous charges of dynamite, and the silk-jumpered young gentlemen and dear old professors been driven out of their well-furnished academic hotels at the point of the bayonet. And Cambridge would have returned to its proper status as a small market-town, inhabited by commercial travellers, auctioneers, cattle-dealers, out-of-work jockeys, and other bar-flies – a soured, defeated tribe, given over to betting and drink, in the middle of this swamp of a country, with rheumatics and damaged lungs. And good riddance, Eric thought.
Did this put me off? On the contrary. It's clear to me now that what I aspired to was Eric's (Isherwood's) disdain, his iconoclastic desire for destruction and revenge coupled with the unexpressed satisfaction of having it both ways that only a refusenik who is also an authentic insider can appreciate. I aspired to this self-contradictory - and self-defeating - position as someone who identified not with Isherwood's class – how could I, a would-be scholarship boy from a comprehensive school in northern Staffordshire? - but with his chronic sense of not-belonging, an emotion he attributes to another of his alter-egos in the novel, Edward Blake, as 'homesick for everywhere but here'. I wanted to both achieve privilege and despise it, as he did. And then there's the relationship between Eric, the stammering, gawky, idealistic young communist, and his vacuous, snobbish, backward-looking, widowed, no longer adored mother, where Isherwood simply assumes we'll understand how dreadfully Eric is suffering, as, of course, and quite without justification, I did. I lived it every day, or thought I did. This is how adolescents suffer, the book is implying, because this is what families do, and are, and there's no escape. Emblematic of this is the foolhardy car trip outside Cambridge described in Book Three, surely based on the even more reckless journey to Cape Wrath recounted in Lions and Shadows and subsequently recycled by Auden in the invocatory, and terminally obscure, injunction, 'Leave for Cape Wrath tonight'. An episode that had me dragging John Wilkinson to the northernmost tip of Scotland the following summer to experience the pointlessness of flight myself.
So what is the novel about? Isherwood first mentions The Memorial towards the end of Lions and Shadows, published some years later, but the ostensible subject of The Memorial - War, with a capital 'W' - informs almost the whole of the other book, first cropping up on page 49 and recurring, in various disguises, throughout his detailed, often comic description of the various failed attempts the narrator makes to invent a life for himself before, during and after Cambridge. Lions and Shadows is full of grandiose theories about life, undermined by the crippling awareness, insistent as Eric's stammer, that theories are what stand in the way. The North-West Passage; the Truly Strong and Truly Weak Man; the War (all capitalized), and the failed test, the test that would prove that Isherwood was a man, except that to acknowledge the existence of the test is, pre-emptively, to acknowledge one's failure. This is the sort of double bind familiar to homosexuals convinced they can only love 'real' men and aware that no 'real' (i.e. heterosexual) man would look at them twice, a problem that Isherwood may have solved by leaving England and sleeping with boys whose class, and foreignness, despite their availability, authenticated them. Because the elephant in the room isn't the war at all, but Isherwood's unstated, unacknowledged, apparently unconsummated homosexuality. By the time I read the book I knew that Isherwood was gay, and on what terms, just as I knew that I was, and on those same terms, and part of the power of the book was the way it conjugated self-knowledge and self-denial.
Isherwood would return to this material over and over again, in Lions and Shadows and, some years later, with greater sexual candour, in Christopher and his Kind. He worried his past in terrier fashion, unable to let it go, to leave it be, constantly picking it up and shaking it into some new form; but it's hard to say whether each reworking moved closer to the heart of the matter or to a more satisfactorily achieved illusion; whether what he was doing was playing Chinese boxes or Chinese whispers.