My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Prater Violet, set in the 1930s and published in 1945, is Christopher Isherwood’s novella of filmmaking. The short roman à clef is based on Isherwood’s own experience working on the 1934 film Little Friend, directed by the emigrant Austrian Jewish director, Berthold Viertel.
In Isherwood’s hands, Little Friend becomes the eponymous Prater Violet, a frivolously romantic musical about a poor flower girl who meets and falls in love with a disguised prince in the Prater, Vienna’s large public park. Isherwood also transforms Viertel into Friedrich Bergmann, a charismatic genius and radical who becomes over the course of the short novel an artistic master and father-figure to the initially diffident young narrator, whom Isherwood names, with brisk economy, Christopher Isherwood.
Aside from the challenge of making a film under the philistine, commercial auspices of the satirically-named studio, Imperial Bulldog Pictures, our two heroes also confront the ethical dilemma that, as they work on their fantastical cinematic portrayal of romantic Vienna, the real Vienna—where Bergmann’s wife and daughter still live—is under assault from fascist forces.
Because of the novella’s autobiographical preoccupation with the conflicts between art and entertainment, between the privileged left-wing artist and his political duty, and between civilization and totalitarianism, Prater Violet picks up where Isherwood’s previous novel, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), leaves off. It begins, with wittily insistent metafiction:
“Mr. Christopher Isherwood?”
Yet the novella poses in earnest the question, “Who is Christopher Isherwood?”—serious writer or moviemaking hack, committed intellectual or aloof aesthete? Recounting his first glimpse of Bergmann, Christopher narrates:
It was the face of a political situation, an epoch. The face of Central Europe. […] The face was the face of an emperor, but the eyes were the dark, mocking eyes of his slave—the slave who ironically obeyed, watched, humored 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.
While this description allegorizes a very specific “political situation,” i.e., the situation—and the double consciousness—of the Central European Jewish bourgeoisie during the rise of fascism, it nevertheless might also apply equally to the modern artist in general: bourgeois but radical, privileged but subversive. Bergmann embodies this self-division, but is also critically aware of it. He instructs Christopher on the meaning of the the film, Prater Violet:
“The dilemma of Rudolf is the dilemma of the would-be revolutionary writer of artist, all over Europe. […] The young artist-prince, with all his fine ideas, has to face reality. […] The declassed intellectual has two choices. If his love for Toni is sincere, if he is loyal to his artistic traditions, the great liberal revolutionary traditions of the nineteenth century, then he will know where he belongs. […] Unfortunately, however, he does not always make this choice. Indeed, he seldom makes it. He is unable to cut himself free, sternly, from the bourgeois dream of the Mother, that fatal and comforting dream. He wants to crawl back into the economic safety of the womb. He hates the paternal, revolutionary tradition, which reminds him of his duty as its son.”
This divided loyalty has been the dilemma of “the young artist-prince” at least since Hamlet, but the 20th century adds its own complications. When the violence in Austria threatens Bergmann’s family, the director erupts at the indifference of the self-satisfied Englishmen who surround him. Isherwood, whose literary generation of the ’30s was known for its leftist commitments, reflects:
Perhaps I had traveled too much, left my heart in too many places. I knew what I was supposed to feel, what it was fashionable for my generation to feel. We cared about everything: fascism in Germany and Italy, the seizure of Manchuria, Indian nationalism, the Irish question, the workers, the Negroes, the Jews. We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin. I cared—oh yes, I certainly cared—about the Austrian socialists. But did I care as much as I said I did, tried to imagine I did? No, not nearly as much. […] What is the use of caring at all, if you aren’t prepared to dedicate your life, to die? Well, perhaps it was some use. Very, very little.
Is the artist’s rootlessness, the very source of the disinterest that licenses his critical authority when attacking oppression, merely a self-congratulatory deracination, a way of standing above social conflict, remaining a beautiful soul? While the passage concludes with an intimation that the English novel’s gradualist liberalism, a tradition running through Isherwood from Samuel Richardson to David Mitchell, at least contributes to the humanization of a heartless world, this self-reproach of the “parlor socialist” hangs over the whole novel, and, needless to say, resonates in our own time of resurgent and often dishonest middle-class leftism.
The problem of the “parlor pink” has a gendered dimension as well, as Bergmann’s speech quoted above hints. Isherwood does not disclose his homosexuality outright in this otherwise autobiographically candid novella, but he encodes it via the motif of Christopher’s being, in Bergmann’s words, “‘a typical mother’s son.'” Bergmann reprises this theme in the speech above when he associates bourgeois privilege with maternity and, implicitly, queerness—as opposed to the paternal, patriarchal (and perhaps therefore Hebraic) duty commanded by The Revolution. Prater Violet rehearses the whole doleful drama of homophobia vs. anti-Semitism, of straight socialism vs. queer capitalism, which I earlier discussed in reference to Gore Vidal’s much later Hollywood novel, Myra Breckinridge, a book dedicated to none other than Isherwood himself.
Even leaving aside these abstract political theories, though, the artist-prince’s separation from the people also causes specifically literary problems. Christopher tends throughout the novella to think himself superior to popular filmmaking; yet he finds that he can’t write dialogue for the film’s common people to speak because of his own immurement in the intelligentsia, a confinement that earlier generations of writers, who lived before the late-19th-century institutionalization of aestheticism and bohemia, did not share:
It isn’t vulgar to be able to make people talk. An old man selling sausages isn’t vulgar, except in the original meaning of the word, “belonging to the common people.” Shakespeare would have known how he spoke. Tolstoy would have known. I didn’t know because, for all my parlor socialism, I was a snob. I didn’t know how anybody spoke, except public-school boys and neurotic bohemians.
Meanwhile, another character, the film editor Lawrence Dwight, suggests that popular entertainment, not elite literature, is the actual terminus of aestheticism, since film is calculated by experts to affect an audience:
“The movies aren’t drama, they aren’t literature—they’re pure mathematics. […] The only people who really matter are the technicians.”
This demotion of literature, its diminution in the faces of both politics and pop culture, might account for Prater Violet‘s slightness as a literary work. This is not just an effect of its length; it’s about the same size as Heart of Darkness or The Great Gatsby, and moreover shares their literary technique of using a normal narrator to present to the reader, through level-headed but lyrical storytelling, an outsized tragic character.
Yet very little happens in Prater Violet, and Isherwood seems to lose track of Bergmann in the novella’s second half; he replaces him with an account of filmmaking, but this, while historically interesting, lacks texture and offers us a profusion of tertiary characters who are just names on the page. Consequently, when Bergmann capitulates to the studio at the novella’s end and makes the shallow crowd-pleaser they hired him to film, it doesn’t feel like a tragic fall that has been carefully prepared.
Isherwood concludes the novel with the Ulysses-like existential epiphany that he and Bergmann, solitary souls behind a contingent social facade, have spiritually communed:
A traveller, a wanderer. I was aware of Bergmann, my fellow-traveller, pacing beside me; a separate, secret consciousness, locked away within itself, distant as Betelgeuse, yet for a short while sharing my wanderings. […] Like me he had his journey to go. […] Beneath outer consciousness, two other beings, anonymous, imprisoned, without labels, had met and recognized each other, and had clasped hands. He was my father. I was his son. And I loved him very much.
This is, with its breath-catching short clauses, very beautifully written, but the sentiment is more asserted than dramatized. Isherwood seems in Prater Violet to be stunned by the very dilemma of the artist’s isolation he so astutely identifies. The novella’s thinness and lack of invention (contrast the documentary innovations of Goodbye to Berlin) cede literature’s ground to politics and pop culture—allow fiction to be torn apart by the commercial and political bulldogs fighting for dominance over the modern world.