"Christopher Wasn't Satisfied with Either Ending": Connecting Christopher Isherwood's the World in the Evening to E. M. Forster's Maurice

Article excerpt

  In a century whose fiction is remarkable for its growing sexual can-   dour, Isherwood has been no trailblazer.   --Jonathan H. Fryer    [T]exts come before us as the always-already-read; we approach   them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or--if   the text is brand-new--through the sedimented reading habits and   categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions.   --Fredric Jameson 

THEY HATED THE BOOK

Few books have been so poorly received by friends and critics alike than Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening (1954). Remarkable for its stylistic and thematic departures from his earlier, much-vaunted works like All the Conspirators (1928), Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), and The Berlin Stories (1945), The World in the Evening was almost unanimously dismissed as a failure and continues to be marginalized by critics and readers today. Peter Parker, author of Isherwood: A Life Revealed, notes that Dodie Smith, playwright and personal friend of Isherwood, remarked, "It is the only work of Chris's we have really disliked" (543). Parker observes that the novel "was certainly very bad indeed" and that "The truth was they [Dodie Smith and her partner, Alec Beesley] hated the book" (543-44). This critical perspective persists today: Lisa M. Schwerdt, author of Isherwood's Fiction: The Self and Technique (1989), suggests that The World in the Evening is "perhaps Isherwood's worst" novel (119). Claude J. Summers's Christopher Isherwood (1980) echoes this sentiment, calling The World in the Evening "Isherwood's most problematic novel" and "a relative failure" (79). Furthermore, Katherine Bucknell's "Who is Christopher Isherwood?" asserts, "the book is marred both by repressed anger about the difficulties of trying to write as a homosexual and by psychological inaccuracies" (22). This poor evaluation of The World in the Evening may be the result of a combination of elements: Bob Wood and Charles Kennedy, important secondary characters in the novel, mark Isherwood's first depiction of an overtly homosexual, non-stereotypical, couple; furthermore, the novel itself is not organized around an Isherwood-inspired narrator; and finally, the novel's narrative subtly but radically depicts a prototype of gay community. The World in the Evening requires reconceptualization to appreciate its value in terms of innovation and for its significant connection to E. M. Forster's Maurice. In other words, if we accept Fredric Jameson's assertion that we perpetually read through the lens of prior texts and experiences, we must attempt to read The World in the Evening as a text apart from Isherwood's oeuvre: as a unique narrative exploring the possibility of forming spaces within society amenable to gay men.

Furthermore, by drawing upon Jameson's ideas, The World in the Evening can be situated as a "socially symbolic act" (20). Jameson argues that a text is not just a text; rather, it represents a unique cultural artifact from a specific moment in history that evokes the sociopolitical climate at the time of its composition and suggests social change or the necessity thereof. Jameson argues that all such "cultural artifacts" are informed (either by the author's choice or subconsciously) by the "political unconscious" and the impetus to analyze and attempt to alter the sociopolitical/ideological situation of any society at a given point in history (20). For Jameson, meaning does not exist apart from contextualization. The temptation here is to suggest "historical" contextualization, but for the Marxist Jameson history remains largely inaccessible: "history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise. [... It] is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and [...] our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious" (35). In other words, to grasp any sense of history (however one construes the term) or the past, one must draw upon extant textual evidence. …