Christopher Isherwood, “Prater Violet”


The title of this short novel refers to eponymous film the protagonist (also named Christopher Isherwood) is working on in the years 1933-4 in London. Isherwood drew from his experience scriptwriting for Berthold Viertel’s Little Friend (British Gaumont, 1934). The story begins with Isherwood, still living at home with his mother, receiving a call about scriptwriting from a studio exectutive named Chatsworth and going on a wild goose chase for Bergmann, the film’s quirky Austrian Jewish director. It ends with the film’s success, giving Bergmann the means to move his entire family from Austria in 1935 before the Anschluss. The distant, elusive narrator is reminiscent of Jim Burden (Cather’s My Antonia), Nick Carraway (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), or Tod Hackett (West’s The Day of the Locust).


• Bergmann claims British men “marry their mothers… It will lead to the destruction of Europe” 29, predicts the fall of Europe and hints at the Holocaust 41, dream of Nazis 55.
• “This respectable umbrella is the Englishman’s magic wand, with which he will try to wave Hitler out of existence.” 31 (see 29 for the state of Austria).
• Bergmann points out “an inoffensive man sitting alone in the distant corner” and says he is the real eveil, for he will be the one to “do anything, anything to be allowed to live” 42.
• “It was unreal because I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it… The out break of war, like the moment of death, crossed my perspective of the future like a wall; it marked the instant, total end of my imagined world.” 43
• “[Art] is political… The dilemma [of the film] is the dillema of the would-be revolutionary writer or artist, all over Europe.” 49
• “The fog… covered not only London but the entire island; thereby accounting for all our less agreeable racial characteristics, our insularity, our hypocrisy, our political muddling, our prudery and our refusal to face facts… ‘They feed on it, like a kind of bitter soup which fills them with illusions. It is their national costume, clothing the enormous nakedness of the slums and the scandal of unjust ownership.'” 51-2
• Picture is “heartless filth” that is aiding “all their gangsters,” says Bergmann 96, and Isherwood has to convince him “not to send them” to the press, for “He had no case. The papers were being perfectly fair, according to their own standards. You couldn’t expect anything else.” 99
• “This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with plain human men and women. Not with actresses… Not with celluloid. Not with self-advertisement.” 103
• British exhaustion: “We cared about everything… We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin.” 104
• “As for Bergmann, Prater Violet got him the offer of a job in Hollywood. He went out there with his family, early in 1935.” 128, last line of the novel.


• “Ashmeade smiled his smooth, pussycat smile. ‘Hullo, Isherwood,’ he said softly, in an amused voice. Our eyes met.” 21
• “[Bergmann] pursued me with questions, about my friends, my interests, my habits, my love life… jealous curiosity… ‘Is it Mr. W. H. you seek, or the Dark Lady of the Sonnets?’ But I was equally obstinate. i wouldn’t tell him. I teased him with smiles and hints.” 38 (both examples are male love objects)
• “But there was a little waiter who… had taken a fancy to me… he came up behind my chair and whispered, ‘Why not take the lobster?… I won’t charge you anything.” 83 (is this J?)
• “Love had been J. for the last month – ever since we met at that party…I would be anxious. I would be jealous… We would part, immune, in future, from that particular toxin, that special twinge of jealous desire, when one of us met the other, with somebody else, at another party. I was glad I had never told Bergmann about J… it was still mine, and it always would be. Even when J. and I were only trophies, hung up in the museums of each other’s vanity. After J., there would be K. and L. and M.,right down the alphabet.” 125 (recall that Ashmeade is A, thus potentially making him, in the alphabet, Isherwood’s first lover? This is also reminiscent of Mr. Ramsay’s linear, alphabetical mode of thought in To the Lighthouse – why, I wonder?)

Surfaces & Aesthetics:

• Bergmann reads Isherwood’s “grandiose” and “genial” novel (27).
• “Sensuality is a whole spearate world. What we seeon the outside, what comes up to the surface – it’s nothing. Love is like a mine. You go deeper and deeper. There are passages, caves, whole strata. You discover entire geological eras. You find little things, objects, which enable you to reconstruct her life, her other lovers, things she does not even know about herself, things you must never tell her that you know…” 39
• “Such a woman is my religion” 44.
• “The film studio of today is really the palace of the sixteenth century… There is enormous splendour, which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery.” 60
• Lawrence Dwight & fascist aesthetics: “All you writers have such a bloody romantic attitude. You think you’re too good for the movies. Don’t you believe it. The movies are too good for you. We don’t need any romantic nineteenth-century whores. We need technicians. Thank God, I’m a cutter. I know my job… I don’t treat film as if it were a bit of my intestine… The movies aren’t drama, they aren’t literature – they’re pure mathematics.” 66-7. (see measuring distance from starlet’s nose to camera lens, 78)
• “Within the great barnlike sound-stage… stands the inconsequent, half-dismantled architecture of the sets… huge photographic backdrops, the frontages of streets; a kind of Pompeii, but more desolate, more uncanny, because this is, literally, a half-world, a limbo of mirror-images, a town which has lost its third dimension. Only the tangle of heavy power cables is solid, and apt to trip you as you cross the floor. Your footsteps sound unnaturally loud; you find yourself walking on tiptoe.” 71, set as a dollhouse 72.
• Lawrence: “The incentive is to fight anarchy. That’s all Man lives for. Reclaiming life from its natural muddle. Making patterns… For the sake of patterns. To create meaning. What else is there?” 69-70, also 92.
• “Bergmann stands by the table. His lips tremble, his eyes glisten; he is a beautiful young girl on the verge of tears.” 77
• The actress shows her “anxiously pretty mask which is her job, her source of income, the tool of her trade” 77, later she “makes a sensational entrance, on his arm, at the top of the staircase, in a blaze of borrowed diamonds.” 87
• Bergmann protests that Chatworth has gotten an “analphabet to take [his] place” 117 for not working too fast.
• Life as waiter’s recommendations: “It seemed to me that I had always done whatever people recommended… teddy bears, football, cigarettes. motor bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of Classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love: a very strange dish.” 124
His relationship with Bergmann: “The dialogue was crude, the costumes and make-up were more absurd, more of a caricature, than anything in Prater Violet:  Mother’s Boy, the comic Foreigner with the funny accent.” 127.


• “The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion, it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the utmost ingenuity and malice…” 31
• “The whole beauty of the film… is that it has a certain fixed speed. The way you see it is mechanically conditioned… [examples of painting and book]. The point is, you choose your approach. When you go into a cinema, it’s different. There’s the film, and you have to look at it as the director wants you to look at it… he allows you a certain number of seconds or minutes to grasp each one… an infernal machine.” 32 (see camera as living being 80)
• “In the National Gallery, he explained, with reference to the Rembrandt portraits, his theory of camera angles and the lighting of close-ups.” 53
• The film: “Not all Bergmann’s histrionics, no amount of Freudian analysis or Marxian dialectic could make it anything but very silly.” 58
• From writing to production: “as though two hermits had been transported from their cave in the mountains into the middle of a modern railway station.” 63
• Lawrence writes him that the film is a flop among Parisian intellectuals, who find it counter-revolutionary 128.


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