on 7 February 2006
When I was fortunate enough to find several Christopher Isherwood hardcovers in a used book store shelf-clearing sale, I thought that perhaps 'Down There' would be one of the last that I read, due to it being a four-part 'novel' where the stories have the common thread of the protagonist being narrator. I have never been a great fan of what I deem 'short stories'.
However, there are far more threads to weave the tales together of this fine example of why Isherwood was one of the most highly regarded authors of his time, and why his works endure to this day.
An observation of various stages in his own life, the 'narrator' at times seems an entirely autonomous character from the protagonist, as his wisdom, experience, and reflection are so evident in the way he describes four important chapters in his life. The youth becomes the adult, the adult becomes the observer, and the observer becomes the chronicler in this caring, thoughtful memoir.
Isherwood's four observances begin with 'Mr. Lancaster'...a portrait of an encounter with a gruff, abrasive man who Chris visits, reluctantly..and teaches him that appearances are not all that they might seem.
'Ambrose,' the second section, concerns a summer in the Greek Isles as Chris finds freedom to express his hidden desires while basking in the warm sun, and living in the near seclusion of an island setting with little distractions, but plenty of experiences to shape his young adulthood.
'Waldemar,' the third novella, follows Christopher's adventures in Germany, as he immerses himself into a foreign culture, and finds that some experiences, some people, some situations are universal, no matter where you roam, and sometimes the masks we wear, daily, are all too similar, no matter what the circumstances.
'Paul,' the culmination of the work, follows Christopher's encounters with a seemingly rootless, care-free acquaintance as he floats from experience to experience, and then asks to share in Christopher's Hindu teachings, before enlisting in the service. Christophers finds himself in a more care-taking role at this stage of his life, as he bails Paul out of situation after situation, and learns how to be a true friend, without expectations, without thought of self, and therefore without, many disappointments that can come with those who occasionally let us down in our lives.
An excellent read, cover to cover, 'Down There' is as fine a work as any other Isherwood offerings, and certainly one to explore for any fan of his works.