At the opening of Christopher Isherwood’s novel (the section called “The End”), Stephen Monk is a miserable, trapped man. He’s married to Jane, and although he doesn’t love her, he’s furious that she’s cheating on him. He hates false, self-important Hollywood types, but he can’t seem to get away from them. When he finally snaps, he heads back to his gentle, Quaker Aunt Sarah in Philadelphia, as an animal to its burrow, but he can’t get away from the torment in his own head. In “Life and Letters,” a traumatic accident forces Stephen to lie in bed, injured in body as well as in spirit, and consider his past: his first marriage to the writer Elizabeth Rydal, his innocence and love and slow journey to betrayal. Finally, in “A Beginning,” Stephen’s healing is complete, even though he’s facing a divorce and a world on the brink of war.
This book is exquisite. Isherwood plays with his timeline, using extensive flashbacks, letters, and conversations to create a past that is just as interesting and moving as the present. We see the insecure young Stephen, madly in love with an older, wiser Elizabeth; we are able to judge, as the young Stephen is not, what she feels about their age difference and her fragile health. Bit by bit, Isherwood opens up wounds we never suspected in the opening pages of the book, and joys, too: memories of intimacy can cut both ways.
The motif of openness and honesty runs through the novel, in themes of adultery and love, of secrets kept and secrets told, of hidden letters, of a quiet, law-abiding gay couple in a Quaker community, of a German refugee kept under watch at the beginning of World War II. When is it better to tell everything, and when is it better to keep still? In one moving passage, during a Quaker meeting, Isherwood describes one way in which silence can be creative rather than stifling:
Nevertheless, the Silence, in its odd way, was coming to life. Was steadily filling up the bare white room, like water rising in a tank. Every one of us contributed to it, simply by being present. Togetherness grew and tightly enclosed us, until it seemed that we must all be breathing in unison and keeping time with our heart-beats. It was massively alive and, somehow, unimaginably ancient, like the togetherness of Man in the primeval caves. The Sunday hats couldn’t disturb it; nor could the tap-tapping of leaves against the big windows overlooking the College campus. And, after all these years, the sense, the mere animal feel of it, was as familiar to me as ever. Only now, I thought, I’m a little afraid of it.
Stephen dispels his fear by calling up the memory of his dead wife Elizabeth, so acutely that we see her ourselves. But, of course, she speaks to him in the only voice she has left: his own.
The World in the Evening is not only the title of the novel itself, it’s the title of the last book Elizabeth Rydal wrote before she died. This nesting or miniaturizing effect repeats itself all through the book, from the play house where Stephen finds his wife with another man in the opening scenes of the book, to repeated images of light on water (artificial in Hollywood, natural in Europe), letters, and soldiers in uniform. One thing inside another, one thing giving meaning to another through its echo: Isherwood doesn’t leave a single loose end. This book is a singularly carefully-constructed piece of art.
It’s also spectacularly beautifully written (my quotation above may have given you a dim sense of the prose). I was a bit suspicious of it at first, but it completely swept me away. It’s interesting, too: it came out in 1954, and what was the reaction to its relatively casual depiction of homosexual couples, men falling in love, the raw emotional power that is usually reserved for heteronormal couples? (I understand that this book has been popular because of its definition of “high camp” and “low camp,” but to me, that’s one of the least interesting things about it, so I can’t comment.) It treats all its characters as people, from beloved-but-irritating Aunt Sarah, who kept a lifetime’s love secret, to Gerda, who waits for news of her husband from Nazi Germany, to Charles, the doctor who can’t let on to his patients that he’s gay. All love is love.
And finally, that’s what makes the end of this novel so satisfying. There is pain — that’s life — but there’s forgiveness, too. All love matters. Nothing is wasted. Even with the world in the evening, even on the brink of dissolution and danger and despair, there is redemption to be found. I’m sorry I waited so long before reading this book of Isherwood’s; I won’t wait so long before reading another.