The World in the Evening

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.

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18 Responses to The World in the Evening

  1. Steph says:

    This sounds so good. From the first sentence of your review, you had me longing to get my hands on a copy of this book. It sounds like such a thoughtful, innovative read. I must find a copy!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s wonderful. I hope I can really convince people to read it, because it’s terrific. It surprised me: I hadn’t known Isherwood was so good.

  2. Ditto on what Steph said — you had me hooked from the first line and desperate to read this book. So grateful you shared!

  3. Emily says:

    The more I read about Isherwood, the more eager I am to dive into his body of work. And The World in the Evening wasn’t even on my short list of titles until reading this review – now it certainly is! I have Berlin Stories already on my TBR, so I’ll probably start there, but I love so much of what you say here—the careful construction, the miniaturizing effect, the impressively normative depiction of homosexuality. Isherwood!

    • Jenny says:

      Gesundheit! Ha ha. I look forward to your reading of Berlin Stories, but I think my next one will probably be A Single Man. This was a real novel. Gorgeous.

  4. Bina says:

    Sounds amazing! I absolutely loved A Single Man, and want to read everything else by Isherwood now :) His prose really is spectacular!

  5. Jenny says:

    I had the same reaction to some of Mary Renault’s books — The Charioteer, particularly, was very open about the homosexuality of the main characters, and it was published in the early 1950s too. It surprised me, and I still haven’t figured out what the reading public made of it all.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m sure someone must have looked at that. I’m betting it put a damper on a reputation that might otherwise have been completely stellar.

  6. Kiss Pista says:

    I can not find this book anywhere. Hungarian translation did not appear? I checked the most popular online bookstore (www.konyv-konyvek.hu), but could not find it. But not many other shops.

  7. pburt says:

    Love the quote you included. This one is going on my list.

  8. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  9. Gregory Vigrass says:

    This is a book that I’ve read and come back to over the past 30 years.
    Your review captured the essential qualities of this book very well….I’m right now reading it again after a ten year period. There are some books that you just need to read at a certain time and they seem to find you, this is one of them.

  10. Alan Lenhoff says:

    It is interesting that The World in the Evening is generally considered Isherwood’s worst novel; he himself called it “factitious and false.” Of course, the worst he could write is better than the best most novelists can. It is an exhilarating read.

    • Jenny says:

      Randall Jarrell said about W.H. Auden that his worst poetry — when he was just phoning it in — was better than almost anything anyone of his generation could do. More or less the same with Isherwood, yes? I’ve been meaning to get back to his work.

  11. This is one of those books that stays with you for a long time…Or at least it’s stayed with me this long! “Exquisite” is just the word for it. But yes, that talk about “high camp” and “low camp” was just sort of…eh. Luckily it didn’t come up more than it did, or else maybe I would have had to form an opinion on it!

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