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  • Isherwood's Fiction: The Self and Technique
  • Brian Finney
Lisa M. Schwerdt. Isherwood's Fiction: The Self and Technique. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 214 pp. $39.95.

Lisa Schwerdt offers her reader a systematic—maybe an oversystematic—way of understanding Isherwood's development as a novelist. His fiction only succeeds, she argues, when it reflects his personal concerns, as it does best when employing the namesake narrator. Accordingly Isherwood's Fiction treats his entire ouevre as a bildungsroman which "records the growth of the individual as he confronts the self at various stages of development." Lisa Schwerdt tries to give these individual stages a more universal significance by showing how they conform to psychologist Erik Erikson's stages of ego development from childhood through old age. She concludes that only when Isherwood the artist writes about the progressive experience of Isherwood the man is the resultant book likely to be an artistic success with wide ranging appeal.

It is far too simplistic to make such a claim without qualification. On one page Schwerdt claims that "once he overcomes his need to disguise and misdirect," (a fault he incurs by splitting himself between Edward and Eric in The Memorial) "and fully injects himself into the text, Isherwood's difficulties with intent and purpose vanish. . . ." On the next page she quotes Isherwood without seeming to notice that he is contradicting her: "To me 'Isherwood' was much more than my name; it was the code word for my identity as a writer. . . ." Exactly. A writer's work is not simply the product of his or her own experiences. We do not have to accept the extreme claims of poststructuralism to recognize that a book also derives from other books and texts, as well as from the social and historical conditions that prevailed at the time it was written. It is not surprising to find a corresponding confusion throughout between the (implied) author, narrator, and protagonist.

The other difficulty that arises with Schwerdt's approach is her use of Erikson's stages of ego development. In order to make Isherwood's novels conform to Erikson's successive stages of development, she frequently distorts the true nature of particular books. Thus she argues that Goodbye to Berlin, unlike Mr Norris Changes Trains, shows Isherwood's "increasing awareness of contemporary events and his grasp of the individual's responsibility for them," which is equivalent to Erikson's adolescent stage of development. In fact, as Samuel Hynes has suggested, the earlier book is about the irruption of the public into the private world of characters like Mr Norris and the narrator. Further, the parallels between the novels and Erikson's stages suggest that Isherwood must have been a very late developer, as he only reaches Erikson's task of young adulthood with The World in the Evening when he was 49 years old. Even this disparity might have made for some interesting diagnoses, but Isherwood's late development in Eriksonian terms is never investigated. A pity. [End Page 613]

Brian Finney
University of Southern California


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