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Christopher and Frank: Isherwood’s Representation of Father and Son in Kathleen and Frank

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 199-218 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0014

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Christopher saw how heredity and kinship create a woven fabric; its patterns vary but its strands are the same throughout. Impossible to say where Kathleen and Frank end and Richard and Christopher begin; they merge into each other. . . . Christopher has found that he is far more closely interwoven with Kathleen and Frank than he had supposed, or liked to believe.

—Christopher Isherwood, Kathleen and Frank

Stephen Spender spoke of his lifelong friend and asserted that Christopher Isherwood’s genius as a writer lay in his ability “to be entirely Christopher, and yet, at the same time to act out roles, as Chris, Mr Issyvoo, and someone who calls himself ‘I’” (11). With his adoption of a first-person, namesake narrator, Isherwood’s writing is often approached as autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Spender’s declaration implies that there is some kind of authentic Christopher, who fascinates the reader by continuously acting out roles. However, to the reader (as distinct from those who knew Isherwood as a friend) there are only the “roles,” and the impression gained from these is that there is a multiplicity of “selves” that change in time, change as self-images shift, change as intellectual preoccupations shift, and that also change as a function of literary mode.

With the death of his father in World War I when Isherwood was only eleven years old, the traditional patriarchal figure was absent from much of his early childhood. Isherwood attempts in his writing of Kathleen and Frank not only to rediscover a relationship with Frank Isherwood, but also to consider the effects of his loss. Although it was not until Kathleen and Frank that Isherwood engaged with his father by name, the themes that are raised within this biographical analysis of his father’s death and the effect that this had on his childhood can be witnessed in his earlier writing.

In his discussion of Isherwood’s representation of fathers and sons, Paul Piazza emphasizes that two “father types appear in Isherwood’s fiction: in the early novels, the forbidding ghost whose legend, kept alive by Kathleen, emasculates his son; and in the later books, after Isherwood’s settling in America and adoption of Vedanta, the sympathetic, broadly human, anti-heroic father” (55). This dichotic division can be specifically linked to the discussion of Isherwood’s paradoxical concepts of Strength and Weakness, which are specifically linked to images of heroics. Isherwood most clearly analyzes these concepts of heroics in his early “autobiography” Lions and Shadows (1938). Adopting psychoanalytical terminology borrowed from Eugen Bleuler’s Textbook of Psychiatry,1 Isherwood constructs an ideological stance for understanding his male characters and examines the idea that “stillness” is not an illness to be cured, but evidence of real strength (see Bleuler 531 and Isherwood, Lions 163–64).

According to Piazza, the young male protagonists of Isherwood’s early writing are haunted by memories of dead-fathers; they are forced into neurosis because of their own “weakness” when compared to their father’s “heroics.” This argument can be extended so that the father-figures of Isherwood’s early novels are seen as representative of the Truly Weak Man and those of the later books the Truly Strong Man, which Piazza links to Isherwood’s conversion to Vedantism and his subsequent spirituality.

However, I contend that the emphasis Piazza, amongst other critics, places on Isherwood’s move to America and his conversion to Vedantism is too simplistic. The manner in which Isherwood writes in reference to his own conversion to Vedantism is symbolically another way of “finding himself,” another step on his journey of self-discovery as explored and represented in his writing. The mode of self-discovery shifts its emphasis to some extent towards the spirituality and inner-peace of Vedantism as Isherwood’s writing matures; however, there remains consistently a repetition of themes that he had developed earlier.

For example, one can witness father-figures portrayed in Isherwood’s pre-1939 books that are representative of the Truly Strong Man, the anti-heroic hero that the young male protagonists wish to emulate rather than fear (specifically the father-figure Richard Vernon in Isherwood’s second published novel The Memorial, from 1932...



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