Friday, 24 February 2017

Book Review: A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood isn’t always easy to understand and even less to wholeheartedly accept and support the choices of others. Of course, we all want family, friends, everybody in the whole world to be happy and contented, but our definition of what is good and right is largely determined by personal as well as society’s standards. It’s true that in our modern western world social conventions are no longer as narrow as they used to be, and yet, there are still limits that we sometimes protect fiercely as if the future of men depended on it. In Christopher Isherwood’s novel from 1967 titled A Meeting by the River, the Englishman Patrick visits his younger brother Oliver in a monastery near Calcutta to dissuade him from becoming a Hindu monk because he thinks that it’s only a whim and ends up confessing a side of himself to which he doesn’t dare to stand publicly.

Christopher Isherwood was born in High Lane, Cheshire, England, U.K., in August 1904. He studied in Cambridge and shortly at King’s College in London, but never took a degree. After having written a volume of nonsense poems that wasn’t published until a few years before his death, he made his debut as a novelist with All the Conspirators in 1928. The same year he followed his friend W. H. Auden on a trip to Berlin, Germany, and stayed there until Hitler came to power in 1933. He then undertook extensive travels and brought out the novels Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935; also published as The Last of Mr Norris) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) that were later published together as The Berlin Stories (1945). In 1939, he and W. H. Auden went to the USA to escape war and Christopher Isherwood settled down for good in Hollywood, California, USA. Along with various works produced in collaboration with other authors, his most notable novels of the following decades are Prater Violet (1945), Down There on a Visit (1962), A Single Man (1964), and A Meeting by the River (1967). Christopher Isherwood died in Santa Monica, California, USA, in January 1986.

When the unlike brothers Oliver and Patrick have A Meeting by the River Ganges a few miles outside Calcutta in the mid-1960s, it’s the grand finale of what started with a letter that Patrick received from Oliver during a business trip to Los Angeles after years of complete silence. In it Oliver tells his elder brother whom he adores and challenges at the same time that he lives in a Hindu monastery in India and is about to take his vows to become a monk. More importantly, though, he begs Patrick to break the news to their mother back home in England.
“… I have let things slide so long that it has become almost impossible for me to tell her myself. From me she’d expect a lengthy explanation and that would involve me in all kinds of oversimplifications and rationalizations in order to make her understand, or imagine she understood. … If you can manage to reassure her somehow then she’ll soon lose interest in the whole business. You always used to be so clever at calming her down and getting her to accept accomplished facts.”
Patrick considers his brother’s wish to become a monk another one of his passing whims like joining the Quakers and going to Africa as a relief worker several years before. Nonetheless, he complies with Oliver’s plea and informs their mother reassuring her that he’ll visit his brother in India to do everything in his power to change his mind. Also in his letters to his wife Penelope, who happened to be Oliver’s girlfriend once, Patrick doubts the sincerity of his brother’s seemingly sudden vocation. In reality, he admires his little brother for always doing what he wants instead of what others expect and is painfully aware of not having the same courage to leave the safe haven of conformity behind. After his departure for India, he writes letters of passionate longing to a young man called Tom with whom he had a love-affair in Los Angeles knowing all too well that he’ll never allow it to become public. Meanwhile, Oliver’s feelings about Patrick’s visit are ambiguous.
“Patrick can disturb me so terribly because he can make me question the way I live my life. I’m fairly sure he doesn’t do this consciously – he doesn’t have to know what he’s doing, because he does it by just being himself. And I’m quite sure I could never make him question the way he lives his! What I must keep reminding myself is that it’s I who give him this power. His power over me is nothing but my own doubt and weakness. … “
Indeed, Patrick soon sets out to undermine Oliver’s belief and determination. And then a desperate phone call from Tom that Oliver takes by mistake, turns Patrick’s visit into a confession.

Christopher Isherwood’s last novel titled A Meeting by the River is an epistolary work that along with the correspondence between Oliver and Patrick and several letters that Patrick writes to their mother, to his wife Penny and to his secret American lover Tom comprises also Oliver’s diary started as a spiritual exercise to clear his mind before taking the final monastic vows. There is only a marginal plot that highlights what from my outsider’s point of view (I was born a few years after the book was first released) seem the two central themes of the 1960s, namely sexuality and spirituality. The entire novel lives off the contrasting characters of humanitarian and spiritual Oliver who always tries to be faithful to himself and of his conformist elder brother Patrick who has arranged himself with married life although he is bisexual and obviously more attracted to men. Certainly, sibling rivalry plays a certain role too. The author skilfully used letters and diary entries to give them the feeling of real and very nuanced human beings who choose carefully which side of themselves they show and how truthful they are in the respective social context. The language of the novel is unpretentious which makes it easy to read.

The short novel A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood was a quick and pleasurable read for me. I particularly enjoyed the authentic tone of the letters and the diary entries. Considering that Eastern philosophies and religions were rather popular in the 1960s, even the plot seemed realistic to me and made me wonder how many Westerners actually entered Hindu and Buddhist monasteries during that period. It would have been a nice extra to learn a little more about Hindu religion along the way, but it didn’t really matter that I didn’t. The story was compelling as it was and deserves my recommendation.

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  1. I have read Prater Violet and enjoyed the excellent writing. I think I will add this one to my 1967 lists.

    1. For me A Meeting by the River was a first although I long wished to read Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin on which the musical Cabaret is loosely based. But for my Month of Letters I needed an epistolary novel and this one fitted in perfectly.


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