Authors: Christopher Isherwood
ALSO BY CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD
All the Conspirators
Lions and Shadows
The Condor and the Cows
The World in the Evening
Down There on a Visit
Ramakrishna and His Disciples
A Meeting by the River
Kathleen and Frank
Christopher and his Kind
My Guru and his Disciple
Mr Norris Changes Trains
Goodbye to Berlin
With Don Bachardy
With W. H. Auden
The Dog Beneath the Skin
The Ascent of F6
On the Frontier
Journey to a War
Christopher Isherwood was born in Cheshire in 1904. He began to write at university and later moved to Berlin, where he gave English lessons to support himself. He witnessed first hand the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany and some of his best works, such as
Mr Norris Changes Trains
Goodbye to Berlin
, draw on these experiences. He created the character of Sally Bowles, later made famous as the heroine of the musical
. Isherwood travelled with W.H. Auden to China in the late 1930s before going with him to America, which became his home for the rest of his life. He died on 4 January 1986.
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Epub ISBN 9781446419281
Published by Vintage 2010
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Copyright © Christopher Isherwood 1964
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First published in Great Britain in 1964 by Methuen & Co Ltd Published by Minerva 1991
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TO GORE VIDAL
Waking up begins with saying
. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised
, and therefrom deduced
I am now
comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because
, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself; what’s called
isn’t simply now.
is also a cold reminder; one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every
is labelled with its date, rendering all past
obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: It will come.
Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.
But meanwhile the cortex, that grim disciplinarian, has taken its place at the central controls and has been testing them, one after another; the legs stretch, the lower back is arched, the fingers clench and relax. And now, over the entire intercommunication-system, is issued the first general order of the day: UP.
Obediently the body levers itself out of bed – wincing from
twinges in the arthritic thumbs and the left knee, mildly nauseated by the pylorus in a state of spasm – and shambles naked into the bathroom, where its bladder is emptied and it is weighed; still a bit over 150 pounds, in spite of all that toiling at the gym! Then to the mirror.
What it sees there isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament. Here’s what it has done to itself, here’s the mess it has somehow managed to get itself into, during its fifty-eight years; expressed in terms of a dull harassed stare, a coarsened nose, a mouth dragged down by the corners into a grimace as if at the sourness of its own toxins, cheeks sagging from their anchors of muscle, a throat hanging limp in tiny wrinkled folds. The harassed look is that of a desperately tired swimmer or runner; yet there is no question of stopping. The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops. Not because it is heroic. It can imagine no alternative.
Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?
It answers them: But that happened so gradually, so easily.
I’m afraid of being rushed
It stares and stares. Its lips part. It starts to breathe through its mouth. Until the cortex orders it impatiently to wash, to shave, to brush its hair. Its nakedness has to be covered. It must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside, into the world of the other people; and these others must be able to identify it. Its behaviour must be acceptable to them.
Obediently, it washes, shaves, brushes its hair; for it accepts its responsibilities to the others. It is even glad that it has its place among them. It knows what is expected of it.
It knows its name. It is called George.
By the time it has gotten dressed, it has become
; has become already more or less George – though still not the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognise. Those who call him on the phone at this hour of the morning would be bewildered, maybe even scared, if they could realise what this three-quarters-human thing is that they are talking to. But, of course, they never could – its voice’s mimicry of their George is nearly perfect. Even Charlotte is taken in by it. Only two or three times has she sensed something uncanny, and asked, ‘Geo – are you
He crosses the front room, which he calls his study, and comes down the staircase. The stairs turn a corner; they are narrow and steep. You can touch both handrails with your elbows and you have to bend your head – even if, like George, you are only five eight. This is a tightly planned little house. He often feels protected by its smallness; there is hardly room enough here to feel lonely.
Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging,
jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them! The doorway into the kitchen has been built too narrow. Two people in a hurry, with plates of food in their hands, are apt to keep colliding here. And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken-off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.
He stands quite still, silent, or at most uttering a brief animal grunt, as he waits for the spasm to pass. Then he walks into the kitchen. These morning spasms are too painful to be treated sentimentally. After them, he feels relief, merely. It is like getting over a bad attack of cramp.
Today, there are more ants, winding in column across the floor, climbing up over the sink and threatening the closet where he keeps the jams and the honey. Doggedly, he destroys them with a Flit-gun and has a sudden glimpse of himself doing this; an obstinate, malevolent old thing imposing his will upon these instructive and admirable insects. Life destroying life before an audience of objects – pots and pans, knives and forks, cans and bottles – that have no part in the kingdom of evolution. Why? Why? Is it some cosmic enemy, some arch-tyrant
who tries to blind us to his very existence by setting us against our natural allies, the fellow-victims of his tyranny? But, alas, by the time George has thought all this, the ants are already dead and mopped up on a wet cloth and rinsed down the sink.
He fixes himself a plate of poached eggs, with bacon and toast and coffee, and sits down to eat them at the kitchen table. And meanwhile, around and around in his head, goes the nursery jingle his Nanny taught him when he was a child in England, all those years ago:
Poached eggs on toast are very nice—
(He sees her so plainly still, grey-haired with mouse-bright eyes, a plump little body carrying in the nursery breakfast-tray, short of breath from climbing all those stairs. She used to grumble at their steepness and call them ‘The Wooden Mountains’ – one of the magic phrases of his childhood.)