Lonely Christopher is reading All the Conspirators by Christopher Isherwood; below are his initial thoughts.
I was recently given a copy of All the Conspirators, Christopher Isherwood’s first novel from 1928, and, by a fluke, began reading it immediately (instead of relegating it to languish on the shelf, next to my unread copy of The Berlin Stories). I am not a diehard Isherwood fan, having only read A Single Man after watching Tom Ford’s delicious film adaptation, and was wholly unaware of this novel’s existence.
All the Conspirators, from what I understand, is commonly perceived as a piece of juvenilia: an amateur attempt that falls too often into pastiches of various modernist writers. It is indeed rather tonally uneven, overly ambitious in technique, and lacking clarity of style. Despite its obtuseness, though, I instantly found the story to be engaging. Although Isherwood apparently lacked a fully developed craft-sense, he was the perfect age (at twenty-one) to tackle a story about a listless young man named Philip who harbors a perpetually unfulfilled desire to become a painter and writer while his mother pressures him to keep his boring desk job.
Philip’s lazy idealism betrays his unfocused nature, especially in this self-righteous speech he delivers to his sister: “Mind you, I need every bit of my time. Just because I don’t want to be cooped up in this room all day, it doesn’t mean I could be at a job. One must move about and see things. Get ideas. Go to theatres, cinemas. One’s mind’s got to be free. Oh, it’s so obvious. But, of course, nobody understands. How can you, unless you paint or write yourself? People think an artist ought to sit on a stool and do his seven hours like an office clerk.” Of course, when given the freedom, Philip merely sits about, brooding and chain-smoking cigarettes. His mother, a few pages later, rebuffs her son’s ideological stance in this way: “When one’s young one wants to have all the fun out of life one possibly can. It’s only natural. And it isn’t till you grow older that you begin to see how true that old proverb is of the Hare and the Tortoise. The people who’ve idled about and wasted away their time get left behind[.]”
Although, later on in the story, the narrative begins to focus more on the courtship and engagement of Philip’s sister Joan, I instantly connected and identified with the struggle of the young artist desperately trying to actualize himself only to fall further into a despondent rut. This is basically the story of a family ruled by a practical matriarch. Her daughter falls under her reasonable influence while her son petulantly (albeit unsuccessfully) tries to break free. I have about fifty pages to go and Philip has just decided to leave his office job to relocate to Kenya and work on a coffee plantation. I can only guess he is riding, again, toward humiliating defeat.