Friday, 25 October 2013

A Meeting By The River by Christopher Isherwood Review

Christopher Isherwood is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for a while and when my Pa gave me a copy of A Meeting by the River as a gift - a book he read while a young man though today has completely forgotten - I thought now was the time. I wouldn’t have picked this Isherwood if it’d been up to me, I was more interested in A Single Man, which was made into a film a few years ago starring Colin Firth, or the even more famous Berlin Stories which became Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret, but A Meeting by the River it was to be. And it’s not a long book either at under 200 pages. But boy, what a chore it became… 

Like a lot of 60s novels, this one is fascinated with Eastern spiritualism. Two estranged brothers meet up in India where the younger, Oliver, is about to take his vows and become a Hindu monk which makes his older brother Patrick, a well-to-do English publisher now working in Hollywood, dismayed. Patrick has gone to India to try to change Oliver’s mind before it’s too late. 

I’ve read many literary books I hated all the way through before - it’s how you get a literature degree - so I thought I could get through this; but then I remembered I’m not longer in uni and can read purely for fun now, so I gave this up. Objective literary criticism - if such a thing can exist - says that if a character or characters seem real, whether you like them or not, then it is true art, and Patrick and Oliver did seem realistic. 

Subjective literary criticism - or simply literary criticism - sways me the other way. Is this entertaining? No. Does it reveal anything particularly interesting about different cultures, sibling relationships, or religion? No. So what does it do? Nothing much of anything. We learn about the pettiness of both brothers via Oliver’s diary and Patrick’s letters, the mediums through which the story is told, but are spiteful characters difficult to write? I don’t think so - likeable characters, though, characters you care about are extremely hard to write and are the acid test of a truly great writer. 

And while Isherwood is a decent writer, the trope of having Patrick write his letters to three people - his mother, his wife, and his gay lover - to show his differing writing styles (prim and decent to his mother, gossipy with his wife, dark and sexual towards his boyfriend), revealing different sides to the story, was very on the nose and not nearly as clever as I’m sure he thought it was. 

Isherwood writes well which is different from both writing well and telling a compelling story, the latter of which I value and prefer more. I can appreciate the artfulness of it, but I can’t say I enjoyed a single page of it. Two thirds of the way through I dropped it in my bag of books headed to the charity shop and immediately felt better. Isherwood has probably written better books, and maybe the others I mentioned are better starting places, but A Meeting by the River is definitely not one of them.

A Meeting by the River

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