The Clock at the Biltmore — Christopher Isherwood: “I Am Waiting”

I’ve been slowly reading Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, which contains Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, and I’m surprise, as I frequently am, at how such a great author can slip somewhat under the reading radar — at least, under my reading radar.  I’m loving these books, so I decided to see if he’d published anything in The New Yorker.  Turns out, he published two.

“I Am Waiting” was first published October 21, 1939, a momentous and fearful time for the world.  This story appeared just weeks after the invasion of Poland.  As suggested to in the book titles above, Isherwood had spent some some time in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and he had spend much of the 1930s travelling Europe.  He was very sensitive to the state of world affairs and to the general anxiety, and he plays with that in this very strange sad story.

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But before we look at that, let’s look at the beginning of the story, where Isherwood introduces us to his narrator and teases us with a vague allusion to the strange content we’ll be uncovering:

The incidents which I am about to describe are true, but I can offer you no proof — at least not for the next five years.  By that time you will probably have forgotten you ever read this story.  So please believe it or disbelieve it, just as you wish.

Today, October 17, 1939, is my birthday.  At the age of sixty-seven I am what you, or anybody else, would call a failure.  I have no career, no outstanding achievements behind me.  I have never married and I cannot truthfully say that I have ever been loved, though half a dozen people are, perhaps, mildly fond of me.

This is very sad, though many of Isherwood’s characters are sad, and always in such direct prose.  The narrator’s situation in life is made the more bleak when he tells us who those half dozen people might just be.  He lives in his brother’s house.  His brother is everything he is not: he is an energetic lawyer and successful family man.  His brother is married to Mabel who is “very kind to me on the whole — as long as I am careful to be tidy and not unnecessarily visible.”  His brother and Mabel have three sons who are all married and who all frequently visit — “All these people are well disposed toward me, I think.”

This seems to be developing as one would expect — though in better prose – until this line: “With reference to the story which follows, I need only add that I have never at any time had reason to believe that I possessed psychic powers.”

I was not expecting anything like that to enter this story, even though the narrator warned us that we might not believe this story and that there would be no evidence for five years.  But “I Am Waiting” turns out to be quite fantastic.

The narrator continues to describe a few occurrences throughout 1939 where he had some sort of foresight.  Apparently he is actually travelling momentarily into the future.

No words of mine can describe the strangeness of those familiar words and sounds.  I listened to them as a dead man might listen to the voices of the living.  They were so near to me, and yet so immeasurably remote.

When he returns to the present he is invigorated, but there is still something pathetic about him.  Just look how Isherwood has him describe his experience:

I was deeply excited and disturbed.  Although it still wasn’t entirely clear what had happened tome, I was aware that something had happened, something so dimly tremendous that it dwarfed every other experience of my whole life.

To me, that is still very sad, for though he has had a momentous experience — travelling to the future is a big deal — he has brought nothing useful back.  No one will know he’s even left the present.  It is “dimly tremendous.”

A much more momentous event happens not long after, while he is rummaging around the trunk room.  After a more violent sensation than before, he finds himself in the same trunk room, only now it is almost bare.  After he finds that the door is locked, he begins to panic, only calming himself when he tries to do what he thinks his brother would do.  In searching for any resources available, he finds some papers from a magazine published July 1944.

Only an archeologist can imagine the intensity of my excitement at that moment.  Here was an actual tiny fragmnet of the future itself, palpable to my present-day fingers.  It had been manufactured by men who could answer, off-hand, many of those burning questions which still perplex the wisest mortals of 1939.  Shaking with eagerness, I began to read.

There is something prescient about the date of the magazine.  Indeed, we know that many magazines from July 1944 would have a great deal of information of interest to someone in 1939.  And even our failure of a narrator wants to know “Had the United States entered the war?  Had there been a revolution?  What is happening in Europe?  In China?  In the Near East?”

The rest of the story is brilliant.  I’m sure some of you have more insights on it than I do, so please, offer them up in the comments.

4 thoughts on “The Clock at the Biltmore — Christopher Isherwood: “I Am Waiting””

  1. Rhys says:

    Good morning Trevor……you have me intrigued here. Last Saturday we went to watch the film of A Single Man which is just out here in UK and my wife and I found there was interesting things about those characters and the ideas behind the story to talk about on the way home….although I think the film story is flawed……so I agree Isherwood is worth taking time over……

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi Rhys, it was John Self’s review of A Single Man (the book) that got me looking into Isherwood. The bookstore didn’t have it, though, so I got the other. Sounds like a voice that really needs a bit of a revival.

  3. That does sound good. I haven’t read any Isherwood, but I think I’d enjoy him.

    It reminds me slightly, as described, of the Robert Silverberg novel Dying Inside, in which a man is losing the gift of telepathy he’s had all his life and it becomes apparent to the reader that for all he had this amazing power he’s done nothing with it – it’s made no real difference to him. The ability may be remarkable, but if the man isn’t…

    No link between the two I’m sure, just a coincidence of theme. But what a sad story this sounds, I wish I had insights to share but you do encourage me to seek him out and gain some.

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