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Exiled to the shallows

According to John Fowles, who wound up in Hollywood in the early 1960s to script a film version of his hit novel The Collector, the place was "sickly overeasy".

Above, Evelyn Waugh satirised Hollywood while living there; a still from the recent film of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. Right, Isherwood (on the left) with Aldous Huxley, who both eventually settled in Los AngelesMain photograph: Getty Images
Above, Evelyn Waugh satirised Hollywood while living there; a still from the recent film of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. Right, Isherwood (on the left) with Aldous Huxley, who both eventually settled in Los AngelesMain photograph: Getty Images

Its lack of history, artificiality, absence of identity (everyone was somebody else; the waiter in every restaurant was always an aspiring actor), all contrived to make the first generation of British novelists who headed out to Hollywood in search of sunshine, the movies and money, feel fairly "sickly overeasy", too.

Lisa Colletta's exploration of the time spent in Hollywood by the likes of Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse, Dodie Smith, Aldous Huxley and others both confirms stereotypes and confounds them. It seems inevitable that these writers would find, to their horror, that what they needed to evoke in their work was authenticity, and yet they had landed themselves in the least authentic place in the planet, lured there by the glamour of films and the vast sums of money Hollywood directors were prepared to pay for the credibility an established British writer could bring to their movies.

It is perhaps not entirely new to us that the studios themselves operated a strict hierarchy (where you were seated at a dinner party revealed what your status was), and that very little of what these novelists ever wrote for the movies was actually used in the end product (most of Aldous Huxley's words were re-written, and Dodie Smith and others recall their fury and disillusionment at endless re-writes by others of their carefully crafted words).

Yet for all our superior knowledge, the myth endures - the recent BBC TV comedy series Episodes shows two successful comedy writers bought by a Hollywood network to transfer their hit show for a US audience. They arrive dazzled by the sun, the wealth, the easy living - only to find their art suffering, both at the hands of the studio and the landscape surrounding them.

Colletta doesn't exactly argue that every artist needs a dingy garret to produce art, but she shows how luxury and ease can hamper its evolution. Waugh became full of almost crippling anxiety about the kind of values Hollywood promoted when he stayed there just after the Second World War at the invitation of MGM, who wanted to film Brideshead Revisited, and satirised those values in his novel, The Loved One. He famously lampooned the cemetery Forest Lawn, which had turned the business of death into the business of theme parks: lampooning was all there was to do.

For writers such as Waugh, the hills of Hollywood themselves became like a "deathscape" and satire seemed the only answer to a culture that depended utterly on celebrity and its twin attendants, youth and beauty. Both Huxley and Wodehouse particularly enjoyed targeting the Hollywood "ingénue" - the young actress who appeared innocent but really knew exactly what she was doing. Stories like The Rise Of Minna Nordstrom, for instance, stressed how manufactured the actors' identities were, with their teeth removed, their hairlines shaved, their names changed. In Laughing Gas, Wodehouse got rid of any romantic perceptions about Hollywood at all.

Yet it hadn't started out that way. As Colletta shows, most of these writers headed to Hollywood with great optimism and thought that the movies would be an exciting new way to tell stories, having realised quickly that the image was succeeding the word as the main form of storytelling. Some had other reasons for wanting to get away: from the war that had begun in Europe, because of their political views or pacifist beliefs; some wanted to be somewhere they could live more openly the way they wanted to - as a gay man, Christopher Isherwood found Hollywood a more liberating place to be and to write.

Britain was, at first, a dull, grey, backward place they had left far behind. Gradually though, these novelists felt it to be a more solid, wiser and more interesting country than they had been able to appreciate before, and Colletta points out that few of them satirise Britain in the Hollywood novels they produce (although few of them follow Fowles and Waugh and go back to the mother country - Isherwood and Smith made their homes in Los Angeles, for all its faults).

What this book is really about, though, is not so much Hollywood itself, or Britain, but the condition of self-imposed exile ("the modern form of tragedy"), and the effect that has on the artist who has exiled him or herself. In this respect, more biographical detail would have been much appreciated, and would perhaps have prevented the repetition that Colletta is a little prone to.

Many writers in the early 20th century fled their native countries for new experiences abroad, yet we tend to think more often of the James Joyce generation which went eastwards (his Stephen Dedalus famously "flies by those nets" as his creator leaves Dublin for Europe), of the Hemingways and HDs and Gertrude Steins, and we tend to forget the group that fled west instead.

Although Isherwood's A Single Man probably has had most recent attention, thanks to the Oscar-nominated film starring Colin Firth, Colletta doesn't really tackle why so few of the Hollywood satires that emerged from this era are read or valued today. Perhaps the ephemerality of the culture these writers fled to embrace, and which some of them, like Waugh, rejected as soon as they could, has infected the work they produced, making it ephemeral too.

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