Christopher Isherwood was one of those writers who constantly blurred the line between fiction and autobiography, most famously in his novel about pre-war Germany, Goodbye to Berlin. But from the same period of Isherwood's life comes the recently reissued Prater Violet (Vintage pound;5.99), a little gem of a book that provides both a snapshot of the European zeitgeist in the mid-Thirties and a memorable evocation of the exhilaration and tedium to be found in film-making.
In 1933, in London, Isherwood worked as a writer on the movie Little Friend. The director was Berthold Viertel, and Isherwood's affectionate, often very funny, portrait of Viertel (he becomes "Friedrich Bergmann" in the book) is at the heart of Prater Violet. With his pithy, bizarre opinions about the English, and his laconic world-weariness on the subject of the film industry, Viertel becomes the embodiment of a Central European cultural tradition facing its own Armageddon. Viertel crops up a good deal, unfictionalised, in Isherwood's Diaries, Volume One: 1939-60 (Vintage pound;9.99), which opens with Isherwood's move to California. With a gift for friendship (the index of names at the end runs to 80 pages) and a talent for observation, Isherwood was the ideal diarist.
The term "documentary" first gained currency in the Thirties with the work of John Grierson and others working in the GPO Film Unit. Its rather grey and worthy connotations are challenged in Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins' Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (Faber pound;11.99), which brilliantly draws together articles and interviews to illustrate the diversity of non-fiction film. From its earliest beginnings with the Lumi re brothers to cinema verite of the Sixties and the postmodern deconstruction of documentary, and on propaganda, this is essential reading for anyone interested in film, or in the relationship between society and the media.
Jenny Hartley's Millions Like Us: British Women's Fiction of the Second World War (Virago pound;14.99) provides an interesting counterweight to Under Siege, Robert Hewison's excellent survey of wartime culture. Where Hewison, concentrating on male writers, identifies an "inner emigration", a romantic flight from politics and austerity exemplified above all by the "new apocalyptic" group of poets, Jenny Hartley shows how the war prompted women writers to shift from a private to a public sphere.
The "people's war" was fought in the factories and the air-raid shelters as much as on the battlefield, and the reading public (the majority of whom were women) had a huge appetite for fiction that celebrated fortitude and the patient application to the common struggle. For a while at least, these public and democratic tendencies eclipsed the traditional snobberies of domestic fiction.
The public face of war is the subject of Elizabeth-Anne Wheal and Stephen Pope's The Macmillan Dictionary of the Second World War (pound;14.99). From ABDA Command ("Allied command for forces in the Far East") to Zuiho ("Japanese light aircraft carrier of the Shoho class") this reference book, like its companion volume, The First World War (Macmillan pound;14.99), contains just about everything the non-specialist is likely to want to know on the military and diplomatic aspects of the war. The maps at the back are somewhat rudimentary, but the text is clear and concise.