Issyvoo’s Conversion

My Guru and His Disciple

by Christopher Isherwood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 338 pp., $12.95

Christopher Isherwood has often been accused of egotism in his work. Yet in the sense in which the word is usually employed this seems to me to miss the point. The self-solidification of the true egotist acts as a wall between him and people. The strident ego sings only its own tune, blocks out the sounds of the others. The Isherwood ego is not of this kind. As he himself describes it in My Guru and His Disciple, it is an acute self-consciousness which makes even his most disinterested actions seem mockery to him. His ego is also an instrument of sensibility through which the people the novelist observes become transformed into characters in his fiction. The special thing about Isherwood is that he seems to find it so difficult to invent situations in which characters behave without that instrument of the self observing—Isherwood, Christopher, Herr Issyvoo—being palpably present. A novel in which he attempted to dispose completely of the ego character at the center of the action, The World in the Evening, he regards as a failure.

Despite his famous remark “I am a camera,” he knows very well that this metaphor is wrong and in a sense he has been withdrawing it ever since he put it forward. It is wrong because Isherwood is not, in himself or in his work, a passive inert observer. He is very much an instrument affecting and affected by the people he observes. Like a scientist who corrects the margin of error introduced into a test by the influence of the instrument upon the object, in his recent autobiographical writings—Christopher and His Kind and My Guru and His Disciple—he is concerned with correcting the error in the observing instrument. From the early Lions and Shadows onward, he has always warned the reader to regard his autobiographical writing as partly fiction. Quite obviously his fiction is overwhelmingly autobiographical.

Thus Christopher and His Kind corrects the Berlin stories by filling in the glaring omission of the fact that the narrator was homosexual. As he sees it now this omission falsifies the account of Isherwood’s relations with the German youth Otto, with whom he was in love, and with Sally Bowles, with whom he did not make love.

At the same time, these corrections are not a way of rewriting the stories. They are complementary to them. By the process of self-criticism, fiction and nonfiction add up to a whole which is closer to the truth than the fiction alone.

The reader may well ask: What is the purpose of this painfully conscientious comparing of fictitious characters with the originals from whom they were drawn? I think one answer is that unlike many novelists who have some real person in mind when they “invent” a character—and who forget the original when the character acquires an independent existence within the fiction—Isherwood imagines a character in a way which intensifies the reality of the person on whom it is based. He imagines the real person within…

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