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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 the invented one, and if the character he has created alters the truth of the original, he feels the necessity of explaining why this is so—justifying it perhaps, or perhaps admitting to a sense of inadequacy.

In certain cases his fiction is so successful in intensifying the reality of people that the fictitious character seems more like the person described than that person seems like himself or herself. Having known both Gerald Hamilton and Jean Ross, I simply cannot think of them except as their realer-than-life likenesses, Mr. Norris and Sally Bowles. I doubt even whether Isherwood himself can remember Jean Ross except as Sally Bowles. In Christopher and His Kind he reports a telephone conversation which he had with Jean after she had assumed the completely altered personality of a Communist Party member selling the Daily Worker in a London street:

I have no verbatim record of what she said…. The best I can do is report it in the style of Sally Bowles—which will be anachronistic, for Jean was now beginning to shed her Sally Bowles persona…. “Chris, darling, I’ve just met this marvellous man. He’s simply brilliant. I adore him…. No, you swine—we most certainly do not! He’s old—at least sixty….”

Consciousness of the real person standing behind the fictitious character makes Isherwood feel guilty when in Goodbye to Berlin he puts one of his characters—called Bernhard Landauer—in a far less active relation to the history of his time than was Wilfred Israel, on whom the character was based. Isherwood depicts Bernhard as effete, world-weary, over-subtle, languid, oriental. His profile is “over-civilized, finely drawn, beaky.” He is nearly always “tired, apathetic.” But, the original, the real Wilfred Israel, soon after the events described in Goodbye to Berlin, played a courageous role in fighting for the rights of his employees when the Nazis came to power. Although he had a British passport and was technically a British subject, he remained in Germany for another seven years. Then, when he finally did go to England, he dedicated himself to the cause of refugees. During the war he was killed when the plane in which he was flying from Lisbon, where he had been negotiating a deal to enable young Jewish refugees to emigrate to Palestine, was shot down. All this Isherwood records in Christopher and His Kind. In Israel, the memory of Wilfred Israel is still a legend.

In the case of Bernhard Landauer/Wilfred Israel, Isherwood is anxious, I think, to put right what he regarded as an injustice. But the overriding motive for these supplementings of fictions with facts is, surely, to attain the doubleness of historic truth as both the imagined and the literal fact.

Isherwood writes, at the end of My Guru and His Disciple, that at the age of seventy-five he still finds life beautiful, beautiful because of his relationship with his friend Don Bachardy, and

because of the enduring fascination of my efforts to describe my life experience in my writing, because of my interest in the various predicaments of my fellow travelers on this journey.

These are the words of a writer who is looking through the characters in his fiction to the companions he has known, and who feels that the experience he has of them adds up to a sum which is his life.

His extreme consciousness of himself as the observer at the center of his work has imposed limitations on his fiction. One such limitation is that the narrator, although clearly fascinated by evil, refrains from diagnosing it in characters transparent to him as people he likes. The title of his first novel All the Conspirators really describes a great deal of his fiction, in which the characters seem in a conspiratorial relationship with each other and with the narrator. One has the sense of Isherwood gladly suffering the scattiness of Sally Bowles or the criminality of Gerald Hamilton through the humoring imagination. Auden’s sonnet “The Novelist” is about Isherwood. It ends:

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

The characters in the novels have the air of all belonging to a mutually accepting Isherwood Club. Paradoxically, Isherwood sometimes comes nearer to giving them moral significance in his depiction of their real-life personalities than of their fictitious characters. Mr. Norris in the novel about him is an amusing and loveable old rogue, who never seriously harms anyone. But in his account, in Christopher and His Kind, of Gerald Hamilton—the original of Mr. Norris—we are told in what is a glimpse of a Dostoevskian underground:

He inhabited a world into which Christopher had barely peeped: one might call it “real” because it was without hypocrisy, its ends and means were frankly criminal. It was a world in which appalling things could happen to you as a matter of course; ruin, prison, even murder.

Isherwood writes that he likes Gerald Hamilton but nevertheless suspects him of being instrumental in having handed his friend Heinz over to the Nazis (after obtaining a large sum of money from Isherwood—or from his mother—for the purpose of getting Heinz a Mexican passport); for he knew Hamilton to be “capable of anything.”

Seeing always the person he likes behind the fictitious character, the narrator retreats when he finds himself on the verge of attributing to him or her behavior which is really evil. In the section of Down There on a Visit called “Ambrose,” “Christopher” in his diary records his reaction on learning that one of the boys on the Greek island where the charming and learned but drunken English archaeologist Ambrose is building a house has raped a chicken, a portion of which the diarist-narrator has just eaten:

As for me, I am disgusted, of course. Not so much for reasons of prudery as because it was cruel to the chicken; and yes, to be frank, because I ate some of it and the thought of this kind of indirect contact with Theo makes me want to throw up. Yet—it had, as Ambrose says, been thoroughly cooked. And—I can’t help it—I’m grinning as I write this….

What is this island doing to me?

This has the kind of built-in ambiguity of quotations from Isherwood’s diary which run through many of his writings. Is this diary-writing Christopher a partly fictitious character in his own fiction smiling at the wickedness of the boys on the Greek island where he and his German friend Waldemar are helping Ambrose build a house, or is it Isherwood, standing apart from people and events—including the diarist—on the island that he now sees to be a circle of Hell? So in the fiction Isherwood does not pass judgment on his characters. But in the autobiographies he reconsiders some of them as cases to whom the novelist has done more or less than justice. But the person on whom he passes most severe judgment is himself, and the progression of his work is toward increasingly critical self-knowledge. Sparing his friends, it is in himself that he diagnoses the good and evil world. Toward the end of Christopher and His Kind he discovers in himself the evil and despair which are Goethe’s “the spirit that denies.” This is in effect the starting point of My Guru and His Disciple:

The more I think about myself, the more I am convinced that as a person, I don’t really exist. That is one of the reasons why I can’t believe in any orthodox religion: I cannot believe in my own soul. No, I am a chemical compound, conditioned by environment and education. My “character” is simply a repertoire of acquired tricks, my conversation a repertoire of adaptations and echoes, my “feelings” are dictated by purely physical, external stimuli.

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