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The Long Littleness of Life

Christopher Isherwood: Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960

edited and introduced by Katherine Bucknell
HarperCollins/A Michael di Capua Book, 1,048 pp., $40.00


Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden left their country of birth—effectively forever—on January 19, 1939. Their departure for America was widely construed as an act of desertion if not of cowardice. In his Munich-era novelette Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh lampooned the pair as “Parsnip and Pimpernell.” He went slightly further than the insinuation of funk: “What I don’t see is how these two can claim to be contemporary if they run away from the biggest event in contemporary history. They were contemporary enough about Spain when no one threatened to come and bomb them—.” (For additional taunt value, Waugh put these words into the mouth of an ill-favored female Trotskyist of advanced opinions.)

These diaries begin on the day that the ship left the dock, and they show Isherwood engaging with precisely those sorts of suspicion. Was his pacifism based merely on fear, and on the misery he felt at the horrible death of his adored father on the Western Front in 1915? And how could it be squared with his antifascism? On the matter of physical courage he had come to feel more secure since making his voyage to China with Auden the previous year (the voyage that resulted in their co-authored Journey to a War). As he recollects that trip, in his very first entry:

True, it wasn’t really very dangerous; I think there were only three or four occasions on which we were likely to be killed by bombs or bullets. But a very little danger will go a long way psychologically. Several times I had been afraid, but healthily afraid. I no longer dreaded the unknown.

Reassured on this score, he reflected on his hatred of Nazism. Throughout the 1930s, Isherwood had been a dedicated and conscious antifascist (which is more, I cannot resist adding, than could be said for Mr. Evelyn Waugh). But now his longtime lover, Heinz Neddermeyer, had been captured by the Gestapo, severely punished, and put into uniform. So had many other German boys of Isherwood’s acquaintance. Could he acquiesce in doing to them what had been done to his father?

Suppose I have in my power an army of six million men. I can destroy it by pressing an electric button. The six millionth man is Heinz. Will I press the button? Of course not—even if the 5,999,999 others are hundred per cent Jew-baiting blood-mad fiends (which is absurd).

But anti-Nazism was qualified, in Isherwood’s mind, by more than just this rationalization:

One morning on deck, it seems to me, I turned to Auden and said: “You know, I just don’t believe in any of it any more—the united front, the party line, the antifascist struggle. I suppose they’re okay, but something’s wrong with me. I simply can’t swallow another mouthful.” And Auden answered: “No, neither can I.”—In a few sentences, with exquisite relief, we confessed our mutual disgust at the parts we had been playing and resolved to abandon them, then and there. We had forgotten our real vocation. We would be artists again, with our own values, our own integrity, and not amateur socialist agitators, parlor reds.

As more and more baggage went over the side, Isherwood realized that he was going to need some sort of ballast even so. Auden, he reflected, “had his Anglo-Catholicism to fall back on—. I had nothing of this kind, and I didn’t yet clearly realize how much I was going to need it.”

The first third of this diary is preoccupied almost exclusively with the working out of these themes. It proved harder than anticipated for Isherwood to remake himself as a homosexual and artistic free spirit in the New World. For one thing, he hadn’t completely succeeded in convincing himself that it was right to leave England. The diaries continue to worry at the point. In early 1940 he receives a letter from the “William Hickey” columnist of the London Daily Express. It contains the following verse:

The literary erstwhile Left-wellwisher would
Seek vainly now for Auden or for Isherwood:
The dog beneath the skin has had the brains
To save it, Norris-like, by changing trains.

Why,” asks Isherwood, “does this sting me so? Simply because it is really clever—. I am not in the least ashamed of myself, but I feel foolish.” (How, I wonder, would Isherwood have felt if he had known that “William Hickey” was the pseudonym for Tom Driberg, a leading member of the gay and left underworlds and a man later to be accused of keeping unseemly company with Guy Burgess?) However outwardly defiant of such teasing, Isherwood now tells us that he went to the length of writing to the British Embassy in Washington and “offering, if necessary, to return to England and serve in a noncombatant capacity.” The Embassy took the news calmly, not to say indifferently, and Isherwood felt that he had at least tried to clean the slate.

Katherine Bucknell’s exemplary editing and arrangement of these journals has divided them into three parts. Part One, The Emigration, takes the reader from January 19, 1939, to December 31, 1944. Part Two, The Postwar Years, runs from January 1, 1945, to December 26, 1949, and from April 11, 1948, to April 13, 1956. Part Three, The Late Fifties, stretches from April 14, 1956, to May 25, 1958, and from May 26, 1958, to August 26, 1960. The dates conceal a hiatus of almost two years between 1945 and 1947, during which Isherwood underwent a species of mid-life crisis and made no entries at all. Otherwise, however, he was true both to the boyhood habit of writing daily in a journal, and to the more elaborate maintenance of a record of private fantasies, first evolved in Cambridge with his lifelong friend Edward Upward and distilled into the half-sinister and half-playful world of the Mortmere stories they wrote together.

The Emigration shows Isherwood establishing the contacts and filiations which were to determine the rest of his life in America. He decided to leave Manhattan to Auden and to begin anew on the West Coast and within reach of Hollywood: not to be a camera but to work for the camera. He fell in with the hermetic world of Swami Prabhavananda with whom he associated in what he himself described as a “guru and disciple” relationship for three decades, and with whom he was to produce a translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. And he joined a loose-knit world of mainly English, Russian, and German artists and writers—ranging from the Stravinskys to the Brechts and the Thomas Manns and including Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard—who were either exiles or émigrés. One month into the Second World War he is at Tujunga Canyon with Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Krishnamurti, Anita Loos, and Greta Garbo, Russell having “the air of a father joining in a game to amuse the children.” To judge by the account he gives of this somewhat strained occasion (Garbo and Krishnamurti were rather afraid of each other; Isherwood himself was rather too forward with Garbo), it’s a mercy that Fleet Street cynics were not on hand to immortalize it.

A number of asides make it plain that he either wanted or expected his diaries to be read later on by other eyes. So his initial reactions to the world of mescaline and Ojai and Llano and Om and enlightenment and California mysticism form a kind of period piece. He recorded them at first in the same wry fashion with which he had observed the foibles of Berliners:

The place is run by a Mrs Behr, one of those art-corsairs of the desert, in bold gaudy clothes, who speak of their guests as “my little family.” The guests were third-rate film notables, some nice college kids, with sound teeth, clear empty eyes and consciences, and a young man dying of TB who publishes a weekly newspaper supposed to be written by his dogs.

In a solemn talk with Gerald Heard about the three stages of “the enlargement of consciousness” he sets down, in what I suppose might be termed a deadpan fashion, the following aperçu:

Gerald told me how, the other day, he was looking into the bowl of the toilet: a green light fell on the porcelain, through the leaves outside the window, and it appeared to him “as it really was.” “Nothing else mattered to me at that moment. I could have gone on looking at it for ever.”

One almost wishes that he had; as the diary progresses we encounter Heard as that most dangerous of types, the micro-megalomaniac. Content to domi-nate and impress a small flock, and a living example of the precept about a little learning, he had a mental sail so rigged as to be swelled by any little zephyr of bogus philosophy or pseudoscience. Isherwood seems to have forgiven him much, including an early fas-cination with UFOs, for his strength of personality and for his appearing to lead that “intentional life” that he always so envied in others.

As the war progressed, Isherwood’s pacifism became tougher and less apologetic. He even attacks Erika Mann’s “hate lectures” against the Nazis. And he is terribly upset when his old friend E.M. Forster comes out for the Churchill side in a pamphlet called Nordic Twilight:

Certainly, life would be ten thousand times worse under the Nazis. Churchill, from his point of view, is absolutely right when he says this, and absolutely right to fight Hitler. But from Morgan, our philosopher, we expect something more—. There are plenty of people able and willing to sound the call to battle. To stand up for the half-truths and the relative values. To preach the doctrine of the Lesser Evil. That is not Forster’s function.

(And now I wonder about that crack-up in 1945, where the diaries break off. Having mentioned the eerie figure of “six million” in his argument about not killing Heinz under any circumstances, did Isherwood have another crisis when the crimes of the Third Reich were fully exposed? He never alludes to the subject here, though in later memoirs, such as Christopher and His Kind (1976), he restated the dilemma but dropped the words “six million.”) However that may be, it ought to be said for Isherwood that he fought his corner hard, and had terrible rows with the Brechts when they might have done him some good in Hollywood, and ignored Berthold Viertel’s advice not to offend the Germans and Jews from whom he might have to earn his bread. Still attempting to prove something about himself, he quit California in October 1941, and went to work as a Quaker volunteer among German refugees who had recently arrived in Pennsylvania. Here, in that odd part of the state where all the place names are Welsh, he made another stab at “intentional living” combined with self-sacrifice and spirituality.

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