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 …

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Letters

The Life of Literature May 15, 1997