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The Myths of Christopher Isherwood

1.

Most of Christopher Isherwood’s novels are autobiographical. Many are narrated by someone named either Christopher Isherwood or William Bradshaw. Despite this, Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood—the name he was given at birth in 1904—was in some ways the least egocentric of novelists. The narrator who shares his name seems almost invisible, merely a hole in the air. All the other characters, who reveal their secrets to him while asking nothing in return, are physically real and emotionally larger than life. The rogue and double agent Mr. Norris in Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), the bohemian chanteuse Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), the titanic film director Friedrich Bergmann in Prater Violet (1945), the dissolute archaeologist Ambrose and male courtesan Paul in Down There on a Visit (1962), and, in Isherwood’s fictionalized memoir Lions and Shadows (1938), the eccentric Hugh Weston, modeled on W.H. Auden, are all flamboyantly themselves, while “Christopher Isherwood” scarcely exists at all.

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Bettmann/Corbis
Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in London on their departure for China, 1938

In his nonfictional memoirs, Isherwood writes about himself as if he were not a single person but a disconnected sequence of persons. In Kathleen and Frank (1971) and Christopher and His Kind (1976) he writes about his present-day self in the first person, as “I,” and his younger self in the third person, as “Christopher.” Even his present self is less an individual than a generic member of a collective tribe—the gay tribe of Christopher and His Kind—or the replaceable occupant of a social role, as he describes himself in the title My Guru and His Disciple (1980). To an editor who met him infrequently, he seemed a different person each time.

He reported to a friend in 1939, “I am so utterly sick of being a person.” He was already, in private, convinced that he wasn’t one. “As a person, I really don’t exist,” he told his diary in 1938:

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.

In 1939, after leaving England for America, he took up Vedanta, a religion he had never heard of earlier. Journalists and friends imagined that he had experienced a conversion to new values and a new sense of himself. In fact, he had adopted a religion that, unlike the cradle-Christianity he was reared in, confirmed what he already believed, that his personality was an illusion from which he must escape.

Introducing a collection titled Vedanta for the Western World (1945), he envisioned “all the teachers and prophets” telling him: “Christopher Isherwood is only an appearance…. He has no essential reality.” A few years before his death in 1986 he told an interviewer that he still thought as he did in 1938: “I have no sense of myself as a person exactly, just as a lot of reactions to things.”

A Single Man (1964) was the first of his novels in which he made no secret of his homosexuality, and the book launched his public transformation into someone whom younger readers valued as a “gay icon” and a “role model.” Icons and role models are inherently generic; the more personal and idiosyncratic someone seems, the less other people can project on him an iconic, idealized version of themselves. Isherwood the gay icon provoked simple and intense reactions, both for and against, of a kind that Isherwood the man never prompted. Two book titles, The Isherwood Century (2000) and Middlebrow Queer (2013), suggest the opposing extremes of his reputation.

Much as he enjoyed iconic status—“my biggest emotional thrill” on a speaking tour “was my reception at the Gay Academic Union meeting”—he never confused his generic image with his private self. “I’d enjoy posing as one of the Grand Old Men of the movement,” he wrote in his diary. What gave him the most pleasure was not personal adulation but the collective response of one group to another:

The kind of love which young people feel for old figurehead people like me is perfectly healthy, beautiful indeed, not in the least silly and woe unto young people who are incapable of feeling it…. But it is so important for the old figureheads not to take this love personally; to understand that it is simply an effect of the interaction between age groups—to understand this makes it more beautiful, not less.

Yet his pleasure was mixed with his sense that an icon’s “warmest supporters are the ones who do the most…to make you look ridiculous.”

During his lifetime, A Single Man was the only book in which Isherwood portrayed himself as a fully formed individual, not as a repertoire of reactions or a member of a tribe. His fictional representative, George—like his author, an English expatriate teaching at a college in Southern California—has the titanic feelings and appetites that, in his other books, were reserved for everyone else:

I am alive, he says to himself, I am alive! And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight, and appetite.

Early in the book George thinks of himself as belonging to the homosexual “minority,” angrily at odds with the heterosexual majority, competing with other minorities for recognition of its sufferings. Later, the book unobtrusively transforms George from a partisan of one minority into an Everyman who shares with everyone else his membership in “the ranks of that marvelous minority, The Living.”

The price George pays for being himself is loneliness. He is a single man, not merely because his lover, Jim, has died the day before, but because the novel is built on two of Isherwood’s deepest beliefs, which he never fully articulated. One was his belief that he could enjoy any kind of relationship only by denying or suppressing his personality and either becoming a member of a tribe or filling a generic role. (He role-played, he said, “to reassure myself that I wasn’t alone!”) The other was his belief that he could, in fact, exist as an individual person, with an individual’s complex motives and contradictory feelings, but only secretly and in solitude.

He portrays himself in his diaries as a unique person, but during his lifetime he kept this portrait secret, even from his companion of thirty years, Don Bachardy, though he assumed that Bachardy would read and publish the diaries after his death. He was willing to let other people see who he was, but only when he was no longer there to be seen.

Unlike the insubstantial narrators of his novels and memoirs, the Isherwood of his diaries is emphatically tangible. Like Montaigne, he records bodily realities—physical discomforts, the consistency of his stools, his favored sexual position, his weight—in the same pages in which he thinks about society and art. The three posthumously published volumes of his diaries are more vivid, memorable, and complex than almost everything in his novels and memoirs.

In his last novel, A Meeting by the River (1967), Isherwood divided himself into two brothers whose diaries and letters narrate the story. One brother withdraws from the world to become a Hindu monk; the other returns to the world of emotional betrayals, public success, and sexual appetite. At the same time that Isherwood was simplifying himself into two cartoon figures who endure mirror-image doubts before settling back into their two-dimensional selves, he was portraying in his diary the tangled and unresolvable impulses of his single, solitary self.

2.

Isherwood was born into the English landed gentry, heir to two ancient houses in Cheshire. When he finally inherited, he was living in America, and signed over the estate to his younger brother. He was eleven when his father, who enjoyed painting and soldiering, was killed in World War I.

Isherwood spent much of his early life battling his mother, only intermittently aware that what he called his “puritanical nature” was a copy of hers. “I was an upper-middle-class Puritan, cautious, a bit stingy, with a stake in the land,” he wrote in a memoir. “At bottom, I’m stuffy and cautious,” he told his diary. “Snooty I must be,” he told a friend. At Cambridge he was too proud to accept anything less than the first-class degree that he had neglected to work hard enough to achieve, so he deliberately failed his exams by answering one question in sonnets and another with a textual analysis of the question itself.

His first two novels indicted his mother for the miseries of his whole generation. All the Conspirators (1928) reports its characters’ thoughts in a style derived from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but, unlike both his models, Isherwood was less interested in individual lives than in collective, tribal identities. In a preface to a later reissue, he observed that he had given inner lives only to the younger characters, even the contemptible ones; the older characters are merely surfaces:

Our youthful author is so emotionally involved in “the great war between the old and young” [a phrase from Shelley’s The Cenci] that he keeps forgetting his lesser loyalties and antagonisms. His motto is: My Generation—right or wrong!

His tribal enemies included his readers, from whom he concealed crucial events by describing them only in oblique retrospective comments. “I now detect a great deal of repressed aggression in this kind of obscurity,” he wrote later. His second novel, The Memorial (1932), was less aggressive, but still written more in Virginia Woolf’s style than his own.

Three years later, writing Mr. Norris Changes Trains, he found the transparent, colloquial style that he used for the rest of his life. It is made up of simple declarative sentences, varied by an occasional subordinate clause, typically appended to the end of a paragraph like an afterthought:

After lunch, Arthur [Norris] lay down to rest. I took his trunks in a taxi to the Lehrter Station and deposited them in the cloakroom. Arthur was anxious to avoid a lengthy ceremony of departure from the house. The tall detective was on duty now. He watched the loading of the taxi with interest, but made no move to follow.

Isherwood used this style when narrating a story and describing his characters, but switched to a more elaborate, metaphoric style when setting a scene, as in the opening of Goodbye to Berlin:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

The next paragraph begins with the famous sentence in which he declared himself not quite a person: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” The transparent and poetic variants of his style correspond to the two writers he most revered, Chekhov and Virginia Woolf.

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