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The Myths of Christopher Isherwood

The casual tone of Isherwood’s stories about Berlin—its resident Communists, Nazis, and bourgeois, and visitors such as Mr. Norris and Sally Bowles—led critics to treat him as more noteworthy for promise than achievement. He “holds the future of the English novel in his hands,” Somerset Maugham said. Cyril Connolly called him “our most promising novelist.” He was celebrated for a light and tolerant comic touch, but as he insisted in his diaries, his comic style made a serious point. The frivolities in the foreground never fully concealed the suicides and political murders in the background. Anyone with the safety and leisure required to write—or read—these stories was someone who turned away from the disaster.

At school Isherwood had met Auden, who was three years his junior; they became close friends when they met again after Isherwood left Cambridge. In the 1930s they collaborated on three plays for the left-wing London-based Group Theatre—The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1938)—and a travel book about the Japanese invasion of China, Journey to a War (1939). Their collaboration linked Isherwood to Auden’s burgeoning reputation as a political poet, but their plays were failures because the two authors thought in opposite ways about politics and persons.

The published text of Dogskin (the authors’ shorthand title) ends with a scene written by Isherwood in which the hero triumphs by affirming his collective identity. He tells his reactionary village neighbors: “You are units in an immense army…. I am going to be a unit in the army of the other side….We are all of us completely unimportant.” When the play was staged, Auden replaced this with a scene in which the hero is killed after urging his neighbors to renounce their passive existence as “units in an immense army,” and to become individuals who can choose for themselves: “I can only show you what you are doing and so force you to choose. For choice is what you are all afraid of.”

In January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York, where Auden thrived while Isherwood, feeling lost and directionless, traveled west to find in Hollywood both hack screenwriting work and the Vedanta temple. Auden never lost his sense of Englishness; Isherwood, more than any other expatriate writer, transformed himself into an American, though it took him twenty years to adapt his prose to American vocabulary and rhythms—twice as long as he expected when he said in 1943, “I’ll be working on that problem for the next ten years—to evolve an individual Anglo-American idiom.”

In the first novel he wrote in America, Prater Violet (1945), he avoided that stylistic problem by setting the book in London in 1933–1934, while the Nazis consolidate power offstage. It is effectively the third volume of a trilogy that began with his two books set in Berlin. He next wrote a forgettable travel book about South America, The Condor and the Cows (1949), and what he described accurately as “my worst novel, The World in the Evening” (1954).

Isherwood was bored by writing these two books but fascinated by writing his diaries—and by rewriting earlier diaries and destroying the originals. In his diaries, and in his published work after around 1960, he made himself American by taking strength from two widespread American myths that seemed to confirm beliefs that he had held privately and secretly when in England.

One of these myths held that one can only become oneself by insisting on being alone, unencumbered by entangling alliances and obligations. This was an idea shared by writers as various as Mark Twain—Huck Finn lights out for the territory to avoid being adopted and civilized—and Henry James, whose heroes and heroines choose the lonely integrity of honor over the corrupting compromises of love.

The second myth, a corollary of the first, held that the only relations worth having with other people were not the corrupting individual relations between Huck Finn and Aunt Sally, or between Lambert Strether and Maria Gostrey in James’s The Ambassadors, but those in which individual selves dissolve into something anonymous and collective. This myth is beautiful and moving in Walt Whitman; less so in twentieth-century fantasies, shared ambivalently by Isherwood, about every American’s supposed need to find a collective ethnic or sexual “identity.”

In public, and among groups of friends, Isherwood kept affirming his tribal identity as a gay man. “He always used the collective ‘we,’” David Hockney remembered; “we must do this, we must do that.” In private, in his diaries, he expressed outrage at injustices against his tribe, and at other collective injustices, but he wrote and thought as someone who felt alone in crowded rooms, someone who said “I” but not “you.” In the diaries, even Don Bachardy seems to exist as an individual person mostly when he is away from Isherwood; in their relations with each other, the two are transformed into impersonal roles, figures in animal masks: Isherwood is “Dobbin,” Bachardy is “Kitty,” who goes “mousing” when pursuing sex away from home. These names are less embarrassing on the page than one might expect. Isherwood, in his role as Dobbin, writes at one point that he “was so bored he could have neighed with anguish.”

Isherwood asks himself: “Who are you—who writes all this?… What am I, I wonder?… Don is real, but I take him for granted.” A recurring theme in his diaries—sometimes guardedly visible in his novels and memoirs—is Isherwood’s habit of treating others as roles or useful objects, not as persons. In A Single Man, George comes to accept his lover’s death: “Jim is in the past, now. He is of no use to George any more.”

Isherwood noted in his diary that Auden, though he admired A Single Man, “was shocked when George thinks that he will ‘make a new Jim.’” Isherwood misremembered what he wrote—in the novel George resolves to “find another Jim,” not “make” one—but he remembered what he meant. “Jim” was a role that could be filled by anyone with the required bodily and mental attributes. Isherwood explains to himself in his diary that Auden “refuses to believe that this is my own attitude toward human beings.” Like Isherwood, Auden had turned to religion in his first years in America, but Auden’s Christian belief that he was obliged to love his neighbor as himself took as its starting point the value and dignity of the self whose whole existence Isherwood’s Vedanta denied.

A few years after A Single Man, Isherwood obliquely acknowledged the effect on another person of being made to play a role that someone else wants him to fulfill. He and Bachardy collaborated on a screenplay, Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), in which Frankenstein’s creature is beautiful when first created, then turns ugly as the process of creation starts “reversing itself.” The psychological point is that the person who is made to play the role of a beloved Jim never entirely loses his individuality, and thereby makes himself ugly to his creator by refusing to dissolve into his creator’s fantasy about him.

3.

Liberation: Diaries, Volume Three: 1970–1983 is Isherwood’s most complex and engaging self-portrait, a posthumous triumph of the real person whose existence he doubted. He owes much of his triumph to Katherine Bucknell’s extraordinary tact and skill as editor. As in Diaries, Volume One: 1939–1960 (1996), The Sixties: Diaries, Volume Two: 1960–1969 (2010), and Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945–1951 (2000), Bucknell provides a sympathetic introduction, compact annotations, and an extensive “glossary” with biographical information about nearly a thousand people, many of them unknown to Wikipedia.

Bucknell’s notes highlight, among much else, Isherwood’s indifference to celebrity after years working in Hollywood. He visits the famous and notorious, but he also writes: “We visited Dorothy Miller who was adorable…. She is so full of inward joy that her complaints seem purely camp.” I assumed while reading this that he was writing about a film star; the glossary informed me that she had worked for Isherwood as a cleaner and cook.

Everything about Isherwood’s life is more nuanced in his diaries than in his books. He writes of his humility before his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, and another swami:

Don’t these two dear saints realize that it is the very height of pride for the proud man to have a few people before whom he humbles himself—as much as to say, behold, even I, in all my greatness, am bowing down!? That is exactly what T.E. Lawrence used to do.

His religion has less to do with escaping himself than with revering another self: “My religion is what I glimpse of Swami’s experience of religion.” Some of the prose equals his published best. After dinner with a friend and the friend’s boring companion: “It was like a meal with Frankenstein and the Creature: out of politeness to Frankenstein, you had to let the Creature ramble on and on, lest you should seem to suggest that Frankenstein had made a mess of him.”

He is glad to feel “a member of the tribe” when speaking in public, and rages intermittently against the heterosexual “Others.” Away from the public eye, he feels impatient with tribes and groups: “Oh dear, why do we have to go around in these tribes? I would so much rather be alone with any single one of them and communicate.” He is annoyed by anyone who behaves like a stereotypical group member, and is just as impatient with the members of his tribe when they act like “silly faggots” as he is with women who act tribally and stereotypically “cunty.” But he dislikes Jews merely for being Jews, no matter how they act.

A central theme of Peter Parker’s clear-eyed and indispensable biography Isherwood: A Life Revealed (2004) is Isherwood’s habit of reshaping facts when reporting them in letters, diaries, and memoirs, even when he claims to tell the truth about matters he had airbrushed earlier. “I keep wanting to rearrange and alter the facts,” Isherwood writes in his diary, “so as to relate them more dramatically to my reactions.” His transparent style makes his diaries read like vivid, objective reporting, but Parker notes how unreliable they can be, even about such easily verifiable facts as the plot of Cabaret, the film based on the Berlin stories.

Isherwood sometimes reports what seem to be facts, then reveals that he invented them, for example in an anecdote about his landlord, Norman Prounting, during a stay in London:

It turns out that Rory Cameron was the driver of the car which wrecked and so severely injured Norman Prouting, years ago, on the Riviera. Like the other passengers, all rich people, he apparently neglected Norman completely while he was going through the subsequent operations—Norman still limps slightly—and never offered to help him with money.

The next sentence exposes part or all of the story as Isherwood’s fantasia on a simple gesture that could have meant almost anything: “At least that’s what I infer, because of Norman’s reaction when I mentioned Rory’s name to him last night; he froze up solid.” Isherwood’s passive camera-lens style was the product of a shaping and insistent will.

In 1983, three years before he died of cancer, Isherwood stopped writing his first-person diaries. As he declined, Bachardy sat all day drawing portraits of him, leaving them on the floor as he finished them. A few weeks before the end, Isherwood roused himself to look at them and said, “I like the ones of him dying.”

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