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.
These pages are among the most touching, as well as the most amusing, in the entire book. It suited Isherwood in many ways to be dealing with the victims of Hitler fascism; the work was obviously worthwhile for one thing, and his Berlin street-wisdom came in handy. But he must have realized quite early on that the intense worthiness and dowdiness of Quaker life were not for him. (Among other things, it elevated the sacrament of marriage to an oppressive degree.) Before long, he is giving us the sorts of vignette that he had once culled from observing the clientele at Fräulein Schroeder’s pension:
I quite liked Timbres, who was a trained nurse and had been in Russia with her husband on some project when he died of typhus. She was a big woman with eyeglasses who made herself look like an elephant by unwisely wearing light blue. Hanstein was rather pretty and rather a bitch.
The sheer scale of certain female types always made a great impression on Isherwood:
She was a whale of a girl, with breasts like an Alpine meadow, and a great pouchy purple face surrounded by nondescript hair like sofa stuffing, worn in a sawed-off bob—. Betty Schloss had the largest behind in the world.
Meanwhile the war news is getting worse, and Isherwood’s contempt for those who follow it eagerly is intensifying. Shortly after Pearl Harbor “came news that San Francisco had been bombed; a journalistic rumor. A stout belligerent woman in the Haverford drugstore opined, ‘Well—I guess we can take it.”‘ There’s an authentic thrill of disgust in that glancing notice.
Three other things can be remarked of this period. First, Isherwood starts to use American locutions (“pinch-hit”) as if to the manner born. Second, he broods a lot on the ego, sometimes rendering it in upper case—when he is thinking about the Swami—and sometimes in lower case, when he is speaking of his own daily battles against selfishness. Third, he affords us a few glimpses of his homosexual life. In gen-eral the book is rather oblique about this, dwelling only on how things are going with X or Y, but in the war years Isherwood was still very much on the lookout. After an evening in Philadelphia he comes up with a marvelous metaphor—interpolated later into the diary—for the gay underworld:
The others went back by a late train to New York: Pete and I spent the night at our favorite haunt, the Camac Baths.
(It has always seemed to me that there is in fact only one Turkish bath—an enormous subterranean world, a delicious purgatory, a naked democracy in which the only class distinctions are anatomical. And that this underworld merely has a number of different entrances and vestibules in all the cities of the earth. You could enter it in Sydney and emerge from it to find yourself in Jermyn Street.)
And then to stand straight-faced in front of a solemn group the next morning thinking something like: “Bet you wouldn’t believe what yours truly was up to last night.” But not content to be the odd man out merely in this sense, Isherwood also felt the urge to be the gadfly at Friends’ discussions:
He also spoke about the Quaker theory of meditation: contact with the Inner Light. “The Quakers,” said Steere, “have only one dogma: God is available.” Of course, the connection between this and Vedanta is obvious. To hear what he’d say, I asked him, “Does a Quaker necessarily have to be a Christian?” Steere looked very sly and mysterious; I think he realised what I was driving at. “Well,” he answered, after a moment’s hesitation, “perhaps not necessarily. No.”
Still seeking a moral equivalent to Auden’s Anglo-Catholicism, Isherwood goes again to argue with Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley. They are most concerned about Aldous. He describes the encounter in his best Mr. Norris style:
“Did he—I mean—er, that is—do you mean to say he actually, er, really—prays?” “And why,” asked Bertie, “does Aldous talk about Ultimate Reality? Surely one kind of reality isn’t any more or less real than another.”
The exchange becomes a dialogue des sourds:
“You mean”—Julian was helping me out, now—“that what Aldous is after is some kind of psychological adjustment?” “Well, yes,” I said, “if you like to put it that way: everything’s a psychological adjustment: marriage, for instance, or learning Spanish, or becoming a fascist.” But they only nodded indulgently. “A psychological adjustment—“ they murmured to each other, no longer giving me their full attention, “Well, in that case, of course, one quite sees—“
Very well caught: two dry old Cantabrigian rationalists stuffing another pigeonhole. But it isn’t long before one starts to pine for a bit of pedantically rigorous materialism.
On his return to California, Isherwood keeps on recording things without comment—the internment camps for the Japanese, a headline in the Los Angeles Times reading “Uniform Veal Ceiling Near.” The ego and the Ego continue to oscillate.
If there’s anything I’m sick of, it’s personal relationships, on which I and the rest of my friendsused to expend a positively horticultural energy. Ah, what a coldness there was, underneath those “darlings,” those kisses, those hugs, those protestations! Here, I’m happy to say, all that seems meaningless.
“Here,” in this entry, is the Swami’s establishment on Ivar Avenue. But if Isherwood hoped to escape from petty personal relations in this setting, he was to be sorely disappointed. The place seems to have been a hellhole of rivalry, precedence, and sanctimony. Only a few weeks later he is writing:
As Amiya says, it’s the little things which are hard to take. No good making up all sorts of excellent and perfectly valid reasons why I should no longer be deprived of my room by Hayne, or annoyed by George’s chanting, Web’s alarm clock, Asit’s radio, Aparna’s beads—. I missed the prayer for the liberation of earthbound spirits and all the precautions against psychic obstacles.
One can only be subjective here. If you find this sort of thing tedious and irritating and shallow, then there is plenty of it to get you down:
July 28, 1943. Salka brought Garbo up to lunch at Ivar Avenue. The girls were all a-flutter, and Garbo didn’t disappoint them. She played up outrageously, sighing about how wonderful it must be to be a nun, and flirting with Swami, telling him about his dark, mysterious, oriental eyes. Sarada, of course, was convinced that Garbo’s soul is halfway saved already, and Swami says that now I have to bring him the Duke of Windsor—his other great object of admiration.
Good grief! And one doesn’t know whether Isherwood quite appreciates the absurdity or not. What is of interest, at this precise moment, is his decision to record the fact that: “I don’t really like Indians as a race; Swami is an exception.” Nor does this seem to have been the impulse of one day’s entry. In Palimpsest, Gore Vidal writes that in Rome, in 1962:
Isherwood stayed with us. He had just returned from his first trip to India. The culture shock had been extreme. “There are so many of them,” he said. “And how few there are of us, the white race. We must create special reservations for people like the Danes, to protect our exotic blond wildlife.”
Extraordinary to dislike Indians “as a race”; more extraordinary to make such an avowal without having troubled to visit India; more extraordinary still to exempt only Prabhavananda. And this is only the first time that a distinctly sour and misanthropic tone begins to be heard.
Isherwood seldom forgets to mention the anniversary of his beloved father’s death. And he tells us that the old boy had become interested in Buddhism before he was killed. With serene lack of affectation, and without ever making the connection on the page, he repeatedly refers to the Swami as a loving papa. As this first section draws to a close, Isherwood is becoming more introspective and repetitive, and less amusing. There are a couple of hilarious Audenesque and anal moments (“Oh God, make me into a public convenience—.” “I developed a pile. I called Peggy and suggested that Bill Kiskadden should come down and cut it open for me—thinking, in the kindness of my heart, that this would be a nice treat for him, since he never gets any surgery to do in the army.”) And it is fascinating to discover, even as the war is ending, that Isherwood still hasn’t quite absolved himself of the charge of desertion. Hearing of the heroic death of a German antifascist he asks: “What have I done today, to express my solidarity with such people? Nothing. Only one hour of meditation.” In a late 1944 letter to Cyril Connolly, who had criticized him in a much more fraternal fashion than Evelyn Waugh, he writes: “This is not in any way to defend my conduct in leaving England in the first place—that, I repeat, was irresponsible.”
Even as he writes this, he is feeling the tension between his duties to the ashram and his involvement with “X.” “X” was Bill Harris, with whom things ended badly. During the unrecorded years which mark the transition to Part Two and the postwar, Isherwood began a long affair with William Caskey. He abandoned the Swami’s tepid but stifling monastery nine days after the end of the war. The diaries don’t discuss the defection, but the experience is touched upon in two of the rather slight books upon which he worked at this time, Prater Violet and The World In the Evening.
In Prater Violet, he compares the prospect of a lofty spiritual annihilation to “the high far glimpse of a goat-track through the mountains,” clear and even tempting. “Then the clouds shut down, and a breath of the glacier, icy with the inhuman coldness of the peaks, touches my cheek. ‘No,’ I think, ‘I could never do it—. I should no longer be a person. I should no longer be Christopher Isherwood.”‘ This is very like the moment in The Ascent of F6 where Odell sees Malory and Irvine clinging to the icy crag before “the cloud hid them for ever.” As for The World In the Evening, which dwells more on the sexual trials of worldly renunciation, suffice it to say that the overwrought narrator is named Monk.
In Part One, Isherwood scarcely talks about his writing and seems not to have attempted much. In Part Two, he tries to start work again. Collaboration may have suited him when the writing partner was Auden, but the record of his script-partnerships as given here is not an encouraging one. Too much time spent in meetings and at the planning stage; too little finished material; too much socializing under the pretext of business. Hardly any of the screenplays were actually consummated as motion pictures. Meanwhile, Isherwood is noticing a decline in his body’s efficiency, including passages of impotence to which he recurs often in the diary, and leading to repeated resolutions to give up or cut down on smoking and drinking. These (with their immediately following accounts of tremendous relapses) do not make for very absorbing reading. The Swami, with whom he worked on a book about Vedanta, still exerts an influence. A sample entry from June 1952:
When I typed out the title page of the Patanjali this morning, I put “by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood,” and Swami said, “Why put and, Chris? It separates us.” It’s impossible to convey the sweetness and meaning with which he said this—. It’s his complete assurance, and his smiling, almost sly air of having a private source of information.
To say nothing of his not knowing the purpose or meaning of a conjunction. One wonders what they did put, in the end.
Another gap in the diary, in the same year, deprives us of any account of Isherwood’s return trip to Berlin. We know that he did succeed in finding Heinz Neddermeyer, who had survived the war and become a paterfamilias. We also learn that, until the crisis in Poland and Hungary in 1956, Neddermeyer opted to stay in the German Democratic Republic. Later mentions of him are few and terse, and feature him as a potential bore who might turn up unexpectedly or start asking for money:
Heinz has written, suggesting that I sponsor the immigration of Gerda, Christian and himself to the States, and that we shall then all live together in a house that I’m to buy. He offers, of course, to pay all the money back by degrees. And now I must answer his letter—explaining tactfully that this scheme is impossible; that is to say, I’d rather die than agree to it.
And for this youth he would once have spared the entire Wehrmacht—. In the year after the Berlin trip, Isherwood met Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior, and began the relationship which was to endure for the rest of his life. This put an end to a period of chaotic promiscuity, which had included at least one narrow-squeak bathhouse arrest. It also helped to confirm the new stability that had been conferred on Isherwood by the vast success of I Am A Camera, John van Druten’s stage adaptation of Goodbye to Berlin.
From this time forward, it has to be said, there is a noticeable contraction ofIsherwood’s horizons. Political remarks, though often acute, become fewer (General Douglas MacArthur is described as a “veteran diva”; the British aggression at Suez is touched upon quite shrewdly with a prediction that Eisenhower won’t let it succeed). Dylan Thomas does a drop-by and behaves just as every other pub-lished recollection of him suggests that he should. Shortly before his fiftieth birthday, Isherwood records the following:
As you get older, it’s as if a sort of film covers your perceptions of the outer world, most of the time. But there are faces which have a sharpness, a vital sharpness, like that of an instrument, which cuts through this film—so that they seem more real than anything else.
Compare this to “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
Rereading the Berlin novels recently, I was impressed again by the quality of careful, witty, humane curiosity about the lives of others. This is the quality that is absent from great desolate stretches of the middle and late sections of the diary. Moreover, when Isherwood attempts to compose any new fiction, which he does at an agonizingly slow and joyless rate, he finds himself forever pressing on the same nerve of pre-war authenticity, but with a tendency to diminishing returns. In describing Bernhard Landauer in Goodbye to Berlin, furthermore, he was alert enough to notice something he called “the arrogant humility of the East.” This is hugely preferable to the abject credulity he manifests in the presence of the Swami.
Observations about prose and poetry become less frequent. He re-reads an old favorite novel, The Counterplot, by Hope Mirrlees, which was once a standby but which on reconsideration “represents so much that I used to imagine I hated and was fighting to the death—Cambridge cleverness and the whole Waste Land technique of describing moods by quotations from the classics—in fact, indulging in moods that were nothing else but the quotations themselves.” But even flashes of this quality are rare. More typical is something like a description of a pointless 1955 festivity where:
I gave Harry the manuscript of Auden’s “Spain” in one of those cellophane-page albums with embossed leather covers which are designed to hold the pictures of Beverly Hills moppets. Harry cried.
Describing this gruesome-sounding party, which ended with practically everyone in tears before bedtime, Isherwood expresses distaste for the nasty atmosphere by introducing the word “niggery.” It’s a strange usage in more than one way (only white people are recorded as being present) and it crops up again in similar situations, adding its mite to the growing tone of misanthropy. One wonders where he picked up the term.
Isherwood retained enough self-awareness to know that he was dissipating his time and his talent. He even came up with a phrase, “the as-if life,” which still has a contemporary ring to it. Mescaline turns out to be a disappointment. “Japam,” the practice of repeating a mantra while telling a rosary, is honored more in the breach than the observance, appears to be largely fruitless, but leads to spasms of irritable guilt when not kept up.
The only redeeming aspect is the strong and consistent love he shows for Don Bachardy. And Mr. Bachardy, who holds the copyright in this trove of paper, deserves our thanks for his unflinching candor in allowing it to be published without redaction. The ceaseless rows and spats between the two men are set down in their raw, morning-after state, and make Angus Wilson’s novels seem quite reticent by contrast. Sexual disclosures are fairly rigorously avoided, though it becomes clear that Isherwood had given up cruising, while allowing Bachardy the occasional night off for extramural adventure. On a visit to Somerset Maugham’s villa, however, Isher wood records a moment of electrifying embarrassment when the great man’s valets “unpacked everything—including Don’s movie magazines, our powder to kill crab lice and our K.Y.” (Uninstructed readers may not automatically recognize the brand name of a popular sexual lubricant.)
At times, as Parts Two and Three merge, a new Isherwood despairingly sets down the futility and repetition that he feels himself powerless to resist. On his birthday in 1957:
Then we had a ghastly boring party at Gavin Lambert’s, and a much dreadfuller party at the Hackett’s to welcome Patrick Woodcock from England, and a mismatched emergency dinner at home for Dick Hopper and his friend John, to which we were compelled to ask Gavin Lambert so he and I could discuss the new script idea for Gingold, and a disaster dinner for the [Joseph] Cottens, Gore Vidal and Howard Austen, at which Gore insulted the Cottens’ darling friend Bouverie, the widower of his friend Alice Bouverie—calling him a crook, a fortune hunter and a cocksucker.
“Nina,” as Waugh put it in Vile Bodies, “such a lot of parties.” And thank heaven for a breath of fresh air from Mr. Vidal. Otherwise we would have to content ourselves with many entries like: “Don sulked last night because the bathroom light dropped on his head and he thought my attitude was callous.” Comparatively seldom are the sardonic moments of distance or self-awareness (“Johnnie—told me, with the air of a president declaring a state of war, that he and Starcke have split up.”) There begins to be a convergence between the commitment to Vedanta and the trite need to be soothing at the domestic hearth: “I told Don about the Swiss scientist who snipped off a bit of ectoplasm and kept it alive—and about the clairvoyant experience in which two women relived the Dieppe Raid. He said this made him feel frightened. I reminded him that he is now protected by Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna has touched him.”
It was in a slightly pre-Isherwood Cambridge that Frances Cornford wrote, contemplating Rupert Brooke, about “the long littleness of life.” The phrase recurred to me as the diaries drew to a close. Using one of his frequent public-school injunctions to himself (“Let’s see you make the effort”—“Snap out of it”—“Try again”) Isherwood reflects:
But I must pull myself together. Look at it like this—the effective part of one’s life, barring sickness, falls into three thirds—twenty-five to forty, forty to fifty-five, fifty-five to seventy. My impression is that I packed a terrific amount into the first third, and that I’ve wasted a good deal of the second.
Striving for a correspondence between life and work, he goes on:
(In the first third, I produced twelve works—including two translations and three collaborations: the plays. In the second third, I have so far produced four works—including two translations. Maybe I can pack in the novel and the Ramakrishna book before the August 1959 deadline—but I doubt it.)
The two non-translation works here must be The World in the Evening and Prater Violet, while the one which just missed the impending deadline is presumably Down There on a Visit, the distilled residue of a never-completed macro-novel of the Thirties, provisionally entitled The Lost. The fault that many found with The World in the Evening, and is certainly there to be found still, consists in a certain wooden artifice that sits oddly with a noticeable sentimentality. This cannot all be laid to Isherwood’s charge, since he was prevented by friends and by publishers from writing anything that was confessedly or candidly homosexual. He rehashes (the term is not too unkind) his wartime and pacifist experiences, but he does so at a certain stilted remove. The diary entries covering the same time span are much fresher and more humorous. Katherine Bucknell points out in her brilliant introductory essay that Isherwood originally threw in some provocative scenes, precisely in order that his publishers should notice them, excise them, and thus leave the “rest” of the work unmarred in its integrity. Any beginning writer wishing to try this tactic in the future could profit by studying his failure.
Prater Violet is a great deal more finished and intense. It is a satirical miniature about the absurdity of the early movie industry, with that same absurdity thrown into even sharper relief by the imminence of war and fascism. It has a certain tang of the young Evelyn Waugh to it, and I am obviously not the first person to have made this observation since, in Down There on a Visit, Isherwood vented his distaste for any such comparison:
“Oh, but I know Mr Isherwood,” cried Maria, shaking hands with me. “Only lately, I read your delightful novel. It is the only novel written in a long time, I find. Most of the new ones are so stupid. But yours—truly delightful! This young man who is a schoolmaster and becomes imprisoned for the traffic in the white slaves—quel esprit!”
“I’m afraid that’s by Evelyn Waugh,” I said, not charmed.
The annoyance at Waugh’s farewell bouquet in 1939 obviously never quite wore off. Prater Violet is, however, an excellent study in not taking oneself too seriously or, perhaps better say, in coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Isherwood—once again taking his own name as that of the fictional narrator—simply admits that he has neither the energy nor the courage to be more than a faint ally of Friedrich Bergmann, the gargantuan Viennese director who at one point expostulates: “Very well. We also can play at this game of rat and mouse.” Rat-and-mouse would actually make a very good metaphor for the world of bullies and toadies that constitutes the studio universe as summoned by the book, but what’s admirable about the line in this instance is the way that Isherwood lets it fall, without drawing attention to it as an example of unintentional hilarity. One appreciates more the care he took with the anti-Nazi refugees on whom he based the tale, and also the modesty he felt in the face of the risks they had run and he had not.
The “Christopher Isherwood” character in Prater Violet is again sexually “neutral” as between homo and hetero, and the novel also has the irritating Isherwood fictional habit of, when in doubt, naming female characters “Dorothy.” (Not as decisive or intended, one feels, as the naming of Sally Bowles after the much-admired Paul.) But there are absorbing cross-overs between its reflective world and that of the diaries:
I must confess, I want to be looked after. I want the background of a home. I see now how well the arrangement at Pembroke Gardens suited me, during the last year or so in England (much as I complained about it). I could go out as much as I wanted to, but I had the snugness of a room and breakfast—. What I really want is solitude in the midst of snugness.
Kathleen Isherwood, Christopher’s mother, had kept her home in Pembroke Gardens. In Prater Violet, published in 1945, Friedrich Bergmann brought all his Viennese batteries to bear on Isherwood as a flighty example of the “declassed intellectual” type. “He is unable to cut himself free, sternly, from the bourgeois dream of the Mother, that fatal and comforting dream. He wants to crawl back into the economic safety of the womb—.” The diaries are the superego for much of the fiction.
By the time of Down There on a Visit, a novel of vignettes, Isherwood was able to be candid about homosexuality, but not yet, or not quite, about his own. Three decades earlier, John Lehmann had helped to publish The Memorial, Isherwood’s second novel, and the first sample chapter of Down There on a Visit was also printed by him in The London Magazine. The stories and portraits preserve the continuity of subject, as they do the continuity of first-person narrator. “Down there on a visit” proves to be a phrase that summarizes the attititude of the dilettante, the amateur and the tourist—an impression of his own un-seriousness and lack of commitment that Isherwood took with him wherever he went. In the foursome of “Mr. Lancaster,” “Ambrose,” “Waldemar” and “Paul” one may choose to have fun spotting the real-life models, and one can also notice that Isherwood really did feel happier as a camera, just as certain photographers are tongue-tied until they can get behind their apparatus and have a reason for being at the party. It is through such detachment that Isherwood learns the more demanding trick of turning the lens upon himself: discovering at the end of the 1950s something that he would not even tell his own diaries at the end of the 1930s—namely, that, all feelings about Heinz to one side, he had been relieved if not positively pleased by the signing of the Munich agreeement:
I have made another discovery about myself, and I don’t care if it’s humiliating or not. I am quite certain of this now: as far as I am concerned, nothing, nothing, nothing is worth a war.
Which, written at the close of the Fifties, is where we came in two decades before. Ahead lie works of the more mature period, like A Single Man, which—as well as being proudly and finally gay, as well as containing revenge fantasies that might be called Mortmere Revisited—also call upon the experience set down in the diaries. Ahead, too, are some more winnowed and considered memoirs, notably the manifesto-like Christopher and His Kind. The picture of “Christopher Isherwood” will gradually take the fixing and printing fluids, swim up from the developing tray, and acquire a grain, a focus, and a perspective. The evolving series of sketches and portraits by Don Bachardy tells a similar story in parallel. The gaze that meets the camera’s eye—or the eye of the painter—is one of self-knowledge dearly bought and somewhat haggled over. His adjusted estimate of the three ages of man was true at any rate for the years set down and recorded here.
February 20, 1997