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Christopher Isherwood died in 1986, his legacy as an author and gay trailblazer assured by works such as A Single Man, The Berlin Stories, and, most recently, the publication of his diaries–a treasure trove of insight into one of the 20th Centuries most fascinating figures. It’s only been in recent years, however, that Isherwood’s love life has drawn public attention on par with his literary achievements. The Animals, a collection of love letters between Isherwood and his surviving partner, the artist Don Bachardy, aims to correct that imbalance.
Comprehensive in scope, editor Katherine Bucknell has worked with Bachardy to amass all the letters known to exist that the couple ever exchanged. What this collection reveals is a complex romance, oscillating between the deeply moving and the banal, and not without its hardships. Isherwood and Bachardy’s relationship is notable for the large age difference between the two—they met when Bachardy was just 18 and Isherwood 48—but the letters prove the adage that age is just a number. Here we see a couple committed to each other above all others. Dalliances aside, what shines through is the respect, admiration, and camaraderie that these two shared, and it’s easy to see a reflection of our own relationships in their use of saccharine pet names, quotidian quibbling, and bitchy gossip.
At times a slog—this is, after all, 400 pages of personal correspondences—The Animals rewards the persistent reader. For buried among all the castaway sentences about Bachardy’s pile of Film Facts magazine and a who’s-who of social obligations is a wealth of fascinating insight into Isherwood’s (and Bachardy’s) creative process as well as a template to how to make a long-distance romance thrive. It borders on cliche to say that a marriage between two artists is a recipe for disaster, but Isherwood and Bachardy show that it doesn’t have to be so. The letters reveal two ambitious, talented artists putting ego aside to help each other succeed. The physical distance between them is often great, but emotionally they remain “Dobbin” and “Kitty,” the grey horse and white cat curled up together on a bed of hay. Isherwood and Bachardy’s relationship was founded in love but forged by teamwork, by a desire to work together towards a common goal, and that is a great lesson for us all to learn.
The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy
By Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy; Edited by Katherine Bucknell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374105174, 528 pp.