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Isherwood on Writing, the long awaited collection of lectures given by Christopher Isherwood at several California colleges and universities in the 1960’s has been lovingly compiled and edited by James J. Berg. Berg was editor (with Chris Freeman) of the Lambda Award-winning The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood and Conversations with Christopher Isherwood.
The collection’s publication is truly an event and it occurred at the same time Chris & Don: A Love Story, a touching and deft documentary film by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, was released. The film chronicles the three-and-a-half decade relationship of British writer Isherwood and the American portrait artist, Don Bachardy, and is a powerful testament to the love these two artists shared. It also, quite eloquently, portrays Bachardy’s successful parallel career as the gifted and talented artist he still is at age 74.
Isherwood’s lectures were structured around the theme “A Writer and His World,” and as Claude J. Summers notes in his Foreword, they avoid critical systems and technical rigor in favor of a relaxed and intensely personal approach. But for all their unpretentiousness and apparent modesty, the lectures are ideological documents that reveal and implicitly defend the author’s practice.
Given at a critical time in his career, the lectures denote a transitional period when Isherwood turned from fiction to memoir, and in wide-ranging discussions, he reflects on such topics as why writers write, what makes a novel great, and influences on his own work. The collection is at its best when Isherwood gives the author’s inside view, when he discusses techniques of composition and characterization, considers the problems of his art, for example, narrating in the first person, and discussing the differences between writing for the stage and the cinema.
There are many intriguing revelations in the book, like the moment when Isherwood tells an audience he writes “in order to find out what my life means and who I am.” And when he insists that the highest achievements in art convey “a kind of super joy, a joy in experience, which contains both the ordinary concept of pleasure and happiness and also the ordinary concept of sorrow.” These moments provide writers and scholars insight into the genius mind that created these works.
In several of the lectures, Isherwood acknowledges his debt to Hinduism and talks about his spiritual approach to writing – especially in the later novels, but the lectures do avoid any extended presentation of homosexuality. As Summers is quick to remind us, “Although Isherwood would not come out in print as homosexual until the publication of Kathleen and Frank, in 1971, his homosexuality was an open secret in the literary world in the early 1960’s, and many people who attended the lectures would have been aware of it.”
It is indeed an honor to have these Isherwood lectures in print, from our founding father of modern gay writing, and James J. Berg and the University of Minnesota Press are to be commended for editing and publishing them. They are a welcome addition to the disciplines of Literature and Queer Studies.
ISHERWOOD ON WRITING
By Christopher Isherwood
Edited by James J. Berg
Foreword by Claude J. Summers
University of Minnesota Press
Hardcover, $25.95, 274p