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One can’t really review a diary. The diarist has no control, try as hard as he might, over the narrative arc of his life. One evening might be full of glamorous people and fascinating drama, the following week may be dull and dreary. Words and emotions are deliberately rough and unedited. The best a reviewer can do is point out some of the more notable or juicy passages, so that readers, who may not have the time to read a 688-page-long final installment of a three-volume collection of diaries (with a glossary that runs 135 pages), can get something out of its publication.
One thing the reviewing of diaries can do is deflate the zeppelin of personality one has created around the writer, in this case, author Christopher Isherwood, whose crystal-clear stories of conflicted characters have been ridden blissfully by many for years, a man whose body of work is responsible, in so many ways, for forging much of what this country came to know as “homosexuality” and its purported “sensibility.” As Edmund White notes in the preface, there’s a surprising amount of anti-Semitism and misogyny in these pages. Overall, it could be argued that Isherwood was an equal opportunity hater. Spend a month paging through the near-daily thoughts of a demi-god of 20th century literature and observe him, like a narcissus in time-lapse, as he blooms into a crank.
Written during a time of great freedom for his gay and lesbian comrades and from his earlier, more restrictive role as an anti-prodigal, British mother’s son, Liberation could have been titled “Depression.” Or, as he wrote of “the mood” of “this diary keeping” on September 11th, 1974, “Desperation.” Or, as he suggested in the same sentence: “Intense Nervous Irritation.”
Through his sporadic spasms of melancholia run humorous doses of hypochondria and body dysmorphia. Constant complaints about his back, a painful lump on his left foot, a “tendency to senile melancholy” and his physical appearance (“How I hate my huge belly!”) abound. He and his partner, the artist and writer Don Bachardy, who sketched everyone from Candy Darling to Nancy Reagan, worked out often and Isherwood recorded his weight obsessively. From 1973: “We saw the New Year in at Jack and Jim’s, eating too much cake and drinking too much wine—with the result that my weight is up to 152 and 3/4.”
Holed up in his paradise of Santa Barbara, under the curse of being gay and growing old, living with one eye on mortality and the other on legacy, while neither was barely able to tear themselves from the youthful flesh flying by at every stoplight, Isherwood’s 70s diaries, in many ways, resemble his classic 1964 novel, A Single Man–which Isherwood hoped John Boorman would direct in the early 70s. (One wonders if Tom Ford’s eventual cinematic butchery 40 years later caused some in-grave turning.)
Unlike A Single Man, Isherwood experiences genuine love, support and dedication from Bachardy. The two spent 34 solid years together. The entry for October 27, 1970 is typical of the heartbreaking passion he felt for the much younger man and the sweetly mundane life they led:
Watching T.V. with Don tonight–an idiotic ghost story called ‘The House That Would Not Die,’ with Barbara Stanwyck, after a supper of swordfish steaks cooked under the broiler, and salad. Felt a pang of such painful fear and dismay because I soon have to die and leave him and such perfect moments of happiness behind me.
On July 28, 1973, he gushed: “Such a great joy, being with Don … We live in an unbroken intimacy and love, day after day, from waking till sleeping. This is most certainly one of the happiest periods of my entire life.”
Recorded on the fly, during what the author recognizes as the final chapters of his life, Isherwood is fully immersed in his Vedantic antics, tending to his ailing Swami, tirelessly pitching a screenplay, Frankenstein: The True Story (co-authored with Bachardy), reading through his diaries, corresponding with burgeoning gay rights organizations, working on a book he called Wanderings, which eventually became two of his most underrated books, Christopher and His Kind and My Guru and His Disciples. The diary format allows Isherwood to abandon the creeping pretense of his earlier, predominantly autobiographical works, get down to brass tacks and eliminate nuance—especially as it deals with the fecklessness of mortality or those who’ve already passed. Which doesn’t mean he didn’t pitch his share of bitchy quips and petty observations.
Although The Godfather beat Cabaret for the 1972 Best Picture Oscar, Isherwood called the night a “triumph,” adding, “they got only three awards, we got eight.” Which is at odds with his earlier feelings about the film, writing on November 5th, “Yesterday, I saw Cabaret for the second time and I liked it better than before. I still don’t think it adds up to anything much … thought [Liza Minelli] clumsy and utterly wrong for the part, though touching sometimes, in a boyish good-sport way.”
At the start of 1975, he pondered that, if he had the time, he might rough out a preface for a British omnibus of his Berlin novels, to be entitled “The Berlin of Sally Bowles.” Wryly, he added, “The whole point of my preface will be to make it clear to the reader that it wasn’t her Berlin.”
To Isherwood, Michael Korda, the editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, looked “like a Jewish queen in his mid-twenties.” He described Lauren Bacall as “a campy alligator.” And of his next-door neighbor and friend, actress Elsa Lanchester, he scrawled, “Oh, the false pathos of these unhappy old girls. It doesn’t move you in the way they intend, but it is genuinely, heartbreakingly squalid.” Isherwood could have been speaking of himself—and his kind.
His tenuous friendship with, and dwindling admiration for, Truman Capote (“a wise little old child who has stayed indoors too long”) wilts before the reader’s eyes. Once enamored with the author’s sprite-like physicality, Isherwood wrote, “Truman Capote was waiting for us, planted in a corner with his stomach in his lap” at the Oak Room at the Plaza. In 1971, on a visit to Capote’s U.N. Plaza apartment: “He is now forty-seven, so when I met him he must have been twenty-three.” He then “begged” Capote to read a set of proofs for his latest book, Kathleen and Frank, and provide a blurb for the cover. Capote never did. He also skipped the opening of Isherwood’s short-lived Broadway play, Meeting By the River (based on his novel). Despite this, and the ill will it bred, Isherwood was moved, two years later, by Andy Warhol’s Q & A with Capote in Interview. “Truman impresses me enormously and I feel that he has a great deal of worldly wisdom,” he wrote. “And yet at the same time I’m aware that this stance of his is partly a pose and that, probably when he seems most assured he is whistling in the dark.”
Isherwood’s life was constant social activity and movement. Trips to London and New York: “As usual, I failed to keep a diary during our trip. So what follows is written retrospectively.” Dinners: “We started eating way too early and had to sit too long afterwards, not really wanting to stay but not knowing where else to go.” Parties: “We didn’t get home till nearly four this morning, from a nice party of young things, mostly stoned Buddhist boys.” Openings: “Hundreds came, including a few stars,” including “Joan Didion (who had to be pressured and made a martyred face when she was photographed)” and “George Cukor, Roddy McDowall, John Huston (who all behaved perfectly).” And weddings: on December 12th, 1971, he described the hippie nuptials of Jon Voight and Marceline Bertrand—the future parents of Angelina Jolie. On a trip to New York in December, 1972, he attended a double feature of “sex movies,” The Boys in the Sand and Bijou; his priceless reviews of these gay porn classics are worth reading in full.
Like so many accomplished gay men of his era, Isherwood enjoyed playing his own private version of George and Martha’s “Get the Guest,” pitting friend against friend in the lined folios of his notebooks. In February, 1973, on a visit to Francis Bacon’s studio, he observed “the walls smeared with blazing brush-wipings (which Francis calls ‘my abtracts’).” Then: “Francis (Bacon) said of David Hockney’s work, ‘She’s no good.’ ” A quotation he made sure to include to commemorate the disappointment he still felt with his fellow SoCal ex-pat, expressed on January 3, 1970: “… I wrote [a foreword for Hockney’s book of drawings] with extraordinary difficulty, unwillingness and boredom, as a gesture of friendship, and for which I’ve never even been thanked, much less paid!”
In London, in 1973, he had lunch with Stephen Spender and the man who co-founded Horizon with him, Cyril Connolly, who comes across as a cretinous boor, a characterization that is understandable when one takes into account Connolly’s vocal criticism of Isherwood and Auden, who remained, with great controversy, in America, as London was bombed by the Luftwaffe. Spender and Isherwood had been introduced through Auden and experienced viel Spass together in Weimar-era Berlin, working German boys and writing on the side. The last thing Isherwood records in his journals on the 4th of July, 1983 (“Yes,” he wrote. “It’s that certain day.”):
Have just finished a draft of a letter to Stephen, congratulating him on having been knighted. He hasn’t written to me about this but he let me find out through [a friend]. I think I entirely understand Stephen’s feelings. I had to be told, and yet he felt apologetic, maybe remembering how he’d smirked when Wystan [Auden] was awarded the King’s Gold Medal for poetry [from King George VI, in 1937] and had to go to the palace to receive it.
As one of the finest scribblers in the English language, Isherwood may have regretted never receiving the highest honor the country of his birth bestows upon its greatest subjects, including many of his friends and peers. One can be certain from reading these journals, though, that Isherwood died at peace, having opted to live his life with his beloved Don—and his revered Swami Prabhavanda—in Southern California, in pursuit of love, enlightenment and liberation.
Liberation: Diaries, Volume Three: 1970-1983
By Christopher Isherwood
Hardcover, 9780062084743, 928 pp.