Tiff and Dither

Michael Wood

It may be that only the truly self-absorbed can make art out of self-effacement. This at least is one of the suggestions of the first volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, a whingeing, inward-bound mammoth of a book, where the author laboriously chronicles and inspects his every moment for changes in the moral and spiritual weather. Well, it can’t be his every moment, but it feels like it. Here are a handful of phrases, literally taken at random: ‘I have never been able to grasp any idea except through a person’; ‘I’ve been looking forward to this outing for several weeks, and now that I’m here I find I’m bored’; ‘A morning of pathological sloth. What brings on this disgraceful, paralytic laziness?’; ‘Certainty my mind is softening, weakening. I have so little co-ordination that I putter around like a dotard’; ‘I wish I could get rid of this tickling cough’; ‘I do wish I didn’t feel so fat’; ‘Every day I feel worse. Miserable loneliness’; ‘Elsa Lanchester to supper last night. Not a success. Don had fixed shrimp jambalaya and Elsa immediately said she couldn’t eat garlic and implied a reproof because I hadn’t remembered this’; ‘Well, of course, everything is all right today – it really is, I believe.’ Certainly anyone who has kept a diary or even a notebook has written stuff like this, except the bit about having Elsa Lanchester to supper, but then the question is: what else did we write?

We can imagine Isherwood himself both applauding and deploring the publication of this material. Applauding it because he was an honest man, and would want us to see that very good writing could come out of a life of moaning and muddle – not even the rag-and-bone shop of the heart, more like the tiff and dither at the shopping mall. And deploring it because after all he had created and sustained a Christopher Isherwood who was not this one, who managed to leave this one behind. In his 1954 Foreword to his Berlin Stories (first published as Mr Norris Changes Trains, 1935, and Goodbye to Berlin, 1939), Isherwood writes not only of finding in Julie Harris someone who ‘was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book’, but also of his own disappearance into fiction. As he watches the rehearsals for I Am a Camera, the play John van Druten made from the Isherwood material, Isherwood thinks

a good deal – sometimes comically, sometimes sentimentally – about the relation of art to life. In writing Goodbye to Berlin I destroyed a certain portion of my real past. I did this deliberately, because I preferred the simplified, more creditable, more exciting fictitious past which I’d created to take its place ... And so, gradually, the real past had disappeared, along with the real Christopher Isherwood of twenty yean ago. Only the Christopher Isherwood of the stories remained.

We may be reminded of Nabokov’s similar suggestion that the use of memory in fiction destroys memories: ‘Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore, and the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own.’ But of course Isherwood is being a little too self-deprecating. The person in the stories no doubt lives a simpler life than the historical person, but not necessarily a more creditable or more exciting one Only a life that is more discreet, more patient, more outward-directed and more observant. This is pretty much Isherwood’s own prayer for writers, noted in his diary in 1940: ‘Oh source of all my inspiration, teach me to extend toward all living beings that fascinated, unsentimental, loving and all-pardoning interest which I feel for the characters I create.’

The discretion is the key, particularly since it looks like its opposite. This is the beginning of Isherwood’s novel Prater Violet (1945):

‘Mr Isherwood?’
‘Speaking.’
‘Mr Christopher Isherwood?’
‘That’s me.’

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