Kitty still pines for his dearest Dub

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyBecoming a Londoner: A Diary by David Plante
    Bloomsbury, 534 pp, £20.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 4088 3975 1
  • BuyThe Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy edited by Katherine Bucknell
    Chatto, 481 pp, £25.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 7011 8678 4

The much gossiped about George Eliot absolutely hated the idea of people talking behind their hands. The year she took up with a married man was also the year Ruskin’s wife revealed her husband’s impotence during court proceedings. ‘Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it,’ Eliot wrote ironically in Daniel Deronda. But she also meant it. ‘It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.’

Cough, cough, splutter.

But surely a bit of relief lies in the notion that one doesn’t necessarily have the last (or even the first) say on how one appears. That’s the gossip’s privilege, and damnable as it might be, it can’t be much worse than the opposite, where everybody gets to be his own oily publicity machine. Not many writers have the gift of seeing themselves as others see them, and gossips, like critics, can be tolerated, and might even be enjoyed, as piano-players in the funhouse of letters.

Early in David Plante’s diaries, we find him tinkling away, dropping names in basso profundo, as if knowing people and knowing what they do in private can be the thing that makes one special. He is 28 years old when he comes to London from the US (a little younger than his beloved Henry James) and meets the love of his life, a unique Greek called Nikos Stangos. The boys were fascinated by Bloomsbury – the books, the people, the scarves, the gossip – which led them to venerate Stephen Spender as one of its last links. Squeezed into a narrow bed, they would read Spender’s World within World together and admire ‘that entirely English’ set-up in which, Plante wrote at the time, ‘I fantasise having a place, even if that world no longer exists in itself. It exists in the witness of Stephen Spender.’ While they were watching Stephen, Natasha Spender was watching them, and after a while her watching them turned into befriending them, all part of the terrific denial machine that kept everything going. Right to the end of her life, Natasha Spender behaved, in public, as if the other side of Stephen wasn’t even a bit trying. A dozen years after he died, she was telling the presenter of Desert Island Discs that her late husband was always very happily anything and everything he decided to be. Among much talk of the ‘we were very good friends with the Stravinskys’ variety, I recall her putting the matter of her marriage rather briskly. ‘Husbands are not possessions and I don’t want the sort of love that is demanded at pistol-point,’ she said. ‘He was very tall and very beautiful. I’m so lucky. I had 55 years with that glorious man.’

Some of those years, however, seem somewhat lighter on their feet once you’ve had the gossip from Plante. It’s not exactly news – everybody knew Spender swung like a wrecking ball – but literary gossip, when it comes to it, is always more about individual views than actual news, and Plante purrs the details as if there could be no worldly difference between having friends and having material. Let’s applaud him, though. So many diaries and memoirs keep it zipped, going quiet at the good bits, censoring any scandal, allowing the writer to puff and genuflect and conceal his way to glory. Take Frank Kermode’s Not Entitled, a memoir typical of a generation of men who thought things were best said by not being said at all.

Plante, however, is a throwback to the days of Barbara Skelton and the Comtesse de Boigne. In the years covered by his diary, he seems to have had an ear permanently cocked. Or was it his leg? Or was it his cock? Whichever, he was alert to the possibility that somebody close at hand might be about to offer some sort of gratification, even if only by saying something riveting and awful about Morgan Forster. His diaries are good because they are true to his own narcissism, revealing how, in the magic spectacle of London literary life, he is always able to pull his own self out of the hat. ‘Nikos was eager to show me something he had received from Stephen Spender, in Washington, which is on his desk in the sitting room. “Look,” he said, “a reproduction of Andrea del Castagno’s The Youthful David.” He said he was not sure how he would tell Spender about me when Spender returned to London.’ Plante’s later diaries may tell a different story, but the present selection is full of the kind of youth-mongering that appears to slide naturally into young-fogeyism. You won’t find David and Nikos smoking the hard stuff with Mick and Keith. Plante is living out the fantasy of being a Jamesian personality in Europe and would be more likely to swoon at the sight of Frances Partridge than, say, Jimi Hendrix. We hear of lunches at Chez Victor, where Spender and Isherwood giggle at jokes ‘all about Stephen’s boyfriends in Berlin’. And with every story young David rises in his own steely estimation.

Stephen asked me to lunch with him at his club, the Garrick. I had never before been in a gentleman’s club. He told me to wear a tie. I always wear a tie. In the dining room of the club, Stephen said, pointing with two fingers at a table across from us: ‘There’s Benjamin Britten.’ Against the light from the window, I saw a man with dense curly grey hair talking with someone at his table. Stephen kept looking toward him, but Britten never looked our way. As we were leaving the club, Stephen said, having, it seemed, thought a lot about it: ‘I don’t think he’s ever liked me.’

As usual, there’s reason to feel sorry for Spender. The trouble with having it both ways is that, for some people, it can mean having it neither way. ‘Stephen asked me if I would write a letter to Natasha,’ Plante says,

to reassure her that she would have approved of my having gone to the South of France with Stephen, which Stephen told me she had known nothing about (and I more than suspected that Mary McCarthy, who had invited Stephen and me to dinner, cancelled after having spoken to Natasha over the telephone, Mary McCarthy referring to me and surprising Natasha that Stephen was not alone, upsetting her very much).

I wrote her this letter, hoping to humour her, hoping to impress on her that I am, oh, charmingly innocent. But I haven’t sent the letter, and I think I’d better not.

Charm may be useful in one’s dealings with others, but it is scarcely useful in one’s dealings with oneself, and has no place in a good diary. One might even suggest that good diarists seek to avenge their charm in their nightly reports, and one gets the sense that whatever grace Plante demonstrates in his dealings with these admired people, he is quick to supplant with disgrace after hours. Thus, in a Neal Street restaurant, he observes his table-mate Cyril Connolly weeping over an overdone partridge. ‘Stephen laughed. Pauline de Rothschild ate only one pear. W.H. Auden was silent.’ Plante and his partner were smart, pretty, adulatory and new – a shoo-in to the company of elderly gays and needy widows – but the vacancy at the centre of Plante’s ambition is much in evidence. He’s one of those who seems to have accepted early on the notion that, if he couldn’t be a great writer, he would be close to those who were. ‘I felt oh, that I belonged to a little inner circle of people among whom one is famous, and if anyone looked at me as belonging to the little circle he or she might wonder who I was to belong to it.’

The notion might seem pathetic but it is said to be a hallmark of the true literary gossip. Plante’s one technical fault is occasionally to imagine the information he retails is a kind of favour to the people he is snitching on. (This might be known as the Truman Fallacy.) It’s a schoolboy error, not liked, not admired, even by those with a general admiration for schoolboys. Young Plante does it more than once, and, true to form, he describes it in his diary:

I saw Cyril Connolly talking to an elderly, refined-looking man wearing a white Stetson hat and white bandana tied about his neck, and, excited, I went to Connolly to tell him some gossip that I had had from Stephen which I assumed would impress him for my being close enough to Stephen that he would confide in me: a big row in the Spender family. Connolly simply stared at me: as did the man in the white Stetson, who, when Connolly introduced me to him – Cecil Beaton – turned away with a frown of, who is this presumptuous young man? Well, I thought, I’ve made a fool of myself, and so there goes Cecil Beaton.

Later in life, he sees that they are not his friends, and acknowledges Nikos’s attempt to cure him of his obsession with famous writers. ‘How can I not write about them,’ Plante asks himself, ‘given that I am a writer?’ His boyfriend could have told him he had more important things to write about. But perhaps Plante knew he didn’t. His best book to date is Difficult Women, an unflattering account of his friendship with Sonia Orwell, Jean Rhys and Germaine Greer. He won’t be winning first prize for dignity, but he tells it pretty much like it was – and like he was, you imagine. But discretion is never his first instinct.

As for Stephen himself, I sometimes wonder if he wants me to write in my diary events in his life that he himself would not write in his – as his telling me, with glee in the telling, that years ago he was in Switzerland and had sex with a young man in a bush, after which he gave the young man a huge Swiss note, but the young man thought this too much, so he gave Stephen change.

Unlike a good novelist, a good gossip should tell, not show. But if a good gossip also happens to be a novelist then there may be a little art in the telling. Inside knowledge too. It isn’t exactly the same as sportsmen making good sports commentators, but it often takes a vain and needy observer to spy how optimally these traits are working in others. Plante shows himself to be an expert commentator on vanity’s machinations:

Auden said something disparaging about Samuel Beckett getting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nikos said: ‘Who else is there?’ Auden shook his head so all the sagging wrinkles shook and said: ‘There’s me.’

At Kitaj and Sandra’s, we met a coroner, who said that there was nothing more beautiful than the naked chest of a dead young man.

Bruce Chatwin needs to give the impression that he knows everything, needs to be able to tell you, when you stop with him at an antique shop window off Bond Street, what factory the tea pot came from, and its date.

In warning me that I may be basing my life too much on Stephen’s, is Sonia [Orwell] warning me against the possible allegation that Stephen is so social his poetry is incidental to his social self?

Again, I felt there was an overstatement in his telling me how happy he [Isherwood] was that his lover, Don Bachardy, was now having sex with someone in London.

[Frank Kermode] suggested to me that we write together a book to be called ‘Connections’, which would connect all the characters of recorded history to one another, but the accounts had to be first-person.

Steven Runciman has sent me this limerick: The stories I tell David Plante/Soon acquire a curious slant./His fertile invention/Twists all that I mention./I could tell him more,/But I shan’t.

One afternoon, Henrietta Garnett came to visit me. She was wearing a huge ring, made, she said, from a 14th-century Portuguese sailor’s silver buckle and an aquamarine which Ottoline Morrell (Henrietta called her ‘Ot’) had given to her grandmother, who had given it to her mother, who, Henrietta said, ‘found it in a drawer among dirty socks, put it in an envelope which she didn’t seal, misspelled my married name and got my address all wrong, and sent it off to me, and it arrived. And that is Bloomsbury.’ Henrietta took the ring off and threw it across the room for me to catch.

The next time Stephen came to us, I noted that he had brightened his hair with a blue rinse.

As we were standing together on a corner in Notting Hill Gate by a red postbox, Philip Roth and I were talking when an Englishman I knew came towards us in the crowd, and I wanted him to see me talking with Philip Roth, but he didn’t see us, and walked past.

In one scene – they are all scenes – Plante is in awe of himself as he travels on the Tube carrying a first edition of the two volumes of Du côté de chez Swann, which he has collected for Spender from reception at the Savoy, where they were left, to Plante’s evident intoxication, by ‘the Baroness Pauline de Rothschild’. It’s a perfect moment: ‘That I was carrying Proust, as if he himself were contained in a little coffin on my lap and his ghost hovered around it, seemed to me to expand the world outwardly into a world of literature that would be my world when I wrote it all down in my diary.’

‘My world’, World within World, Noël Annan’s Our Age: it was a kind of perfume that pervaded the ether around that whole group – and it might shock Plante to see how contra Proustian it is – not the endlessly remembered but the increasingly forgotten. ‘I am always aware of, even always in a daze of wonder about, the world I’m in,’ he writes. And when David Sylvester, on the spur of the moment, gives him a drawing of a Greek goddess by Stephen Tennant, he writes, ‘it was as though David were giving me a world of associations, and I realised that David himself lived in that world, was himself a world of associations.’ Yet the world Plante dwelt in was beginning to go before he arrived. The people he most admired were the goodbye crowd – the authors of Goodbye to Berlin, Secondary Worlds, The Sense of an Ending, The Evening Colonnade – and our hero, along with his bright boyfriend, must have seemed so young as he asked his questions:

‘How did you get to Berlin?’ I asked Francis [Bacon]. He seemed to like being asked questions about his life. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘my father found me wearing my mother’s underclothes, and to put me right he sent me to a friend – like my father, a horse trainer. This was in Ireland. I left home to go with my father’s friend, who took me to Berlin. He was very rich and we stayed in a grand hotel. That was the first time I had sex with anyone. From there, I went to Paris. My mother sent me three pounds a week. I never really went back to Ireland.’

Nobody really went back anywhere. And it may be that the blizzard of evenings and the fluttering address books dilute a person in the end. (Henry James might have had something to say on the matter.) When Sonia Orwell dies, Mary McCarthy organises a gathering for friends. ‘The writer Francis Wyndham rang to ask me if I would be the compere,’ Plante writes,

and I agreed – agreed, no doubt, because the position gave me some prominence in London. The gathering was in a stark hall with rows of folding chairs and a simple table … Nikos told me later that the critic and editor John Gross, in the audience, seemed to be scowling at my presuming to speak about Sonia. Then Mary McCarthy spoke, her rectangular smile held rectangular and exposing her teeth as she spoke, and what she said about Sonia didn’t seem complimentary, except her comparing Sonia’s pure English looks to a portrait painting by Reynolds. I’m very pleased that, a few days later, I had a postcard from Miriam Gross, John’s journalist wife: ‘I thought your diary was marvellous – it evoked Sonia with terrific accuracy and vividness.’ This makes me feel I in some way belong in London.

*

Does a person have to be slightly silly to like gossip? A taste for silliness is a capital virtue when it comes to considering the Isherwoods. Christopher was ‘Dobbin’, ‘Old Drub’, ‘Dearest Only Horse’, ‘My Horse’, or sometimes ‘Dub’. He lived mostly at the Casa de los Animales in Santa Monica. Don, thirty-odd years younger, was mainly in London when these letters were written and he was ‘Kitty’, ‘Kit’, ‘Sweetest Fur’, ‘Puss’ or ‘Treasured Flufftail’. Their letters to each other must be the silliest in modern literature and none the less entertaining for that. For five hundred pages, it’s like watching two pre-adolescent girls in full spate, giving vent to an OMG-fest involving sparkles, super-furry animals and lots of pink, while occasionally dropping bombshells about the teachers. Not since the late Queen Mother’s letters to the late Ted Hughes – where she liked to imagine a marriage between a fictional ‘Miss Dimsdale’ and a fictional ‘Reverend Potter’ – has such childish nonsense clambered the walls of mini-history. Here is Isherwood settling down to explain how it is when you miss your loved one far away: ‘Old Dobbin doesn’t sleep so well, missing that tiny cat. He longs so to hear the patter of paws on the floor again and hopes by that time it will be cleaner for kitty to walk on – Dorothy is bringing some new soap Monday.’ And Don Bachardy, the erstwhile Puss, gives as good as he gets.

Kitty still pines for his dearest Dub, more and more every day, and longs only for the day when a van pulls up in front of Kitty’s house with old Horsey, all blinkered and blanketed, standing up in the rear. How Kitty will spin and dance and lavish his darling with pink kisses and scratchy licks.

It’s the early 1960s and Bachardy is studying at the Slade. He’s not nearly as Jamesian as Plante, but he’s every bit as ambitious, and it doesn’t take him long to find the fading pulse of his new social situation and find it wanting. ‘I think I have decided to dispense altogether with the Spenders, at least for the time being. I realise they have become my London villains and I am going to make use of them as such – so important to have villains to attach one’s sulks to.’ How true. Nor is he slow to find others to fill that role. ‘Zeffirelli is queer and quite attractive with blue eyes and silvering temples. Fellini looked like an enormous Wop business man, fat with curly black greasy hair etc, but probably quite nice.’ ‘I was just going to complain to my Horse about the wicked Tynans.’ ‘Must fly now to see the Stravinskys.’ John Lehmann ‘complained that Gore and Howard didn’t get up in the morning till after 11 and said he never saw Gore doing any work while he was there. First thing after breakfast Howard got onto the phone to get the day’s stream of boys flowing.’ Over the years covered by the letters, Bachardy goes from being a bit of fluff to being a noted contributor to the annals of international gossip, falling out with Lincoln Kirstein and Cecil Beaton almost as fast as others, recently arrived in these worlds within the world, were befriending them. I’m not sure which of them is worse, or better.

But Isherwood could outdo them all for gossip. He gossiped his way from one end of the century to the other, never missing the horror of people going about their business pretty much exactly as he was doing himself. ‘Terry Southern is divorcing his wife and marrying this girl of his. John Calley is marrying Julie Andrews; [they say] he muff-dives her every night … Jean Genet walked out on Tony [Richardson] owing him a lot of money. Genet thinks Moreau is a lousy actress … Jo and Ben say that Anne Baxter and her husband are on the skids.’ After a while, though, you see the old glint: the vain watching the vain, wondering if they’re gaining credit. Eventually, a book can’t come in the post without Isherwood scanning the index for mentions of himself. He shares the obsession with Bachardy, which might be another definition of love. ‘Today a bound copy of Salka [Viertel]’s book The Kindness of Strangers arrived. Kitty gets what I believe is his first mention in a book of memoirs: ‘Christopher Isherwood and a young painter, Don Bachardy, joined us for dinner.’ Gossip is not only a way of being – it’s a way of being there.