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.’

But then who is ‘me’? We learn quite a bit about this fellow. Like his author, he has written a novel called The Memorial; lives with his mother and a younger brother called Richard; works on a movie; has fashionable but uncontroversial left-wing ideas (he speaks himself of his ‘parlour socialism’); confesses to small acts of cowardice. But we know far more about the quality of his attention to the world than we know about him. What we remember best is his affection for the film director he is working with, their shared worries about the collapsing world of Germany and Austria (the novel is set in 1933-4); the wit and precision of his evocation of movie work, the delicate irony which holds in balance, without melodrama and without cheap shots, a foolish film and a desolate reality, the Vienna of Strauss and the Vienna of Dollfuss. The only false note in this small masterpiece is Isherwood’s attempt to become some sort of ‘I’, with a full subjectivity, love affairs, a fear of death. This material is deeply unconvincing, merely mawkish: ‘Love. At the very word, the taste, the smell of it, something inside me began to throb. Ah yes, Love.’ The capital letter gestures towards sarcasm, but as Isherwood goes on to write, ‘it’s no use being sentimentally cynical about this, or cynically sentimental.’ That is the Isherwood of the Diaries, not the usual Isherwood of the stories.

‘I am a camera.’ This statement is often taken as a simple assertion of a documentary impulse or desire. ‘I am a camera with its shutter open,’ the full sentence goes, ‘quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ But of course cameras don’t say ‘I’, and don’t tell us they are not thinking. Isherwood likes the complication lurking in such simple figures. The hero of his later novel, A Single Man (1964), says he is ‘like a book you have to read. A book can’t read itself to you. It doesn’t even know what it’s about’. Just before the statement about the camera and its passivity Isherwood had written this amazing paragraph (the opening of Goodbye to Berlin), where the unthinking apparatus takes interesting omissions of verbs, launches a generalisation and manages to turn a simile into a historical judgment:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

Some camera. And yet of course the metaphor is not meaningless, or damaged by all this mental activity. It is an introduction to the Isherwood of the stories, a person whose self is in his observations, not his (fortunately rare) dips into introspection. The person who is a camera at the start of this book becomes a city at the end:

Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.

And the paragraph after the one with the remark about the camera contains one of Isherwood’s most brilliant and haunting, most personal/impersonal of images, devastating because pain and longing are meticulously displaced rather than confessed. Or are scarcely confessed before they become something else:

And soon the whistling will begin. Young men are calling their girls. Standing down there in the cold, they whistle up at the lighted windows of warm rooms where the beds are already turned down for the night. They want to be let in. Their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad. Because of the whistling, I do not care to stay here in the evenings. It reminds me that I am in a foreign city, alone, far from home. Sometimes I determine not to listen to it, pick up a book, try to read. But soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the venetian blind to make quite sure that it is not – as I know very well it could not possibly be – for me.

The very isolation of the last two words – and the delay leading to their isolation – mimes a loneliness which mysteriously insists both on its endurance and its future ending. You have to keep getting up to look. Isherwood says in the Diaries that he loves Proust for his tone (as he loves other writers for themselves or for the worlds they create), and Proust’s tone is what we get here.

The Diaries are very well edited, with helpful notes, a chronology and a slightly oddly named glossary, which consists mainly of brief biographical sketches rather than explanations of words. There are moments in the Introduction when Katherine Bucknall’s immersion in her subject combines with her eagerness to inform us to produce little flickers of unintentional comedy. ‘Hitler killed himself in April; Germany surrendered in May. Japan surrendered on 14 August, and nine days later, on 23 August, Isherwood left Ivar Avenue for good.’ Maybe self-absorption is catching; or is it just the punctuation? The Diaries begin in 1939, with Isherwood’s and Auden’s sailing for New York, and end in 1960, with Isherwood’s abandonment, full of flourish, of his handwritten journal. ‘The poor old thumb gives me so much trouble. In future, I want to type. Must fly off, now, to take part in a nice birthday evening at Hope Lange’s. So long!’ The Diaries start with something of a flourish too, since Isherwood, in 1946, went over his earlier diaries and wrote extended commentaries and linking passages. Here’s how he recalls the scene at the boat-train in London. Isherwood’s mother and his friend are crying, Isherwood is crying, E.M. Forster is asking whether he should join the Communist Party (‘I forget what I answered. I think it was “No” ’).

As the train pulled out, there was nasty sharp wrench, and then, as always when I am the traveller, a quick upsurge of guilty relief. Auden and I exchanged grins – grins which took us back, in an instant, to the earliest days of our friendship. Suddenly, we were 12 and nine years old. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘we’re off again.’ ‘Goody,’ said Auden.

This makes what Auden called Yeats’s silliness look like high solemnity, but of course what’s silly is not the dialogue, but the complacent reponing of it, and no amount of self-battering by Isherwood quite overcomes the sense that he is forgiving himself as fast as he is making the accusations. He says later, in a letter to Cyril Connolly which he includes in the Diaries, that it was ‘an altogether irresponsible act’ to go to America when he did; but then adds that his not returning to England was a different matter, related to a fear not of the Blitz but of his own possible performance as a pacifist in wartime. There is a good deal of dignity and intelligence in this letter (‘I am trying to hatch into something different, and if you object that I have chosen the darndest time to do it, I can only answer that chickens can’t choose’), but there is also an odd wavering between abasement and defiance, and the chicken looks more like a Freudian slip than an innocuous metaphor. ‘Who are you – who writes all this? Why do you write? Is it compulsion? Or an alibi – to disprove the charge of what crime?’ Are these real questions? They sound as if Isherwood was performing for his diary, putting into it one of the weaker passages from his novels. He makes a stronger, but also more self-revealing defence of his position in a diary entry for January 1940:

Am I afraid of being bombed? Of course. Everybody is. But within reason. I know I certainly wouldn’t leave Los Angeles if the Japanese were to attack it tomorrow. No, it isn’t that ... If I fear anything, I fear the atmosphere of the war, the power which it gives to all the things I hate – the newspapers, the politicians, the puritans, the scoutmasters, the middle-aged merciless spinsters. I fear the way I might behave, if I were exposed to this atmosphere. I shrink from the duty of opposition. I am afraid I should be reduced to a chattering, enraged monkey, screaming back hate at their hate.

This is to prefer an idea of the self to anything the self might usefully do; but it also recognises the duty it doesn’t accept. Perhaps the only really satisfactory line here is Chaplin’s joke, made in a movie studio the same year, and quoted by Isherwood: ‘Thank God I’m 50. I’m prepared to sacrifice my last relative that democracy shall not die.’

On the opening page of the Diaries Isherwood announces that Auden once told him, ‘almost admiringly, that I was the cruellest and most unscrupulous person he had ever met’. What’s sad here is that whatever contrition Isherwood feels for whatever he has done, he can’t get over his delight at this compliment: not that he is the cruellest and most unscrupulous person Auden (or anyone else) has ever met, but that he just might be, released into a meanness beyond his own wildest dreams. This fantasy is not incompatible with great acts of kindness and infinite worries about doing the right thing; certainly not incompatible with seeking to shake off, through meditation, the evils of time and appetite.

Isherwood met Swami Prabhavananda in Los Angeles in 1939, and the Diaries are full of his doubts and enthusiasms about Vedanta. He was initiated in 1940. Characteristically, he is very funny about the difficulties of getting down to meditation (‘I wanted to be as oriental as possible. So I squatted cross-legged in a corner of the room’ – Isherwood can be seen in this posture on the dust-jacket of the book), and the Swami is pretty funny about sex (‘When the Swami was a young monk, he once asked Brahmananda to release him from sexual desire ... But Brahmananda smiled and answered: “My son, if I did that you would miss all the fun in life” ’). But then when Isherwood tries to give an account of the spiritual and intellectual drift of this material, which obviously matters a great deal to him, he can’t often make it sound like anything but hokum: ‘Our real nature is to be one with life, with consciousness, with everything else in the universe. This fact of oneness is the actual situation, the only absolute reality’; ‘The Swami begin by defining immortality. It does not mean mere continued existence. That we shall have anyway, pleasantly or unpleasantly, according to our life on earth. Immortality means getting beyond time and causation.’ Only occasionally is there a flash of what looks like insight among the mush: ‘it struck me so strongly how misleading it is to think of oneself as getting better or worse. How can the ego improve? It can’t. It can only wear thin, and let more of the light through.’ ‘Life isn’t “about” air raids, swamis, love affairs, places, deeds done or undone – those are only the shapes of the letters in which me message is written.’

During the period of the Diaries, Isherwood works on a number of movies, first at MGM, men at Paramount; writes and publishes Prater Violet and The World in the Evening (1954), writes most of Down There on a Visit (1962). In 1940 he inherits some money and property in England, but gives it all to his brother. In 1941-2 he works at a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, then returns to California. He travels in South America and writes a travel book, The Condor and the Cows (1949). In 1952 be returns to Berlin for the first time since 1934. Generally his California days are full of swims, dinners, drinks, pains; he gets older, be meets and settles down with the young Don Bachardy. Isherwood teaches at LA State University and then at Santa Barbara. There are some good gags and gossip, particularly when Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal hit Hollywood: ‘Yesterday, there was a big party for Tennessee at the Duquettes’. Mary Pickford was there, stoned, and Edwina, Tennessee’s mother, said to her: “Do you remember your long yellow curls?” Gore said: “She is the last of the great room-emptiers.” ’

The observant self, the Isherwood of the stories, is not all swallowed up in his spiritual career, and the best moments in the Diaries are exactly like the best moments in the fiction. Only Isherwood perhaps could get so much amusement out of a sign that says ‘Hotel Cosmos: no vacancy’. Ingrid Bergman’s presence ‘was like breakfast on a sunny morning’; Thomas Mann ‘would be magnificent at his own trial’. ‘I suppose everyone who meets Garbo dreams of saving her – either from herself, or from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, or from some friend or lover. And she always eludes them by going into an act. This is what has made her a universal figure. She is the woman whose life everyone wants to interfere with.’ Isherwood reports a fine conversation with Aldous Huxley on ‘a favourite topic: the poorness of all literature’:

Homer was terribly overrated, Dante was hopelessly limited, Shakespeare was such a stupid man, Goethe was such a bore, Tolstoy was silly etc. We had disposed of nearly everybody, and Aldous was really enjoying himself – until a nasty doubt struck him: ‘What about Lope de Vega? I’ve never read him. Is he any good?’ ‘Lope de Vega,’ I told him airily, ‘no – he’s not up to much.’ ‘He isn’t?’ Aldous was immensely relieved: ‘Oh, I am glad to hear you say that.’

In the following description of Los Angeles, we know it’s pretty much all made up, because Isherwood has just arrived, but he’s caught the myth immediately, and made something out of it. The very promise of failure is an invitation to stay and succeed, just as those whistles, not for you, have to be listened to again and again. Auden blends with Raymond Chandler, Berlin crosses the Atlantic and Isherwood once again becomes a city:

Perhaps there are more haunted houses in Los Angeles than in any other city in the world. They are haunted by the fears of their former owners. They smell of divorce, broken contracts, studio politics, bad debts, false friendship, adultery, extravagance, whisky and lies. Every closet hides the poor little ghost of a still-born reputation. ‘Go away,’ it whispers, ‘go back where you came from. There is no home here. I was vain and greedy. They flattered me. I failed. You will fail. Go away.’

What a come-on. No wonder Isherwood remained there for the rest of his life.