- Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-51 by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell
Chatto, 388 pp, £25.00, July 2000, ISBN 0 7011 6931 1
Isherwood was a novelist with the inclinations of an autobiographer. There are always characters in his novels who love what he calls ‘playacting’, who charm and flirt and reinvent themselves whenever necessary, and as much as possible. They are such compelling and irreverent storytellers that they help us forget about truth-telling; they make everyone, including themselves, feel that it would be earnest and silly to start worrying again about honesty and good behaviour. But they keep coming up against more sincere, serious, passionate types who they are rather troubled by; or, as Isherwood sometimes intimates, who they are not troubled enough by. What makes him more of an experimental writer than he at first seems is that he treats this drama of the opportune and the principled, of the amused and the committed, very self-consciously – as a question of form. So autobiography is a problem in his novels, akin to a conscience. It tempers self-invention with other considerations; and the temptations in story-telling – what he called ‘the difficulty of being frank without being indiscreet’, the eagerness to tell things for effect – become dramas in themselves. The embarrassment of the narrators in his fiction interests him as much as their confidence or their fluency. What is wonderful about Isherwood is that he wants, if possible, to be delighted by himself.
At the same time there is outrage in his autobiographical writing – of which the Diaries and now Lost Years are fascinating evidence – about having to be embarrassed about anything. The unusual thing about Isherwood as an autobiographer is that he is never impressed by shame. He doesn’t assume that being ashamed of ourselves in public is the best kind of truth-telling. Because he knows so much about charm (and its discontents) – because he is so attentive to the ways in which people go around impressing each other and themselves – he never goes in for the brash boastfulness of modern self-disclosure. His writing, in other words, is an experiment in non-confessional honesty; and Lost Years is an intriguing document of a work in progress. In the later autobiographical writings his project was, I think, to write truthfully about himself without feeling that he was submitting to anything (or anyone) by doing so. And on occasion this involved a kind of camp bravado, a sense of being scandalised at there being anything to be scandalised about. But he is never a portentous writer, just an eccentrically curious one, for whom all forms of special pleading, including his own – and Lost Years is, among other things, a portrait of the artist as special pleader – are merely refusals to play the game. He has, that is to say, the sulker’s inside knowledge about the vanity of sulking. ‘Christopher,’ he writes, looking back at himself in the third person (and almost as a third party),
had always been a model employee. He despised amateurs like Brecht who, when they condescended to work at a film studio, whined and sneered and called themselves whores or slaves. Christopher prided himself on his adaptability. Writing a movie was a game, and each game had a different set of rules. Having learned the rules, Christopher could play along with enjoyment.
Yet as Isherwood and the Christopher of Lost Years know, it is not always clear whether learning the rules is a matter of competence or compliance – part of the pleasure of mastery is the submission it entails. As Christopher learns the game of writing for the movies in Hollywood, and learns to write his own kind of fiction, and learns, above all, to play out his sexuality, he is also trying to invent his own game, to discover his very own rules whatever people might call him as a consequence. ‘Wystan was much more mature than Christopher,’ he writes in Christopher and His Kind. ‘Labels didn’t scare him.’ This is a subtle definition of maturity because it knows so much about intimidation. A lot of Isherwood’s characters find themselves jousting at labels. In Lost Years, written between the rather dour memoir of his parents, Kathleen and Frank (completed in 1970), and his great book Christopher and His Kind (published in 1976), Isherwood attempts a stark reconstruction of his early years in California. He is writing in the 1970s about his experience in the late 1940s of being, among other things, a gay man and an aspiring writer. And so he is remembering the old labels in the light of the new ones. And he is writing a memoir that is neither a diary nor a deliberately fictionalised autobiography. Lost Years, Katherine Bucknell tells us in her useful introduction, is part of ‘a major new phase – roughly the final third of his career – in which Isherwood moved away from semi-fictionalised writing towards pure autobiography’. ‘Pure autobiography’ is obviously an odd phrase; and Lost Years is more about what, if anything, such a phrase might mean.
Wondering what to write next after finishing Kathleen and Frank – having done his parents, so to speak – Isherwood considered writing a book about his spiritual teacher, Swami Prabhavananda, an adult he had been able to take rather more seriously as a guide to living his life. But it was clear to him, as he noted in his diary at the time, that it would be about the fact that his ‘personal approach to Vedanta was, among other things, the approach of a homosexual looking for a religion which will accept him’. So instead of the book he would eventually write as My Guru and His Disciple (1980), Isherwood decided that he would write, largely for himself, a kind of ‘reconstructed diary’ about his sexual life in those apparently lost years in America. It would be, he wrote, ‘quite largely a sexual record and so indiscreet as to be unpublishable. It might keep me amused, like knitting, but I should be getting on with something else.’ It was not clear exactly what a sexual record might be a record of. Or what kind of person the narrator as the recorder of these experiences would turn out to be. As a schoolboy Isherwood had written an essay entitled ‘Omission Is the Beginning of All Art’. Lost Years was to be a book in a wholly reputable modern genre: a book about what would otherwise be omitted. But written, at least in the first instance, only for the author. ‘Isherwood’s “knitting”,’ Bucknell remarks, ‘somewhat like the flow of unselfconscious, free-associative talk in psychoanalysis, evidently set his mind free to delve more directly than ever before into his private life. The very insignificance and confidentiality of the task opened new avenues to self-reflection.’ For a writer so fascinated by the performing self to narrow down the audience in this way – to discover what kind of audience he was (or gave) to himself – might well have seemed like a necessary experiment. Isherwood is always at his best when he is showing us how self-consciousness tends to turn up at precisely those moments when we least expect it. Indeed, that we may be most archly self-conscious when we are apparently most forgetful of ourselves. It was his fear that self-consciousness went all the way down – that unselfconsciousness is something we enact, like everything else – that drew Isherwood to Eastern religion, and to writing. The knitting of Lost Years stages a more direct delving into the self. And it is as an enquiry – or even as a draft of an enquiry – into the art of self-exposure that it should be read.
When it came to writing, self-consciousness for Isherwood meant that there was pressure to be seen to be something – to be someone in particular, a certain kind of character – in one’s description of things. So he would be disconcerted when anything interrupted the preferred performances of his writing self. He observed in his diary around the time he was writing Lost Years:
The main thing I have to offer as a writer are my reactions to experience (these ARE my fiction or my poetry, or whatever you want to call it). Now, these reactions are more positive when I am reacting to actual experiences, than when I am reacting to imagined experiences. Yet, the actuality of the experiences does bother me, the brute facts keep tripping me up, I keep wanting to rearrange and alter the facts so as to relate them more dramatically to my reactions.
To be a certain kind of writer, you need certain kinds of fact to react to. Altered or rearranged facts bring out the best in Isherwood. There has to be something out there to react to, but it mustn’t be too much of an obstacle. Lost Years is an experiment in trying to write (at least a bit) against the grain: he will record the brute facts unaltered, without tripping up.
Isherwood starts from the assumption, or rather tries out the idea, that a ‘sexual record’ of this period of his life suits the brute facts approach. Or at least that brute facts are required in any account of sexual life that isn’t pointlessly disingenuous. So the fact that several reviewers of this book have tripped up on some of its brute facts – the unsanctimonious sex, the occasional anti-semitism, the bits of spite – is not entirely surprising. It is not news that we are not as nice as we should be (though what we make of this is sometimes news). But Isherwood is not trying to shock himself: he is seeing what happens – how the sentences come out – when he aims not to rearrange the facts. Not the self stripped of its adjectives, but a documentary about a performing self. ‘I am writing this,’ Isherwood begins, ‘to clarify my project to myself, not actually to begin work on it … Because the “I” of this period is twenty years out of date, I shall write about him in the third person … this helps me to overcome my inhibitions, avoid self-excuses and regard my past behaviour more objectively.’ That inhibition and self-excuse more or less sum up the modern sense of self, that the modern, literary ‘I’ is always felt to be elsewhere out of date, in the third person, wishing for objectivity etc, is not a mission statement for Isherwood: it is simply the precondition for writing this particular book. The persistent modern project of trying to set the sexual record straight, and not so straight, has to be about the relationship between inhibition and self-excuse.
It is, of course, easier to talk about inhibition and self-excuse – about one’s ideal self and one’s alibis – if one talks about the unconscious. But for Isherwood this is part of the problem rather than any kind of solution:
Christopher had – and I still have – a deep-seated reluctance to try tinkering with his own psychological mechanism … Nowadays, I would say I believe that the unconscious must by its nature remain unconscious. It doesn’t belong to me … All attempts to meddle with it are therefore attempts to impose my will and my ideas of what is good for me upon the infinitely greater wisdom of the non-self.
Lost Years is acutely conscious of the way Christopher imposes his will and idea on others (‘Christopher, that shameless flatterer’). But in writing this particular book he is much more attentive to the ways in which he imposes his will and his ideas on himself. As he reconstructs his past he describes his earlier self as virtually obsessed by self-characterisation; and then, every so often, as strangely guilty as he catches himself in the act. Isherwood quotes a ‘coldly contemptuous’ remark about himself from Keith Vaughan’s Journal and Drawings in which Vaughan describes Christopher as ‘enormously interested in the superficialities of life’. And it is as though by quoting this he is reminding himself of something, trying not to keep certain questions about himself at bay. Because if Lost Years is perplexed about anything it is about what the superficialities of life are and about the things one finds enormously interesting, as opposed to all those things one is supposed to find of such moment. When he writes, for example, of The Unquiet Grave that it is Cyril Connolly’s ‘most maddening and snobbish book, and for that very reason his most fascinating and self-revealing’, he is remarking that the self is not revealed in its most (obviously) self-revealing places. What Christopher is enormously interested in in Lost Years is sex and, in a rather different sense, in what goes on between people. But he is uncertain – and this is part of the book’s subtle amusement – what, if anything, his sexuality reveals about himself.
As a ‘confirmed self-preserver’ who ‘in his inmost heart … thought of himself as an art-aristocrat or brahmin, a person privileged by his talent to demand the service (he preferred to call it “the co-operation”) of others’, Christopher is, as he notices, fairly well preserved from being too drastically changed by experience. Lost Years re-creates a Christopher poised between a quest (and therefore the acknowledgment of some discontent) and a sense that the quest – which takes a more or less religious form – may itself be a distraction, that what Christopher most wants to be is what he already is: gay and a writer of considerable ambition and talent. It is a choice – though Isherwood does not present it in these terms – between the unmaking of the (familiar) self and making the self up, between a disciplined anonymity and being a character.
In so far as Lost Years tells a story – it is, of course, integral to Isherwood’s project that the book is unplotted, just strung-together anecdotes about what he remembers doing – it is about Isherwood’s sexual preferences beginning to come adrift from his spiritual commitments. Not wishing to ‘fool everyone into thinking him a saint’, Isherwood leaves the Vedanta Center, the religious community that had been his home, with a clear sense, at least in retrospect, of what he was up to:
Should he have left the Center much sooner than he did? Looking back, I find that I can’t say yes. It now seems to me that Christopher’s embarrassment and guilt feelings were of little importance and his ‘spiritual struggles’ trivial. What mattered was that he was getting exposure to Swami, that his relations with Swami continued to be (fairly) frank, and that he never ceased to be aware of Swami’s love. That he kept slipping away to see Bill Harris wasn’t really so dreadful.
What Isherwood catches so well here – and throughout the book – is the self-importance of the present moment; the possibility that our immersion in our lives as we live them – our ‘spiritual struggles’ – is an inevitable distraction from many points of view. If it is only in retrospect that we can avoid being so narrow-minded about ourselves, even see that narrow-minded is just what we have been, then recollection, Isherwood intimates, may be the best cure for egotism. What was once a melodrama of moral absolutes becomes a world in which being ‘(fairly) frank’ is fair enough. We may look better if we rearrange the facts, but rearranging the facts is also moral propaganda. Christopher did feel guilt, embarrassment, dread, spiritual struggle then: what Isherwood now sees is an intense sexual and spiritual pragmatism at work. Christopher, he now recognises, boasted of his suffering as a cover-story for his real preferences. Lost Years is exhilarating because it is Isherwood’s attempt to discover what mattered: not why it mattered to him, but that it mattered. And what is so artful about the writing in this book is that Isherwood’s explanations of his own behaviour sound simply like descriptions. It is as though he is saying: this is what Christopher was like, but with none of the usual moral invitations to the reader. Modern self-disclosure is always a provocation: it asks us to assess the self, to judge if we dare. Lost Years is more like autobiography as natural history. If there is no point in talking about what a mollusc should be like, why describe what a person should be like?
But erotic life is a big problem for natural history. The main drama of Lost Years is the young Isherwood’s love affair with a man called Caskey, and the various sexual affairs and encounters that go on around it. What is most striking about the way Isherwood, in being as fairly frank and straightforward as possible, describes their differences is that they sound like perfect opposites. By refusing to be ‘novelistic’ the characters seem to revert to allegorical type. Christopher appears to be eminently sensible (even about his promiscuity), while Caskey ‘didn’t want his life to be predictable … He would tidy the house one day, and drunkenly wreck it the next.’ Isherwood’s account of their relationship is also, unwittingly perhaps, a formulation of a dilemma about writing.
Christopher’s reasonableness, the justice of his case, the moderation of his demands upon Caskey were a bit TOO convincing – and he knew it. Relations between two human beings who are supposed to love each other – and perhaps actually do, from time to time – cannot be regulated by a code of rules. The truth is that Christopher was no more reasonable than Caskey; he merely had a knack of manoeuvring himself into positions in which he was, technically, ‘in the right’ – whereupon Caskey, with his passive obstinacy, would not only accept the counterposition of being ‘in the wrong’ but would proceed to make the wrong as wrong as he possibly could. He always behaved worst when there was no conceivable excuse for his behaviour. That was his kind of integrity.
In Isherwood’s view Christopher is often up to his old tricks; and Christopher’s trick is in any given situation to privilege his own position. (By the same token, much of Isherwood’s fiction is a critique of the self-justifying voice). Christopher has the knack of being very impressed by himself; and Lost Years is heartening because Isherwood is more than willing to be charmed by this, and also to enjoy seeing through it (ruthless unmasking would be just another knack of the self-important). To suggest that there were two kinds of integrity in play here, and not merely two wilful egotisms, is to suggest that integrity comes in a variety of forms, and that one of its functions is violent defensiveness. It is as though in writing Lost Years Isherwood was thinking about how to be as unself-protective a writer as possible without losing his sense of humour or, indeed, his pleasure as a novelist in people’s self-protectiveness, their flair for self-assurance. He has a great eye for vanity because his suspicion of it is part of his relish for it.
Isherwood wrote Lost Years in a spirit of generous suspicion about his younger self. Though there are sudden (and shocking) moments of self-loathing in the book, he is not keen to be lured into the refuge of self-criticism. As though to take against his former self would be a tactless self-betrayal. ‘I have no right to sneer at Christopher’s soul-searchings,’ he writes in parenthesis, ‘just because they were conducted amidst bottles and boys – but they do embarrass me.’ That one’s former self has rights, that there should be no privileged position from which to judge one’s future or ex-selves, doesn’t prevent embarrassment, or the regret at feeling it. That one could (or should) feel embarrassed about one’s embarrassment – that shame might be trivial (to use one of Isherwood’s key words) in the larger scale of things – is the version of moral progress that Isherwood was after. The terror of being judged, and the ruses of character required to avoid complicity with the more severely demeaning forms it can take, is everywhere in the stark and amused soul-searching of Lost Years. And the only authority that is affectionately embraced in the book is E.M. Forster.
Christopher was still a little in awe of him. Not because he thought of Forster as a great writer and as his particular master – he did, but this didn’t make him uneasy in Forster’s presence; Christopher, who spent so much of his life playing the teacher, found it pleasant and relaxing to become a disciple, now and then. It was as a human being that Forster awed him. Forster demanded truth in all his relationships; underneath his charming unalarming exterior he was a stern moralist and his mild babylike eyes looked deep into you. Their glance made Christopher feel false and tricky. Christopher reacted to this feeling by trying to make Forster laugh. He usually could; the uneasier he felt, the more sparkling his comedy act became.
This is one of the most interesting double-acts in the book – Lost Years continually stages what-Christopher-was-like in the presence of certain significant (and not so significant) others – and one Isherwood redescribes in Christopher and His Kind. The truthfulness that makes Christopher feel ‘false and tricky’; and the comedy act he uses to manage his unease is where Christopher – and in a different sense, where Isherwood as a writer – is most interestingly poised. Forster’s demand for truth is, in Isherwood’s canny way, treated as sceptically as Christopher’s performing self. As though Isherwood knows that the fool is not less trustworthy than his master. Forster is alarming and stern in the guise of a mild baby: Christopher is amusing and sparkles under the guise of a disciple. And in Christopher and His Kind it is the baby Forster that Isherwood goes on about:
He had a baby’s vulnerability, which is also the invulnerability of a creature whom one dare not harm. He seemed to be swaddled baby-like, in his ill-fitting suit rather than wearing it … a friend who was present at the last meeting between them made the comment: ‘Mr Forster laughs at you as if you were the village idiot.’
Forster’s vulnerability is as much a protection racket, and as integral to who he is, as Christopher’s comedy act. To be false and tricky and to sparkle under certain kinds of pressure is as much part of Christopher’s truthfulness as being a morally insidious baby is part of Forster’s truthfulness. Isherwood as a writer wants to resist the lure of morally privileged positions, while acknowledging the interest of their power. If Christopher had become a stern and alarming moralist in Forster’s presence his own truth could not have been told. In other words, what Forster’s moral pressure made Christopher feel and do interests Isherwood as much as, if not more than, Forster’s principles. To have been more serious with Forster would have been a self-betrayal; and, not incidentally, it would have deprived Forster of his obvious pleasure in Isherwood’s company. The master is glum and self-obsessed without his fool.
‘And yet,’ Isherwood writes towards the end of this compelling memoir, ‘Christopher WAS open to interference – by the right person.’ ‘Interference’ is the right word for those, like Christopher, who are so set in their ways; who underneath all the reckless mischief and spiritual struggle, are going their own way. You never feel, reading Lost Years, that Christopher won’t come through, because he keeps coming across the right person. And he knows that there are plenty of them. And that they are going to be right for different reasons and for different things.