Adam Phillips

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in