I am a cactus

John Sutherland

  • Isherwood by Peter Parker
    Picador, 914 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 330 48699 3

‘Xtopher,’ Stephen Spender wrote in April 1931, ‘is a cactus.’ Prickly, solitary, self-sufficient, hard to handle and difficult to love. How to get to grips with ‘Isherwood’ (as he has chosen to address him) was a problem for Peter Parker: something that perhaps explains the 12 years this usually brisk biographer has spent on his task. A main difficulty is that Isherwood (‘I am a camera’) is himself so intent a watcher of things that inspection bounces off him. Intent and also wary. ‘Wherever he was,’ Spender declared, ‘seemed to me to be the trenches’: dug in, on guard, bayonet fixed. Not easy to close with.

Isherwood is a very long, densely detailed book which contains a large amount of valuable new information. It tracks, particularly in its account of the early 1930s, much of the same ground as I did in my simultaneously published life of Spender, but where I trod, Parker has dug. He makes no extravagant claim for Isherwood’s writing, praising only, in his extensive descriptions of the work, the Berlin stories, the novel A Single Man, and the polemical autobiography Christopher and His Kind. He examines the writing for film, but thinks it unimportant. Isherwood, who disliked self-revelation, was not a fluent or eloquent letter writer. Although he was a university teacher for much of his later life there is little critical writing and little reviewing. Unlike Auden or Spender he never hit the lecture circuit. His journals, where they survive, are unreliable. But, as Parker demonstrates, Isherwood is central to any consideration of the ‘Auden generation’: more so, perhaps, than Auden himself.

Biographers have two options. The first is to choose a strong narrative line, which means travelling light when it comes to what Henry James called ‘solidity of specification’. The other is to put together a portrait ‘from the life’, which is what Parker has done. This book is not, primarily, about Isherwood’s career, but about Isherwood. And Isherwood was all about Isherwood. His ‘principal subject’, Parker argues, ‘was himself’; or, if he was feeling expansive, ‘Christopher’s kind’ – himself and other Christophers. Parker sees an indissoluble narcissism at the core of Isherwood’s sexuality. It is evident in his characteristic pose when in love as ‘older brother’ to a younger, more beautiful Isherwood. Magnus Hirschfeld, the Berlin sexologist, diagnosed Isherwood (unpejoratively) as ‘infantile’, possessed of – and by – the ‘sexuality of a schoolboy’. The artist Keith Vaughan saw him in late middle age as a ‘dehydrated schoolboy’. ‘It was not in Isherwood’s nature to treat his partners as adults,’ Parker says. ‘A large part of their attraction was that they were considerably younger than he was, and they were expected to undertake the role – albeit incestuously – of kid brother, or even son. Just as many parents want to create children in their own image, so Isherwood looked for similarities that would suggest this "familial” bond.’

According to Humphrey Spender, who was close to Isherwood in the 1930s, Christopher was incapable of being in love with anyone other than Christopher. But such was the force of his will that, over a period, the other would become him. Not that most of his relationships lasted long enough for any transmutation: his body count was phenomenal. By the early 1950s, as Parker calculates, he had had some four hundred partners; this was before the gay liberation movement – for whom in old age Isherwood was a favourite uncle – made such athleticism less remarkable, and long before Aids made it risky. His longest relationship was with Don Bachardy, a partner thirty years younger than he was. Parker describes the mirrorings of personality which took place over the quarter century they were together:

It began to strike others that Isherwood and Bachardy had in some curious way merged their personalities. Their voices had a similarly high pitch, and Bachardy had picked up not only Isherwood’s mid-Atlantic accent – one that seemed distinctly British to the Americans, and distinctly American to the British – but also many of his vocal mannerisms. In particular he had developed what Americans thought of as a British upper-class stammer . . . It became almost impossible to distinguish between the two voices and even close friends could never quite work out at once who it was who had picked up the phone . . . There was something at once touching, funny and eerie about this partial fusion of identities.

I interviewed Bachardy a couple of years ago, and the physical resemblance to the older Isherwood is startling.

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