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.

Bachardy – under Isherwood’s patronage and with some timely help from Spender – graduated from ‘Christopher’s latest boy’ (something that provoked epic sulks) into an accomplished artist. As a portraitist, Bachardy works ‘only from life, and in real time, completing each portrait in a single sitting’. When Isherwood was dying Bachardy sketched him incessantly: six portraits were completed in Isherwood’s last 24, unconscious hours. There must have been many motivations, but one, surely, was the search for the self in the image of the identical other. Was there an identity as well as an image behind the camera? Isherwood for his part was never sure. ‘I have no idea what I’m like totally,’ he said in 1973, by which point he had known himself for 69 years. ‘I mean, I have no sense of myself as a person exactly, just as a lot of reactions to things.’

Mirrors feature strongly in Isherwood. Aged 34, Isherwood anatomised Isherwood with a typically cold eye:

Stripped, I am no Adonis. My body looks fairly young because it is soft and not heavily muscled. My shoulders are narrow, and my hips too big. Nevertheless, as long as I hold myself well and remain full-face to the audience, my figure looks passably good – or, at least, quite cosy to lie on. When I turn sideways, you see the plump, soft, impotent belly, the big rather feminine bottom, the disproportionate shortness of the thighs and calves.

‘Sexy legs’ were, Parker records, Isherwood’s principal ‘desideratum’ in a lover, and Bachardy was distinguished in this department.

Isherwood was born into what he called the ‘poshocracy’, burdened – others would say privileged – with a multi-barrelled name, a family seat in Cheshire, money, and a genealogy extending proudly back to the 16th century. ‘We were the 1930s,’ Spender liked to assert, thinking, in a comradely way, of himself, Wystan and Christopher – ‘Us Three’. But, as Parker insists, ‘of the writers who came to be associated with the 1930s, Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood was by far the grandest.’ His life-work would be a serial severance of everything that connected him to Marple Hall, his family and his country. When in the 1940s he took out American citizenship, he stripped his name down to ‘Christopher Isherwood’. He would, one imagines, have been even happier with ‘Christopher X’.

Englishness is not that easily purged. Even in the Hollywood years, some indelible poshocracy remained. On making friends with David Hockney, in LA in the 1960s, Isherwood enthusiastically exclaimed: ‘Oh David, we’ve so much in common; we love California, we love American boys, and we’re from the North of England!’ Parker adds: ‘As Hockney observed, the North of England he knew . . . was rather different from the one at Marple Hall: Isherwood had never even visited Blackpool.’ Marple Hall and what it stood for ‘gave Isherwood something tangible to rebel against’. His rebellion was more uncompromising than Spender’s against his liberal-journalist father, or Auden’s against his scholarly doctor father. Fate helped Christopher. Colonel Frank Isherwood was killed in action in World War One, when his eldest son was 11. It was, in one sense, merciful for both of them: Frank would have had a hard time keeping the heir to Marple Hall in line.

Oedipal gratitude may account for Isherwood’s later attachment to Berlin and young Germans of military age. With his father dead, his mother, Kathleen, became the focus of his youthful repudiations. His break for freedom was devastating for the family members he left behind: principally for his mother, about whom he had few nice things to say, and his impressionable, mentally unstable younger brother, Richard, about whom Parker has turned up new material – much of which also makes one think badly of Isherwood. With his family disowned, he formed what would be his longest – and wholly asexual – friendship at Repton, with Edward Upward. Close and collaborative as it was, the friendship was often ruptured, for years at a time, by ideological differences over Upward’s lifelong Communism and Isherwood’s late-life conversion to transcendentalism. None of this seems to have upset him. Possibly Isherwood was not wired for intimate friendship. When he made one of his flying postwar visits to England in the 1970s, Humphrey Spender suggested a meeting. Isherwood informed him ‘that he could spare him ten minutes’. ‘I was under the illusion I was one of his very best friends,’ Spender forlornly told Parker. One of the striking features of the American years, as Parker narrates them, is how little Isherwood saw of Auden. Chester Kallman was the ostensible reason; but Isherwood’s not needing continuous contact with even his closest comrade was surely another. Cactoid self-sufficiency. The only thing he feared, Isherwood once said, was ‘dependence’.

At Cambridge, Isherwood wilfully failed his exams, and later walked out on the medical training into which the aspirations of his mother had driven him. If he couldn’t be a squire, Kathleen wanted her son to be a don, or at least a professional, preferably in Harley Street. It was not what Isherwood wanted, any more than he wanted to live under England’s ‘heterosexual dictatorship’. Berlin, as he provocatively declared in Christopher and His Kind, ‘meant boys’. It also meant the stimulus to become what Auden had prophesied he would be – ‘the novelist of the future’. As a writer of fiction, Isherwood looked backwards, to E.M. Forster: ‘the only one who understands what a modern novel ought to be’. Forster, whom he met in 1932, ‘became one of the first and most important guru-figures in Isherwood’s life’.

There were other, less orthodox gurus. In Germany, together with Auden and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Spender, Isherwood embraced Homer Lane’s ‘doctrine of original virtue’, which held that ‘there is only one sin: disobedience to the inner law of our own nature.’ Every English inhibition must be de-repressed. In Germany the ‘gang’ formed a masonic – or, in Isherwood’s preferred term, ‘conspiratorial’ – bond. Isherwood and Auden were by now intermittent lovers, against the grain of their sexual preference for boys. Going to bed together over the years, Isherwood said, ‘kept an adolescent quality in our relationship alive’. In his biography of the recently deceased Auden, Charles Osborne claimed that while at Oxford he had slept with Spender, at a period when the younger man was still a ‘verger’ – gang-speak for ‘virgin’. The allegation was indignantly denied. Nor was there any suggestion of a sexual relationship between Spender and Isherwood. Perhaps because of this, there was never the degree of ‘adolescent’ intimacy that Isherwood and Auden enjoyed.

As the 1930s rolled on, there was the complicating factor of Spender’s bisexuality – or, more precisely, his drift to the other side. For Isherwood, homosexuality was primarily a defiant act of will. He had his first (and, Parker thinks, only) ‘complete’ sexual experience with a woman at the age of 25. It was not entirely distasteful, but it was not what he resolved to want. ‘Do I want to go to bed with more women and girls?’ he asked himself. ‘Of course not, as long as I can have boys. Why do I prefer boys? Because of their shape, and their voices and their smell and the way they move.’ Spender also had his first complete sexual experience with a woman at the advanced age of 25. He responded differently. As he told Isherwood,

By the way, I almost hate to tell you, but I have been having quite a lot of normal sex lately. The effect is funny, because I find boys much more attractive, in fact I am rather more than usually susceptible, but actually, I find the actual sex act with women more satisfactory, more terrible, more disgusting, and, in fact more everything. To me it is much more of an experience, I think, and that is all there is to it.

The phrase ‘normal sex’ was ominous for the cause. Stephen’s kind was no longer, in every respect, Christopher’s.

For Spender, the initiation into heterosexual sex with Muriel Gardiner in Vienna in 1934 led the way to two marriages, and a family. For Isherwood, the bisexual man could never be honest. It was against his nature(s). ‘Although he would always regard Spender as one of his closest friends,’ Parker writes, ‘Isherwood also thought of him as a "prime example” of the bisexual man. He frequently complained that bisexuality involved all manner of compromise and deceit, that it inevitably led to betrayal since by their very nature bisexuals could not be faithful to one person – not that sexual fidelity was anything Isherwood himself ever practised.’ The balancingly sardonic parenthesis is a nice touch.

Unlike the revered Auden, Spender became the occasional target of Isherwood’s novelistic bitchery. In the period after his first marriage, to Inez Pearn, he is described in Lions and Shadows (1938) irrupting, as ‘Stephen Savage’ (a little Huxleyan joke), into Auden’s college rooms: ‘He burst in upon us, blushing, sniggering loudly, contriving to trip over the edge of the carpet – an immensely tall, shambling boy of 19, with a great scarlet poppy-face, wild frizzy hair, and eyes the violent colour of bluebells.’ ‘All Savage’s friends betrayed him, in some minor degree, sooner or later,’ the novel adds. In 1954, 13 years into his second marriage, Spender reappears in The World in the Evening, as the sad-sack ‘Stephen Monk’, bisexual, but neutered by marriage.

I was alone, now, at the uncrowded end of the living-room. A mirror on the opposite wall showed me how I appeared to the outside world: a tall blond youngish-oldish man with a weakly good-looking, anxious face and dark, over-expressive eyes . . . I looked as if I were trying to melt into the scenery and become invisible, like a giraffe standing motionless among sunlit leaves.

In late 1932, for reasons which even Parker’s research cannot fully explain, Isherwood and Spender, who had been inseparable in Germany, fell out. There was a quarrel during a visit by the two of them to England. Spender called on Isherwood, to have it out with his friend, who chose to be ironic and unresponsive: ‘Stephen, annoyed by Christopher’s evasiveness, exclaimed: "If we’re going to part, at least let’s part like men.” To which Christopher replied, with a bitchy smile: "But Stephen, we aren’t men.”’ Fences were invariably mended and over the years there was more affection than bitchiness. But there was also wariness. ‘Stephen,’ Isherwood wrote, ‘knows more than he should about me, and I about him – so we are cautious with each other and mistrustful.’ It’s an odd notion of friendship, but typical of Isherwood: friendship breaks down if your friend gets too close.

In Berlin, after a succession of Strassenjunge and Puppenjunge – street kids and rent boys – Isherwood formed what was to be the first serious involvement of his sexual career, with 17-year-old Heinz Neddermeyer. After the Nazi takeover, there was a long flight across Europe to save the young German from conscription. In 1937, the Gauleiters caught up with Heinz. He was tried for sexual delinquency and packed off into the army. According to Humphrey Spender, Heinz was the only lover Isherwood ‘felt deeply about’. With him gone, he lost the ‘decisive factor in his life’ and went into lifelong ‘widowerhood’. Parker, I think, is the first to record in print Auden’s long sexual relationship with Michael Yates, the ‘you’ of ‘Lay your sleeping head’. The affair began when Yates was 13 and Auden his schoolmaster. Parker’s treatment of this aspect of the gang’s sexual careers is sane, clear-sighted and humane – all the more impressive for the current moral panic about pederasty.

In January 1939, Auden and Isherwood left together for America. On board the boat taking them from England, ‘Christopher heard himself say: "You know, it just doesn’t mean anything to me any more – the Popular Front, the party line, the Anti-Fascist struggle. I suppose they’re OK but something’s wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.” To which Wystan answered: "Neither can I.”’ In America, Auden would be East Coast, Isherwood – drawn magnetically by Hollywood – West Coast. The cactus thrives in Southern California, and so did Xtopher. Auden turned to the Western religion of his fathers, Isherwood to the Eastern mysticism of the tinseltown gurus. Predictably, Isherwood could not entirely subordinate himself to Swami Prabhavananda’s puritanical regime. But Vedanta gave him some release from the tyranny of being himself. ‘I am so utterly sick of being a person – Christopher Isherwood, or Isherwood, or even Chris,’ he had told John Lehmann a few years earlier.

In America, both Auden and Isherwood would outgrow the need for ‘boys’. Between purging bouts of transcendentalism, Isherwood drank too much (although he was never, Parker insists, alcoholic) and did not succeed – beyond making a comfortable income – in the film world. He was consistently misogynistic (violently so, on Parker’s evidence) and sometimes mildly anti-semitic. He was kinder to his mother in her last years, kinder, indeed, to everyone. He wrote good books, one or two of which Parker plausibly claims are very good indeed. Throughout his life, and particularly in America, he was a force for enlightenment in what would, late in his life, be called sexual politics. He did not die, as he feared he might, ‘a single man’. Isherwood’s life does not, as Parker wryly says, ‘offer a model of order’. It reflects, as Parker also says, the ‘fragmentation and deracination of the 20th century’. Added to that, he was afflicted by a personality more easily detonated than most: ‘boiling rage beneath the nicey-nice exterior’, as he described it. Parker orders the fragments persuasively, expertly and with a light ironic touch. Spiny prickles and all.