A Little Bit of Showing Off
- The Sixties: Diaries 1960-69 by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell
Chatto, 756 pp, £30.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7011 6940 4
‘This is a period without glamour,’ Isherwood writes in a diary entry for 18 May 1962, apropos his lover Don Bachardy’s birthday. ‘He blames me because his birthday isn’t marvellous, and I would blame him under the same circumstances.’ Isherwood feared these times without glamour – if they were without glamour – because he was about to be in his sixties and on this particular day Bachardy had turned 28. And after nine years together – they met in 1953 – they were beginning to figure out whether this was going to be a life together, as it turned out to be, or whether they could accommodate to what had become the rhythm of Bachardy’s life. Bachardy wanted his ‘independence’, his own studio, a life apart, while Isherwood held tight, endlessly understanding of Bachardy’s ‘needs’ but nevertheless a wreck whenever Bachardy went away. ‘I’m certainly not deeply pleased by the way I’ve been handling my life while he’s been gone. Drinking, idling, wasting time with people I don’t really want to see,’ he writes, always a little charmed by his own self-contempt. At other times he admonishes himself to ‘make something out of the experience; discipline and train myself. Not run around to parties getting drunk and looking for “consolation”.’ But running round to parties and getting drunk is what he does and the ‘consolations’ he finds are not always a waste of time.
Who and what he couldn’t really live without was becoming increasingly clear to him. His predicament – not quite like parent and child, but not quite unlike either – showed him how spurious the wisdom of age could be. Nor was it lost on him that his devotion to Hindu philosophy was holding emotional chaos at bay. ‘Always, there are only two basic reasons for me to give thanks,’ he writes the day after Thanksgiving in 1961: ‘Prabhavananda and Don.’ In the 1960s Isherwood sustained his rather dutiful-sounding devotion to his swami – in a shrewd preface to the diaries Christopher Hitchens speaks of Isherwood’s ‘amazing willingness to put up with the swami’ – which seems to have replicated something of his irritated devotion to his family, while the relationship with Bachardy became his true ‘means of enlightenment’: i.e. what he really wanted. Indeed, the diaries show rather better than the fiction that Isherwood’s attachment to the wisdom of the East was his way of having a family. And that his erotic life was a determined attempt not to have one.
Not the story of a marriage exactly, these diaries document what was becoming for Isherwood the inescapable necessity of his relationship with Bachardy, and his ‘relationship’ with his own less and less marvellous ageing body. What he referred to as ‘the misery of getting old and worn-out’ was complicated by living with a much younger man, who wears him out by never being worn out himself. Isherwood wasn’t worn out by the usual things. ‘I aggressively refuse to take the woes of heterosexuals seriously,’ he writes, and what interested him were the rather less spoken woes of homosexuals who were not married without quite being unmarried, but doing something altogether different: finding out what kinds of fidelity were compatible with sexual variety, discovering on whose terms an established relationship depended and what those terms might be; and, in Isherwood and Bachardy’s case, working out how to be artists together without being arty, without being what he refers to apropos one of his own books as ‘terribly stilted and contrived and literary’.
Bachardy was beginning to make his way as an artist, commissioned quite often to do portraits of Isherwood’s glamorous friends and acquaintances – Stravinsky, Auden, Forster, Gielgud, Dietrich, among others – but intermittently (and understandably) resenting Isherwood’s help. And Isherwood was consolidating his reputation as a novelist with two remarkable books, Down There on a Visit and A Meeting by the River, and one masterpiece, A Single Man (plus two rather dull books, as he himself said, on his spiritual preoccupations, An Approach to Vedanta, and Ramakrishna and His Disciples). The gradually established life with Bachardy – ‘If I want to write anything about my life, it’s letters to Don’ – finalises Isherwood’s emigration to America, and his sense of himself as a writer. Not the kind, as he says of Angus Wilson, who ‘proudly calls your attention to every single God-damned nuance’, but a ‘“reassuring” type of writer’ who ‘takes you by the hand and leads you step by step from a familiar into an unfamiliar situation’. Isherwood knew from his own experience how easily distracted the reader (and the writer) is, and how much he wants to be taken in; and that a good performance is one in which the audience doesn’t feel it’s being manipulated, and in which there isn’t too much showing off. A good book for Isherwood was one that didn’t continually remind you that it was being written.
Isherwood liked people, himself above all, to perform well; it wasn’t acting he objected to but the contrivance that looks contrived, the artifice that shows the strain. He didn’t like people being what he called in A Single Man ‘smart-alecky or actor-sincere’; he didn’t mind ploys and pretences but he wanted them to be utterly convincing. His spiritual aspirations were all about the relinquishing of the self, the ‘no-self’, as though what was suspect about the self was how improvised it always is, while his other, more literary ambitions were all for the performing self, and the impressions it could make and take. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his prose picks up in the diaries when he is describing Mick Jagger on the set in Australia for Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly, or dinner with the Stravinskys, and it flags in the (inevitably) endless accounts of his spiritual failings. Listening to one of his friends talking about meditation, Isherwood ‘thought how really naturally unspiritual I am – as Don has sometimes told me’.
When the diaries are not about Bachardy, or the swami, or about writing, or indeed about Isherwood’s persistent drinking (‘if I can’t drink I can’t endure to see the people who bore me – and that means nearly everybody’), they are about the Hollywood stars and directors, and the various other artists and hangers-on, some of whom were friends, and some professional colleagues in the film industry for whom Isherwood worked while teaching literature at local colleges and doing his own writing. There are wonderful descriptions of the famous and the infamous – Timothy Leary, Warhol, Ginsberg, Charles Laughton, Truman Capote, Natalie Wood, Thom Gunn, the Reagans, Leslie Caron, Nehru – but it’s their performance that’s gossiped about, not their morals. When he describes people it’s as if he’s making notes for prospective characters in his novels (‘We had Leslie Caron to supper last night. She is quite likeable but not an utter darling, too cold-blooded’). His interest is in the impression people make, not whether or not they are good people. What they are ‘naturally’ or ‘really’ is mostly neither here nor there, except occasionally in relation to himself.
Isherwood is curious about people but not impressed by them; he is a camera, but unlike a camera he is never star-struck, and will mention in passing that he has had dinner, say, with Paul Newman or Lionel Trilling, with little or nothing noted (‘Lionel Trilling said that he doesn’t like Forster’s work as much as he used to’). It’s not that the large events are played down or camped up, but that he is always so wary of what he is expected to feel in a given situation that he’s inclined to keep things to a minimum, to record only what actually happened. So when he goes to a party given by Norman Mailer it isn’t Mailer we hear about, or anyone else: ‘Don and I went to a small loud smoky party Norman Mailer was giving at the Ritz. By this time, I was drunk.’ He wants to be intrigued and amused, but he doesn’t want to fake it. ‘How dreadful to be dull,’ he writes at one point, ‘and how hopeless it is, as soon as someone decides you are’: you get the feeling that that someone was himself, and that the dread was very real. ‘I understand so well,’ he writes of an acquaintance, ‘his necessity to act a part for himself, in order to make his life there a little more amusing.’
One of the many compelling things about Isherwood is the range of people he allows himself to be charmed by. It is part of the generosity of these diaries, and of Isherwood as a novelist, that he wants to be charmed – partly because he knows how set in his ways he is always tempted to be. (He keeps coming back to Bachardy’s ‘aliveness’ and spontaneity, as if Bachardy were some kind of Lawrentian life-force for him, freeing him from being a Little Englander.) But the secret sharer of the open mind is the narrow mind that sponsors it: the narrow mind where all the fear is. So the other side of Isherwood’s love of things and people being various – another striking thing about the diaries – is the relentlessness of his prejudices against the English, against the French, against (some) women, and against Jews, prejudices being one way of holding onto one’s origins; of keeping faith with the traditions one likes to think one has rejected, if only by mocking them. Isherwood’s prejudices against his family and his class were clearly ways of keeping them in mind, and his brother and his mother – who dies as these diaries begin – are never far from his thoughts. Going to America in the 1930s became a way of thinking about growing up in England before the First World War. The diaries are full of quips and snubs about the dreariness of England in the 1960s, about an England he is glad to have left and lost; but they are often implicitly also about the social pressures of his upbringing. After a Christmas celebration at his ‘temple’, Isherwood writes in the diary, ‘I knew exactly how I ought to be feeling, so I didn’t feel anything at all,’ and you have the sense that this is the story, or one of the stories, of his childhood. What he likes about actors is that they consent to roles rather than submit to them (unlike, perhaps, Jews and women in Isherwood’s view); that they are not dominated by the demands of what he calls ‘the Others’. This, he seems to feel, makes them the freest people around. It is the honesty of the unbullied that he aspires to (and that he so admires in the ‘marvellous and strong’ Auden, and desires in Bachardy). And keeping a diary suits him because, among other things, it is a refuge from some of the bullies.
Now that there is zero tolerance for intolerance, diaries are the last refuge for writers given to a certain kind of straightforwardness. Isherwood is mercifully free of stilted respectability and compulsory good nature, but this means that the diaries are often offensively anti-semitic, for example, and without equivocation (he is untouched even by Auden’s disapproval of his anti-semitism). The real drawback of political correctness is not that it inhibits violence, which it should, but that it also, by the same token, inhibits people talking about their real preoccupations. Prejudices are solutions to (usually) unbearable conflict, or ways of never leaving home, or both; so the question should be, not how can we eradicate a given prejudice, or shame people into silence, but: what is the prejudice a self-cure for? Where something is really at stake there is always a prejudice, Isherwood intimates, some inflexible view that is reassuring because of who it offends. All his best writing is about the tact or the terror of prejudice, which makes the diaries a mine (or a minefield) of information about, among other things, Isherwood’s class origins and sexual (and aesthetic) preferences.
Isherwood believes, for example, that prejudice has to be voiced to make love possible. ‘Is there any love,’ he writes, ‘until there has been friction and a clash of wills, and an understanding that one does not agree on everything? Until, in fact, the mutual convenience relationship has been broken.’ Mutual convenience means keeping your prejudices to yourself; when one is being guarded that is what is being guarded. ‘My love,’ Isherwood writes, comparing it to ‘a merciless religion’, ‘offers no salvation to anyone else and yet damns anyone who doesn’t accept it.’ If you want to understand prejudice, read A Single Man, where the hero, George, gives a lecture-rant on what he calls ‘liberal heresy’ (‘because the persecuting majority is vile, says the liberal, therefore the persecuted minority must be stainlessly pure. Can’t you see what nonsense that is?’). It is what people use their prejudices to do that engages Isherwood, the pride in their prejudices.
In the novels these issues are dramatised, in the diaries they are not so much ‘issues’ as comments made in passing, or straightforward expressions of rage. When the University of California questions Isherwood’s fee for a lecture, Isherwood writes that they had ‘tried to jew me down to some ridiculous and impudent offer of theirs, they now, with anal squeals, agree to pay my fee.’ When Cabaret, based on Isherwood’s Berlin writings, opened in 1966 Bachardy saw it in New York: ‘he saw Cabaret,’ Isherwood notes in the diary, ‘which he found merely awful. It is quite a hit, although the notices haven’t all been good. It sounds Jewish beyond all belief and I now have scarcely any desire to see it.’ The Jews are so important to Isherwood because they represent everything he wants to free himself from and fears as a highbrow émigré English novelist wanting to write filmscripts in Hollywood; he is clearly haunted by what he often describes in the diaries (and in A Single Man) as the servile and vulgar materialism, the ruthless opportunism of the America he fled to to escape England and the war. He must really be a Jew, his bad conscience tells him, to have done what he did – escaped from the bigoted and persecutory British upper middle class to a new life in the New World. The diaries expose this and the novels rework it with considerable subtlety and sense. It’s not clear whether you can have the real engagement without the clash of wills (or prejudices); or avoid the ‘enjoying of difference’ becoming no more than a ‘mutual convenience’, a protection racket. Can intimacy, Isherwood begins to wonder, ever be anything other than a conflict of prejudices?
‘It’s the enormous tragedy of everything nowadays,’ George rants in A Single Man, ‘flirtation. Flirtation instead of fucking.’ Forster may have been Isherwood’s mentor – there are wonderful descriptions in the diaries of meetings with Forster – but he never recovered from reading D.H. Lawrence (who is talked of with some reverence in the diaries: one of Isherwood’s treasured possessions is a candlestick made by Lawrence in Taos). And what Isherwood got from Lawrence, and couldn’t always get from Forster, were some seemingly very un-English ideas about intimacy: that intimacy was an adventure not a settlement, a fight not a complicity; that because it was so problematic it was always open to change, but that a culture could set itself against various kinds of intimacy, could institutionalise its hatred and refusal of certain affinities between people. That there were still things to be said and written about what people who were drawn to each other could do together, but that a new kind of novel was needed to do this. Isherwood wanted modernist experimentation to be compatible with Edwardian realist fiction (which it is in his best novels).
As a 60-year-old in the 1960s he wanted the new experiences, what Lawrence had called the ‘new territories’ of the novel. ‘How wonderful,’ he writes at one point, ‘when we have really explored fucks and can get on to the moments of postorgasm; there you have a whole almost unexplored dramatic territory.’ Homosexuality and California both represented, and were, these new possibilities. England, Jews, the French and quite a lot of women were the saboteurs, reminding Isherwood of claustrophobic traditions and narrow-minded pieties and preferences. ‘I shall try to write this diary like one of those French swine (Robbe-Grillet) who write a-literary novels, without psychology,’ he says, knowing that he won’t; and he records being ‘delighted’ when Virgil Thomson called Camus ‘a phoney’: ‘I was so pleased that I shook hands with him.’ All the discrediting is not to Isherwood’s credit – and it all too starkly reveals what he himself so dreaded being accused of.
It is worth noting what has to be despised in the competition to be new. And so it is worth noting, as Isherwood does here, why he prefers Woolf to Joyce. ‘Have just finished Mrs Dalloway,’ he writes in 1962:
It is a marvellous book. Woolf’s use of the reverie is quite different from Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Beside her, Joyce seems tricky and vulgar and cheap, as she herself thought. Woolf’s kind of reverie is less ‘realistic’ but far more convincing and moving. It can convey tremendous and varied emotion. Joyce’s emotional range is very small.
When Isherwood is writing about other writers, invidious comparisons are being made, whether or not they are explicit. It is the ‘convincing’ and the ‘moving’, as of a theatrical performance, that works for him, and always the larger range he aspires to. As Katherine Bucknell suggests in her excellent introduction to the diaries, A Single Man, which Isherwood began writing in 1962, was ‘modelled on Mrs Dalloway, which Isherwood unreservedly praised that summer’. Woolf, he may have thought, was within his range that summer, whereas Joyce was beyond him.
The most cursory reading of these diaries makes it abundantly clear that he feared that he was ‘tricky and vulgar and cheap’, and that his considerable ambition was hampered by a strange lack of sophistication, as though his performance, at least as a writer, was never quite seamless enough. ‘Either be a proper monk or a dirty old man,’ one of the characters in Down There on a Visit advises, and you get the impression from the diaries that Isherwood often felt that he was either both or neither, but that there wasn’t much else he could be; apart, that is, from being extremely entertaining. ‘Of course,’ he remarks, ‘fun-to-be-with people are almost by definition not those one knows well.’ Isherwood was one of those people he knew well.