A Little Bit of Showing Off

Adam Phillips

‘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’.

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