There are some writers you revere; others you fall in love with," Christopher Isherwood wrote in his appreciation of Katherine Mansfield, handily supplying an epitaph for himself. Isherwood's bright-eyed alertness, his lack of malice, his genial delight in the foibles of others all make him lovable. But the more you read of him, the more he tries your love; the more he seems like a novelist of particular places and times, that is, one who doesn't transcend those places and times. He touches greatness frequently enough to leave you frustrated that he merely touches it.
Unfussy, earthbound language is one of the bonds shared with his friend and collaborator (and occasional bedmate) W.H. Auden; the high-flown title Where Joy Resides, which embellishes the Isherwood reader the University of Minnesota Press is currently reissuing, belongs on somebody else's book. (The phrase comes from Robert Louis Stevenson, whose work Isherwood didn't even like all that much.) It's an excellent, easily digestible sampling, but, as with all such samplings, there are arguable choices. My main regrets are the omission of the haunting "Berlin Diary" that closes Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood's 1939 masterpiece, with the malarial chill of triumphant Nazism, and of anything from the memoir Christopher and His Kind, published in 1976 and now a classic of gay liberation; instead we get the complete novel A Single Man, which is startlingly forthright, for 1964, in its treatment of gay issues but otherwise dated and uncharacteristically sour. I can't argue with much else, though: The first two sections of Goodbye to Berlin (whose reincarnations as I Am a Camera and, later, Cabaret, neither much loved by Isherwood, have done more than his books to sustain his fame); his 1945 film-industry novel, Prater Violet; some critical appreciations and fugitive essays on religion, a subject that always engaged him; and selections from various autobiographical novels and memoirs.
The presence of these several works in one volume clarifies Isherwood's essential method, which was to present his narrative with I-am-a-camera neutrality, as a kind of black-and-white newsreel, and then, in the final pages, wash everything with nocturnal blues and purples. At the end of the lovely, self-deprecating Prater Violet, emotion cascades into a passionate disquisition on love and death. The opening section of Down There on a Visit, "Mr. Lancaster," based on events that took place when Isherwood was twenty-three, ends darkly, with a suicide and the author's reinterpretation of the events he's just narratedóIsherwood was always reinterpreting, exposing the callowness of his younger self. A Single Man draws to a close with a mystical image of the characters as tide pools that the ocean washes over in the night: And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other oceanóthat consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars. We may surely suppose that, in the darkness of the full flood, some of these creatures are lifted from their pools to drift far out over the deep waters. But do they ever bring back, when the daytime of the ebb returns, any kind of catch with them? Can they tell us, in any manner, about their journey? Is there, indeed, anything for them to tellóexcept that the waters of the ocean are not really other than the waters of the pool? That's Isherwood at his finest, humble and God-besotted. After his emigration in 1939 from England to the United States, he became a follower of Swami Prabhavananda at the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and this spiritual breakthrough made religion a gentle, usually beneficent force in his later books; it was one subject he never treated carelessly or cavalierly.
Isherwood's artistic breakthrough came when, after a long struggle to shape the material of his Berlin years into a big novel, he perceived that all that shaping was killing the material: "Finally," he relates in Christopher and His Kind, "he realized that he simply wanted to describe his life as he had lived it. What inspired him was the commentary he would make on it, not the melodrama he could make out of it." The fruit of this realization was Goodbye to Berlin, whose six loosely related segments interlock beautifully; this is one case in which formlessness is the mother of economy. But "breakthrough" may be the wrong word for Isherwood's discovery. Later in his life, the weight of his work shifted to memoir, and, given the nature of his material, the transition makes sense. But his memoirs rely too much on his diariesóand, like diaries, they're insufficiently structured; you could never mistake them for novels. As valuable as, say, his documentation of the post-Bloomsbury gay smart set is to us now, sometimes I wish those diaries had disappeared.
But Isherwood's lazy streak was part of his appeal. He fully appreciated the fleshpots of Hollywood. And he did just fine as a screenwriteró"He, the arrogant dainty-minded private artist, needed to plunge his hands into a vulgar public bucket of dye, to get them dripping with it, to subdue his nature temporarily to it and do the best he was capable of under the circumstances," Isherwood explained. Gore Vidal, in his introduction to Where Joy Resides, tells of Isherwood's advising him, at MGM in 1954, "Don't become a hack like me"; Vidal adds, to his credit, "We both knew that this was play-acting." But it wasn't entirely. Success had come all too easily to Isherwood, and he saw that his talent could be a trap. He sympathized with Katherine Mansfield's damning admission "I look at the mountains, I try to pray and I think of something clever." Conversely, he condoned H.G. Wells for having "that measure of stupidityóor obstinate, plodding slownessówhich is an aid, not a hindrance, to clear and careful thinking. The merely clever man brings forth a phrase and mistakes it for an idea. The 'stupid' thinker, lacking this agility, never trusts a phrase until he has taken it to pieces; he goes deeper." Isherwood knew how clever he was, but knowing it didn't keep him from coasting far too often.
That's the only explanation I can come up with for his little-read 1949 "South American Travel-Diary," The Condor and the Cows, which Minnesota is also reissuing. Isherwood could deftly take the temperature of a place, as any reader of The Berlin Stories knows. But he spent four years in Berlin, and he mastered Germanóhe had to, for, as he later explained, "To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys." South America didn't mean much more than a book contract. He went down without knowing Spanish, and with a loveróWilliam Caskey, who took the photographs for the volumeóin tow. Caskey's photographs confront their subjects far more exuberantly than Isherwood's prose does. Naturally it's graceful, but Isherwood never scrutinizes the cultures of the countries he's passing through very seriously. Instead, he catalogues. "The truth," he later admitted to a friend, "is that South America bored me, and I am ashamed that it bored me, and I hate it for making me feel ashamed." The book really is a diary, underresearched and formless. No final burst of bravado lifts all the data gathered in the (many, many) preceding pages to another level; the few closing reflections are obligatory and wan. And, as bad luck would have it, in their course he alludes to an artist whose stature has the retrospective effect of shrinking Isherwood down to mite size: Foreign influencesóMexican and Europeanóare too strong to be healthy. . . . On the other hand, this excessive preoccupation with alien cultures has produced some extraordinary scholars. Jorge Luis Borges, whom we have met here in Buenos Aires, is an example. He knows classical and modern English literature as few Englishmen or Americans know it, and can quote entire paragraphs from the most unexpected authors, with very amusing and subtle comments.
"Very amusing and subtle comments": Six months in South America brought out the smug imperialist in him. Since this was 1948, perhaps Isherwood can be excused for not knowing Borges's workóthough a more serious journalist would at least have asked around. But whatever allowances we make, it's still mortifying to see him patronizing a master. Borges gazes out from the Mount Rushmore of twentieth-century letters, and nobody would dream of putting Isherwood up there next to him (though only ten years before, Somerset Maugham had told Virginia Woolf that Isherwood held the future of the English novel in his hands). Borges is a genius whose accomplishment demands that we revere him. We don't have any other choice. Ah, butóIsherwood might retortócould we fall in love with him?
Craig Seligman's critical study Sontag and Kael is forthcoming this spring from Counterpoint.
WHERE JOY RESIDES: A CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD READER EDITED BY DON BACHARDY AND JAMES P. WHITE, INTRODUCTION BY GORE VIDAL. MINNEAPOLIS: UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS. 432 PAGES. $19. BUY NOW
THE CONDOR AND THE COWS: A SOUTH AMERICAN TRAVEL-DIARY BY CHRISTOHPER ISHERWOOD, PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM CASKEY. MINNEAPOLIS: UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS. 268 PAGES. $18. BUY NOW
Books on Christopher Isherwood