Wiktor Gorka: Cabaret (1972)
My initially tepid interest in Christopher Isherwood started off as a by-product of a far more serious Auden obsession. Isherwood was a close friend (indeed occasional lover) and collaborator of Auden's, who also wrote a lot about him, therefore - I needed to collect all of his books.
Howard Coster: Auden & Isherwood (1937)
That is, in a nutshell, pretty much how a bibliophile's mind works. You start off collecting one thing, but then you have to start a series of sub-collections to flesh out the context of your object of desire (whatever it may be: poetry, military history, the 1001 Nights ...).
The result, twenty or thirty years later, is a living space stuffed to the gills with books and pictures and boxfiles of papers. Freud had a name for it, I'm afraid: the anal-retentive personality. Speaks for itself, really. But it does make for interesting times when you actually get around to reading some of the results of this fixation.
In this particular case, I've just finished reading through Isherwood's immense diary, published in four volumes between 1996 and 2012, in an edition scrupulously edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell.
Of course, the picture above reveals just why Isherwood is really famous: because his Berlin stories inspired John Van Druten's play "I am a Camera," which, in its turn, morphed into the smash-hit Broadway musical turned multiple Oscar-winning film Cabaret. In other words, he's most celebrated for two things he didn't write himself, and didn't even particularly approve of (though he was happy to cash the cheques they earned him).
Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
A rather more accurate portrait of Isherwood was provided by Tom Ford's 2009 film A Single Man. This is at least as autobiographical as the Berlin stories - which is to say, not very - but succeeds in giving an impression (at least) of where he ended up: a gay man stuck in a repressed, heterosexual world which he will never be allowed to fit into. (You'll notice that I had to go pretty far afield to find a version of the film poster which didn't imply that it concerned some kind of 'straight' romance between Colin Firth and Julianne Moore).
Tom Ford, dir. A Single Man (2009)
There were a number of ways in which Isherwood was outrageous, of course. Not just the homosexuality, which he grew increasingly outspoken about as he grew older (and the threat of imprisonment receded); there was also his alleged 'cowardice' in 1939, when he and Auden chose to go and settle in America rather than staying to face the music in beleaguered Britain. Vast amounts of ink were spilt at the time condemning - and justifying - this decision. Auden subsequently explained it by saying that he did it precisely to avoid writing any more poems like "September 1, 1939" or "Spain 1937" - anthemic calls to action of a kind which he subsequently regarded as dishonest and untruthful.
Isherwood, by contrast, was no stranger to running away. He'd had himself sent down from Cambridge when he felt he was at risk of acclimatising to its stuffy attitudes by composing the answers to his exams as concealed limericks. He'd subsequently left for Berlin, Greece, and a series of other refuges from the upper-class English background he feared being swallowed up by. California was intended as just one more bolthole, but it was there he got religion and found love (in that order), and where, therefore, he settled for what turned out to be the rest of his life.
Here are the various volumes of his diary, as edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell. They're all enjoyable. The posthumously published memoir Lost Years, in which Isherwood tried to reconstruct a particularly interesting part of his life, shortly after his relocation to America, is in many ways the best. It's extremely frank about (in particular) his sex life - the other volumes were more or less censored since he seems to have meant them for eventual publication.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Diaries. Volume One: 1939-1960. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 1996. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2011.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945–1951. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 2000. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2001.
- Isherwood, Christopher. The Sixties: Diaries Volume Two, 1960-1969. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Foreword by Christopher Hitchens. 2010. Harper Perennial. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Liberation: Diaries Volume Three, 1970-1983. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Preface by Edmund White. 2012. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2013.
Basically, Isherwood appears to have met everyone who was there to be met during this immense space of time, from the 1940's to the 1980's. He was banned from Charlie Chaplin's house after his host alleged that he'd pissed on his couch whilst in his cups (Isherwood maintained otherwise, but given he was drunk at the time, it's hard to see how he'd know).
Who else? Stravinsky, Charles Laughton, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, David Hockney, to name just a few, as well as an endless line of eminent Hollywood actors and actresses, walked in and out of his life. The true theme of these diaries is marriage, though: his very complicated longterm relationship with the artist Don Bachardy. This began a little like one of the seduction scenes in A Single Man. Don was the gawky younger brother of one of Isherwood's casual conquests from the beach. He grew up into an immensely talented draftsman, portraitist and painter - each stage painstakingly documented here - as well as a valued collaborator on all of Isherwood's later work as scriptwriter for stage and screen.
Bachardy, in fact, turned out to be something of a phenomenon - so gifted in his own right that the initial push he got from being Isherwood's partner eventually became more of a liability. Their marriage was very volatile - with arguments, infidelities, breaks, non-exclusive arrangements at various points - but, finally, durable. It's not easy to warm to the earlier Herr Issyvoo of the Berlin stories, but Don Bachardy's older partner Dobbin is a far more likeable and protean creature.
One can see how Isherwood's obsession with documenting and recording his own life baffled many readers at the time, who saw it as an increasingly boring quest - especially after his apparent surrender to Lala Land after those fascinating chronicles of Germany and China in the turbulent thirties. Now, though, I think it can be seen as something hugely rewarding: an honest record of a way of life which will retain its interest not just as an historical vignette, but as a comfort to those whose own lives may seem (at times) as chaotic as his.
And, while he may have seen his greatest success in character portrayal as the "Christopher" of the Berlin novels and later memoirs, one would have to add that the Don Bachardy of the Diaries turns out, in the end, to be far more beguiling. How many completely believable portrayals of true love can you think of? Not many, that's for sure. The Isherwood-Bachardy partnership is certainly a strong contender for inclusion among them, though.
Don Bachardy: Isherwood (1937)
Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood
- Isherwood, Christopher. All the Conspirators. 1928. Foreword by the Author. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
- Isherwood, Christopher. The Memorial: Portrait of a Family. 1932. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1952.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Mr. Norris Changes Trains. 1935. Auckland: Penguin NZ, 1944.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. 1939. Penguin Books 504. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1945.
- Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin of Sally Bowles: Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin. 1935 & 1939. London: Book Club Associates / The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1975.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Prater Violet. 1945. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
- Isherwood, Christopher. The World in the Evening. 1954. Penguin Book 2399. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Down There on a Visit. 1959. A Bard Book. New York: Avo Books, 1978.
- Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
- Isherwood, Christopher. A Meeting by the River. 1967. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1982.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties. 1938. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1979.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Kathleen and Frank. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939. 1976. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1978.
- Isherwood, Christopher. My Guru and His Disciple. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd., 1980.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Ramakrishna and His Disciples. 1965. A Touchstone Book. New York: Simon and Schuster, n.d.
- Isherwood, Christopher. The Condor and the Cows. Illustrated from photos by William Caskey. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1949.
- Isherwood, Christopher. Exhumations: Stories / Articles / Verses. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
- Isherwood, Christopher, ed. Vedanta for the Western World. 1948. Unwin Books. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1963.
- Bucknell, Katherine, ed. The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
- Parker, Peter. Isherwood: A Life. 2004. Picador. London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2005.
W. H. Auden & Christopher Isherwood (BBC, 1938)
Chris O'Dell: Don Bachardy & Christopher Isherwood (1976)