My Book World
I'VE MADE IT MY GOAL to read the entire oeuvre of late British-American author, Christopher Isherwood, over a twelve-month period. This profile constitutes the twentieth in a series of twenty-four.
Having now read Isherwood’s diaries, except for his Lost Years, which is a reconstruction of his life from 1945-1951, I feel, in a sense, that I’ve lived life alongside him. Yes, I believe I can say I’ve lived a parallel life of voyeurism as I’ve read all three diaries (2,681 pages), covering the greater part of his life, right up to his death in 1986.
I’ve more or less lived in his house with him, sometimes sharing his bed with some of the (apparently) sexiest men in the world, including his long-time companion, Don Bachardy. I’ve struggled through his writing, as he articulates what he fears are certain problems taking place in the manuscript he is working on at the time. I’ve been to every party he has, where he often, by his own admission, drinks too much—so much so, in fact, that he can’t remember exactly what has happened or whom he’s insulted. I’ve accompanied him every time he strolls along the beach in Santa Monica, California, where he lives, or squabbles with local residents or fusses over a neighbor’s nocturnally barking dog or rascally kids who have no respect for the private bridge that somehow sets their property apart from others. I am exposed to every opinionated thought he holds about other writers, artists, agents, actors, directors, composers or religious leader, and their work. Oh, yes, I’ve suffered through his anguish over not being able to participate in Hinduism as authentically as he wishes, almost daily writing something about his Swami or the monastery or his inability to meditate properly. I’ve sat on the toilet with him as he struggles with the indelicacies of an aging body. I’ve noted his weight, daily, as he records it in his diary and stews over how he can lose even more, while at the same time ingesting great quantities of empty calories found in drink and rich food.
I sympathize yet am a bit impatient with his concern over his fading looks. Photos of his youth indicate a stunning gentleman, who, besides being smart, is handsome, and often wins over any body he indeed decides to win over. So as he ages, he must accept it, and does, with a certain reserved grace. In some ways he is an average person with sometimes extraordinary foibles. Though he is highly intelligent, his life seems tinged by racism and classism, perhaps a product of his time and birthright, however hard he otherwise tries to escape them. He drops out of Cambridge University after one year, yet it doesn’t seem to hurt his career. Maybe it only narrows him in some way, although god knows he travels the face of the earth enough to be capable of empathizing with a broad range of peoples.
As I near the end of this document, I become a bit bored with his obsessions, particularly with death, since he knows he is going to experience a slow decline from prostate cancer (one of his biggest fears). At the same time, he is able to view his life in a larger context—he’s kept such copious records of it—and make some rather stoic and pithy statements. “I’m not in a good state. Death fears—that’s to say, pangs of foreboding—recur often. They seem to be part of a quite normal physical condition; the pangs of a dying animal, thrilling with dread of the unknown” (686). He writes these words on October 23, 1983, a little over two years before he dies. In spite of the struggle of his last years—all chronicled in this tome—he often lives with a joie de vivre that most of us only hope to experience a few times ever. As I often do, I’ve listed some nuggets from this, the final installment of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries.
The following comes under the category of gossip, interesting only because of its noted victims: “The usual pronouncement that Truman Capote is a ‘birdbrain.’ Gore [Vidal] has finished a novel called Two Sisters in which he admits that he and Jack Kerouac went to bed together—or was that in an article? (Gore told me about so many articles he’s written and talks he has given that my memory spins.) Anyhow, Gore now regrets that he didn’t describe the act itself; how they got very drunk and Kerouac said, ‘Why don’t we take a shower?’ and then tried to go down on him but did it very badly, and then they belly rubbed. Next day, Kerouac claimed he remembered nothing; but later, in a bar, yelled out, ‘I’ve blown Gore Vidal!’” (11).
“Howard is an American, Jewish New Yorker, with possibly some Negro in him” (63). Speaks for itself.
On writing: “I have kept this diary doggedly, day by day, because I believe a continuous record, no matter how full of trivialities, will always gradually reveal something of the subconscious mind behind it. I’ve never regretted keeping a diary yet. There are always a few nuggets of literary value under all that sand” (65).
On aging: “Partly, of course, this rattles me because I’m getting old; I feel I can’t keep up with it all. Why do things have to change so fast? It no longer seems exhilarating that they do. For instance, I mind enormously that they finally are going to put up this monster apartment building at the end of the street, two twenty-floor towers. And yet, why not? Why shouldn’t we have to move? We’ve been here ten years, already” (81).
On Cabaret: “Scammell told us he has read the script of the Cabaret film (because for part of Chris) and ‘Chris’ (now called Brian) is queer, that’s to say he can’t make love to Sally at first and then later he can then Sally does it with a mature but very attractive baron and Chris is jealous and makes a scene about it with Sally, and Sally exclaims, ‘Oh, fuck the Baron!” (meaning that he’s unimportant) and Chris replies coyly, ‘I do.’ That’s the kind of thing which offends my dignity as a homosexual. The queer is just an impotent heterosexual” (127).
Aging: “Oh, I am such a compulsive old thing, jogging down the road to the beach, sitting for a moment only on the sand alert for dogs (lest they should pee on my towel), then into the ocean, alert for surfers (lest they should collide with me) then to take a shower on the beach (hurrying lest someone else should get there first) then hobbling uphill over the gravel and wiping off the sand from my feet on the lawn of the corner house (hastily, lest they should look out and tell me not to). My secret life isn’t a bit like Walter Mitty’s—it’s mostly ratlike scurrying to secure myself some tiny advantage” (182).
Anecdote: “John Gielgud told us this story about Mae West. She was asked, ‘Do you ever smoke after you’ve had sex?’ She answered, ‘I never looked.’” (235).
On keeping a journal: “Have been dipping into my old journals of the early sixties; a mistake. Now I feel sad as shit, but must admit things are much better nowadays, at least from my point of view. Is it really good to keep a journal? I loathe doing it at the time and I get depressed when I read it. But it’s such a marvellous treasure trove. I have vowed to make an entry a day throughout July, so I’ll stick to this, but I protest, I protest” (249).
Gossip: “Roddy [McDowall, actor] has a weird hobby, he makes candles. He brought us one, or rather a sort of wax embryo containing three wicks and many lumps of colored wax embedded in wax. Without my glasses, I took it for some sort of fruit dessert and was about to put it in the icebox” (263).
On Cabaret: “Yesterday, I saw Cabaret for the second time and liked it much better than before. I still don’t think it adds up to anything much, but Michael York this time seemed not only adorable and beautiful but a really sensitive and subtle actor. Liza Minnelli I liked less, however; thought her clumsy and utterly wrong for the part, though touching sometimes, in a boyish good-sport way” (289).
Anecdote: “The evening ended delightfully with a sort of victory party given by J. J. Mitchell’s handsome and nice friend Ron Holland, at a restaurant called Ma Bell’s, where they have telephones on all the tables which you can use for free, anywhere in the New York area. Ron told a story about a boy he picked up at a gym he goes to. He brought the boy to this restaurant and told him he could call anybody he liked. The boy was delighted. He called his mother and started telling her what a wonderful place he was in. Then his face fell. He turned to Ron and said apologetically ‘I’ve go to split—she says my father’s dying’” (307-8).
Prejudice: “My relations with Patrick weren’t as pleasant as usual, I’m sorry to say. Maybe all his talk about settling down in France irritated me, after a few drinks, for I launched into one of my tiresome cantankerous Francophobe tirades. Also I declared that, as a writer, I needed all my life to master the English language—implying that Patrick and the rest never had and never would—and that I therefore had no time to waste in dabbling in foreign tongues. Patrick rightly found this statement pretentious. It was also rude to Eric, who speaks at least three languages fluently” (335). I don’t get why Isherwood is being so “honest” here. Is it for his or our benefit?
“This afternoon Julian Jebb is due to arrive here with his assistant, Rosemary Bowen Jones, and we are to be in the grip of the BBC for a week. Am at present sulking about this, wishing to Christ I’d never agreed to it, even wishing I’d agreed to go to Berlin because maybe once I was there I’d have remembered something interesting. Now it seems to me that Berlin was one of the least important episodes in my life, which is nonsense of course—but it does bring home to me that my life in those days was a pretty shabby little affair in comparison with what I have had since” (409). Ironic, isn’t it, that Isherwood’s Berlin life is “shabby,” but his writing notable, but later an LA life is great, but his writing not as lively.
Isherwood pinpoints the problem of an older writer finding fresh content. It hits him hard, I think. “I keep plugging at the book. At present, not joyfully. I feel it is somehow flat—that I’m failing to give it the sparkle of life. One thing that keeps bugging me is that I have covered so much of the material in my fiction and what’s left for me to write is just—leftovers” (471).
“No use apologizing to myself for the huge gap [between entries]. The truth is I am slowing down; I simply cannot get through all the jobs I set myself to do. And so I develop a masochistic attitude toward myself as my own taskmaster” (473). Yeah, it sort of works when you’re in your thirties, but not so much later on.
“On March 17, Mort Sahl, on his T.V. show called ‘Both Sides,’ made antihomosexual remarks, against which Cici Huston, who was one of his guests, violently protested. Here are four of Sahl’s remarks (addressed to Cici and some other women): ‘They despise you because you have the real thing,’ ‘They dominate classical music,’ ‘Do you know a poor faggot?’ ‘They’re your enemy.’” Odd that Isherwood sees this as prejudice but NOT his own anti-Semitism or racist comments.
“Instead he went to bed and left Jack to cope with us, Zizi Jeanmaire, her daughter Valentine, Ustinov’s daughter Pavla, Nellie Carroll and Miguel. He failed to make us jell and nobody raised a finger to help him except Don and me. I can’t help it, I do so dislike Frogs” (534). This remark is typical of the British hatred for the French, or perhaps it is a typical “islander’s” small prejudices against everybody!
On aging: “A really interesting and horribly depressing talk, last night on T.V., about the approaching oil famine within thirty years and consequent plans for transmitting solar energy via satellites, etc. I got such a sense of a future which I don’t want to, and anyway, can’t live on into. At the same time, I quite realize that my aversion is merely romantic; I hate to part with the notion of space as something awesome, of the moon as a shining mysterious orb, etc., and contemplate a time when the earth will be surrounded by a sort of backyard full of skyjunk” (541).
On writing: “Today I reached page 203, which is almost certainly much more than two-thirds of this draft. I still haven’t the least idea what is caught in the net. It is still entirely possible that the question, ‘Why are you telling me all this?’ won’t be adequately answered. But, in all my long experience, I have never been able to find anything better than this fumbling way of getting down to the nerve” (545).
On writing: “The writer of any kind of autobiographical book is in deadly danger whenever he is trying to get from point A to point B in a hurry—when, that’s to say, he isn’t interested in what he’s immediately writing. Somehow or other, one must make such bridge passages interesting. There are many of them in my narrative, and that is really what’s worrying me” (582).
Speaking very poetically of his local geography, yet it seems to be a metaphor for his writing, his life: “I think the sun has now definitely set beyond the headland, into the sea, but can’t be certain because of how-lying clouds, I creep on with the Swami book [My Guru and His Disciple]. My old head is so thick and stupid it’s brutal. I fight my way on, sentence by sentence, and always a cold scornful remnant of reason waits for the next morning, when it looks through the latest page and says, idiot, can’t you see that the sentence ought to be the other way around, and that that adjective is utterly wrong? Are you really so senile? And it’s right—I do see it” (588).
Anecdote: “On New Year’s Eve, Don painted Rick Sandford because it was his birthday. Rick asked me, ‘How long was it after you met Don that you and he had sex?’ I said: ‘We had sex and then we met.’” (681)
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2016