Liberation: Diaries, Volume III, 1970-1983 Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell

Chatto, pp.875, 30

Christopher Isherwood kept diaries almost all his life. The first extant one dates from 1917, when he was 12, and like most schoolboys he used it more to measure than record his days: ‘Work in morning, walk in afternoon. In choir. More work. Nothing special.’ At Cambridge, however, inspired by the W.N.P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man, he began keeping a more detailed and reflective record of his experiences. Fragmentary diaries survive from the years 1928 to 1938, but the four volumes of Isherwood’s published diaries begin with his arrival in America in January 1939 and end in 1983, three years before his death. One volume, ‘reconstructed’ by Isherwood from pocket diaries, because he failed to keep a proper journal between 1945 and 1951, was published as Lost Years: A Memoir.

The decision to publish these diaries in full was taken by his partner of 33 years, Don Bachardy, who began reading them the day Isherwood died and ‘wanted to share the experience I’d had with others’.  This has resulted in more than 3,000 printed pages, meticulously and lovingly edited by Katherine Bucknell. Given that Bucknell embarked on this project back in 1989, the title of this final volume has a personal resonance — as the funny and touching envoi in her acknowledgements suggests. The title principally, however, defines a period in which Isherwood became a sort of honorary uncle to the gay liberation movement and was able at last to write freely about his own homosexuality.

The 1960s had proved a difficult decade for Isherwood and Bachardy, one in which their relationship had undergone a series of crises. While these are not entirely resolved (Isherwood is still fretting about someone with whom Bachardy had a serious affair in London), the 1970s inaugurate a period of comparative calm. Isherwood had published his final novel, A Meeting by the River, in 1967, but at 65 he remained intellectually and physically active, working equally hard at his desk and in the gym.

Deciding to revisit the past, which had already supplied much of the material for his novels, he started work on what amounted to a non-fiction trilogy: Kathleen and Frank, about his parents and his early childhood; Christopher and His Kind, about his peripatetic life during the 1930s; and My Guru and His Disciple, about his relationship with Swami Prabhavananda. A fourth volume, about his time in California, was falteringly started but never completed, and these diaries often find him thinking aloud about his books.

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He was also collaborating with Bachardy on a number of plays and film scripts. As Bucknell notes, the fact that many of these projects failed to find producers or backers, or fared badly when they did (their stage adaptation of A Meeting by the River being a notable Broadway flop) was less important than Isherwood’s pleasure in the act of creative collaboration with Bachardy. In addition, Isherwood’s accounts of crass producers, inept directors and inadequate actors provide the diarist with a good deal of scarifying and entertaining material.

Barbellion was a naturalist and what his brother wrote about him might equally apply to Isherwood:

Barbellion was intensely interested in himself, but he was also intensely interested in other people. He regarded himself, quite naturally, as he regarded the creatures he dissected in the laboratory, as a specimen to be examined and classified; and he did this work with the detailed skill and truthful approach of a scientific examiner.

This scientific approach did not please everyone when earlier volumes of the diaries were published. Some of those who counted themselves Isherwood’s friends felt that they had been subjected to vivisection, and Liberation may provoke similar reactions. Bucknell makes the point that what Isherwood writes in his diaries is ‘not what he secretly thought, it is what he also thought; on the particular day when he wrote it’.

Diaries do indeed record fluctuating moods and opinions, mistaken first impressions, hasty judgments. While this may reflect most people’s experience of life, in print these fleeting reflections attain a sort of permanence. Bachardy nevertheless decided that anything Isherwood had written should be allowed to stand, libel laws permitting. While some material here has been altered or removed ‘to protect the privacy of individuals still living’ (a rash of ellipsis tends to break out around David Hockney’s appearances, for example), people such as the photographer described as ‘a silly pretentious cunt’ and the actor dismissed as a ‘loathsome slob-Jew’ are afforded no such protection. (Incidentally, Edmund White’s description of Isherwood in the volume’s distinctly odd preface as ‘seriously anti-Semitic’ ought to have been challenged. To define Isherwood’s anti-Semitism more accurately as casual is not to excuse it, but he was hardly the Dowager Lady Birdwood.)

Alongside sharp and often very funny assessments of those Isherwood knew, the diaries also record a wealth of domestic detail, trivial in itself but giving a richly textured sense of what is was like to live in California during this period of social change. Gradual acceptance of Christopher and his kind is recorded alongside rearguard action by the likes of Anita Bryant and Senator John Briggs. There is also a marvellous and marvelling account of an extended trip to England in 1970, where the stuffiness and repression Isherwood felt had characterised the land of his birth appears to have been swept away by a new generation. (He is predictably aghast at miniskirts, but likes the ‘kissy’ young men.)

When Isherwood made his famous declaration in Goodbye to Berlin that he was ‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’, he was in fact describing himself as an observer, not as a writer. People forget that the paragraph continues: ‘Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ That was the hard part, the writing and shaping — though Isherwood did it with such skill and lightness of touch that at its best his prose still seems fresh and in the moment, the way a photograph can.

These diaries have a different sort of immediacy, dashed down rather than worked over. ‘What is Life really about?’ Isherwood asked in an earlier volume. A similar question is posed by Virginia Woolf, a writer he greatly admired, in To the Lighthouse, and the reply might stand as an epigraph to this final volume: ‘The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Diaries, Non-fiction, Novelists