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Whine, whine, whine

There came a moment, very early in my reading of the latest volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, when a spell was broken. The relevant entry, written at his beach home in Santa Monica, California, was dated 12 November 1960. And the single, throwaway notation which caused me to re-evaluate, I fear definitively, my admiration for Isherwood ran as follows: ‘Tonight I have to take the Mishimas out to supper.’

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

The Sixties: Diaries Volume II - 1960-1969 Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell

Chatto, pp.800, 30

There came a moment, very early in my reading of the latest volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, when a spell was broken. The relevant entry, written at his beach home in Santa Monica, California, was dated 12 November 1960. And the single, throwaway notation which caused me to re-evaluate, I fear definitively, my admiration for Isherwood ran as follows: ‘Tonight I have to take the Mishimas out to supper.’

There came a moment, very early in my reading of the latest volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, when a spell was broken. The relevant entry, written at his beach home in Santa Monica, California, was dated 12 November 1960. And the single, throwaway notation which caused me to re-evaluate, I fear definitively, my admiration for Isherwood ran as follows: ‘Tonight I have to take the Mishimas out to supper.’

Why do I find that sentence hilarious? Partly, I suppose, because of those two inoffensive words ‘the Mishimas’. Though I knew, of course, that the gay and future self-disemboweller Yukio Mishima had also sought to pass himself off as a respectably married man, there is, to the idea of a ‘Mr and Mrs Mishima’, something so mind-boggling as to feel faintly Pooterish. What proved even more giggle-inducing, how- ever, was my sense (one I would have time and time again as I ploughed through the book’s unendurably whiny pages) of the hassle, the Oh-God-why-do-I-always-agree-to-do-these-things? irksomeness, which hobnobbing with the most distinguished writers on the planet seemed to represent for its author.

Since no one else will say it, I must: Isherwood is a bore. If the test of a published diary is that those passages which describe encounters with friends or acquaintances whose names mean nothing to the reader be as stimulating as those dealing with celebrities, then he consistently fails it. Just as, at some starry reception, there are guests who will ruthlessly make a beeline for a famous face, so I caught myself repeatedly glancing over the shoulders of Jack and Jo and Henry and Dee — as they bent my ears back with their tedious, long-extinct marital or emotional crises — in the hope of a glimpse, on the opposite page, of Wystan and Cecil and Truman and Gore.


Not that, in truth, Isherwood troubles to make his celebrity friends any more fascinating than the non-celebs. For too much of the time he confines himself to generating a whoosh of upper-case adrenalin by just naming them; then, tickling the reader with a thumbnail sketch of their cute idiosyncrasies, he leaves it more or less at that. Here, for instance, is (I admit) a not randomly selected but not untypical entry: ‘At a party at Jennifer’s on the 24th, Rex Reed was rebuked by Richard Harris, seconded by Rita Hayworth and Mia Farrow, for being a little bitch, and uninvited to boot.’ That, like much else in the book, is a tweet avant la lettre.

Isherwood enjoyed the extraordinary good fortune to have been the right age in the right decade — in his twenties in the Twenties, thirties in the Thirties etc. Yet, come the Sixties, his world had shrunk not only to his tiny paradisal patch of Southern California but to the hall of mirrors of his own near-pathological narcissism (these diaries constitute a veritable ode to the navel). He is weirdly unaffected by the socio-political convulsions which had begun tearing his adopted country apart. Without caring, perhaps without even realising, how unacceptable it had become, he continued to use the ghastly noun ‘Jewboy’ as well as the truly obscene verb ‘to jew’ (i.e. to exert undue pressure in financial matters). Nor did he reveal himself to be any more enlightened about blacks. And you would barely know, from these leaden pages, that America was actually at war.

(In a peculiar and unpersuasive Preface Christopher Hitchens actually contrives to interpret such solipsisms as a virtue. ‘Who else,’ he asks, ‘felt practically nothing at the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, refused to sign any petitions about Vietnam, and apparently didn’t even notice the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia?’ — as though it’s Isherwood’s languid indifference to any but his own concerns that renders his diaries so delightfully personal and distinctive.)

Four thematic strands do, nevertheless, succeed in making themselves heard amid the gossipy chitchat. One, his literary labour pains (and he did produce two good novels during the decade in question, Down There on a Visit and A Single Man, plus the inert and meandering A Meeting by the River). Two, his involvement with Vedanta mysticism (of absolutely no interest to me, but others may well feel differently). Three, his health (except that, given that one knows he would die all of two decades later, it’s impossible to take his assortment of cysts and lumps and mysterious muscular stiffnesses as seriously as the hypochondriacal and quick-to-panic Isherwood himself invariably tends to do). And four, and by far the most absorbing, his tender, prickly cohabitation with his companion Don Bachardy (who, if a gifted artist in his own right, permanently frets about living in his more famous lover’s shadow).

Yet, even when writing about Bachardy, Isherwood crawls over their relationship like a fly over a tabletop: which is to say, he covers a lot of ground without ever, for all that he famously made his reputation as a human camera, achieving that dispassionate distance from his material that would permit him to reconfigure it as literature. He is, in short, no Proust.

Most astonishing of all is his wilful blindness to the limitations of his own patented method, as witness his criticism of an unpublished novel sent him by Jeremy Kingston, an English critic:

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