Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945-1951

Overview

Christopher Isherwood settled in California in 1939 and spent the war years working in the Hollywood film studios, teaching English and converting to Hinduism. By the end of the war, he realized that he would never become a monk, and careened into a life of frantic socializing, increasing dissipation, anxiety, and eventually despair.

This is Isherwood's account, reconstructed nearly 30 years later, of his post-war experiences in Santa Monica, New York, and London. In these pages...

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Overview

Christopher Isherwood settled in California in 1939 and spent the war years working in the Hollywood film studios, teaching English and converting to Hinduism. By the end of the war, he realized that he would never become a monk, and careened into a life of frantic socializing, increasing dissipation, anxiety, and eventually despair.

This is Isherwood's account, reconstructed nearly 30 years later, of his post-war experiences in Santa Monica, New York, and London. In these pages he details his sexual encounters and romantic relationships, unveiling a hidden and sometimes shocking way of life shared with his circle of friends—many of them well-known writers, artists, actors, and film makers.

Lost Years is a surprising and important memoir that demonstrates Isherwood's determination to track down the most elusive aspects of his past in order to understand and accurately portray himself, It shows how he developed his private recollections into the unique mixture of personal mythology and social history that characterizes much of his best work.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
Aside from his novels (which include Goodbye to Berlin and The World in the Evening), the British-born and later naturalized American writer Isherwood published five autobiographical volumes during his lifetime (1904-1986). This memoir complements his project of lifelong public self-reflection and sociocultural commentary. Written in the early 1970s but unavailable to the public until now, the memoir, which reconstructs Isherwood's life in California, London and New York from 1945-1951, is based on minimal entries in his appointment books. To distinguish his 1940s persona from that of the 1970s, Isherwood wrote his account in the third person, using the first person primarily to question the authenticity of his memories. This stylistic device for separating "objective" and "subjective" voice seems charmingly awkward but does have the benefit of making the reader aware of the several layers of reconstruction at work here. This book will primarily interest those already familiar with Isherwood, to whom it will provide insight into his turning away from Hinduism and his subsequent long-term relationship with the photographer William Caskey. But the book also provides a very outspoken portrait of gay life during a period when most of the interactions depicted could still land their participants in prison. Particularly remarkable are nuanced descriptions of relations that transcend conventional boundaries of acquaintance, friendship, love and sex. When commenting on the benefits of explicit self-assertion, Isherwood once hints at parallels in the experience of queers and Jews as oppressed minorities. Unfortunately, this insight does not seem to prompt him to question his ownnegative stereotyping of Jews in this book.
—Beate Sissenich

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
English expat novelist and autobiographer Isherwood (1904-1986) may be best known for The Berlin Stories, the basis for the musical Cabaret; he spent most of his later life in southern California, where his productions included the groundbreaking gay-themed 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind. Bucknell edited Isherwood's Diaries Volume One 1939--1960, which appeared in America in 1997; those diaries gave day-by-day accounts of Isherwood's WWII years and the '50s, but left the time in between sparsely covered. Begun in the 1970s and perhaps unfinished, this long, intimate, sometimes repetitive book was Isherwood's attempt to reconstruct those seven years; it takes the form of third-person diary entries ("On February 25, Christopher drove to Los Angeles"; "On September 6, Christopher went down to Trabuco"; and so on). During those years, "Christopher" investigated psychic powers and Indian mysticism; visited England, Italy, South America and New York; made contacts in the world of Hollywood film; worked on novels and autobiographies; and maintained a serious, if troubled, romance with William Caskey, with whom he lived for much of that time. The book is notable throughout for its portrayals of sex, sexuality and pre-Stonewall gay identity. It stands out, too, for its wealth of highbrow celebrities: prose writers E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and Ana s Nin; poet W.H. Auden; and spy Guy Burgess are among the diaries' famous figures. Individual episodes (especially one surrounding Isherwood's surgery) can be touching, or funny, or both; the diary structure, though, prevents the book from acquiring momentum or shape. While it lacks the artfulness of the memoirs Isherwood chose to publish, it will nevertheless find grateful readers among those who care about his work. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Isherwood (1904-86), the author whose novels about pre-World War II Berlin led, most famously, to the Broadway smash hit Cabaret, referred to the current work as a "reconstructed diary." Using diary entries, appointment books, and correspondence, he attempted, some 30 years later, to record the life he lived from January 1945 to May 1951, a period that corresponds roughly with his liaison with photographer William Caskey. (Becoming busy with Christopher and His Kind, he never prepared The Lost Years for publication.) Centering on Isherwood's exploration of his homosexual identity, the book contains reflections on his romances, including graphic details of sexual encounters, as well as amusing anecdotes on friends and acquaintances in Hollywood, New York, and London. Katherine Hepburn, Charle Chaplin, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and E.M. Forster are but a few of the famous personalities that grace this memoir's pages. A nine-page chronology and a glossary of people, places, institutions, and Hindu religious terms are included. Highly detailed and heavily footnoted, this work will appeal chiefly to Isherwood scholars and more generally to students interested in gay studies. Recommended for academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/00.]--William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Felice Picano
Lost Years is as sexy, gossipy, and informational as any other three books of this era I've read. It's more probing and revealing of its author than anything he wrote. If you're a modest fan of gay history, this period, or Isherwood's work, you must read this.
Lambda Book Report
Kirkus Reviews
A distanced memoir, mostly chronicling happenings among the gay literati half a century ago.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061180019
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 HARPER
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was the author of more than 20 books. His best-known work, Goodbye to Berlin, was developed into the musical Cabaret, which later won eight Academy Awards in the film version starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray.
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Read an Excerpt

August 26, 1971.

I am writing this to clarify my project to myself, not actually to begin work on it. Before I can do that I shall have to read through my day-to-day diaries for 1944 and 1945, to find out how much explanation is going to be needed before I can start the narrative itself.

This is the situation: I have day-to-day diaries (just saying what happened in a few words) from 1942 to the present day, except for the 1946 diary, which is lost. I also have journals which begin in 1939 and cover the same period. All have time gaps in them. But the biggest gaps occur in one particular area—there are no entries whatever for 1945, 1946 or 1947 (though my life from September 20, 1947 to March 1948 is covered in The Condor and the Cows). The 1948 journal has rather less than twenty entries, 1949 around fifteen, 1950 about the same number, 1951 about twelve, 1952 about fourteen. (It's interesting to notice what a small variation there is for these years—my journal keeping seems to follow a predictable wave-movement.) 1953 is perhaps the worst year of all, about eleven, and 1954 isn't much better. Then the journal keeping picks up frequency and has remained fairly adequate ever since.

So this is my project: I am going to try to fill in these gaps from memory—up to the end of 1952 at least and maybe up to the end of 1954.

I shall write, to begin with, on the odd-numbered pages, leaving the even-numbered facing pages for after-thoughts and notes.

Because the "I" of this period is twenty years out of date, I shall write about him in the third person—working on Kathleen and Frank has shown me how this helps meto overcome my inhibitions, avoid self-excuses and regard my past behavior more objectively.

The last entry in the 1944 journal makes it fairly obvious that Christopher has already decided to leave Vedanta Place (on Ivar Avenue, as it then still was—the name was changed only after the freeway was built). Christopher doesn't admit this, but he emphasizes the importance of japam, rather than the importance of being with Swami, or of having daily access to the shrine, or of living in a religious community. You can make japam under any circumstances, no matter where or how you are living.

In the 1944 journal, Christopher says that he finished the revised draft of Prater Violet on October 15. In the 1944 day-to-day diary he says he finished revising Prater Violet on November 25—so this must have been a revision of the revised draft.Anyhow it must have been finished and sent off to the publishers before the end of that year.

In the journal, November 30, Christopher says, "The X. situation is beginning again."

"X." was Bill Harris.Denny Fouts met him first. He had been in the army but only for a short while and was now going to college.

In the 1944 journal, it says "the final polishing" of Prater Violet was finished on November 24.

Bill was the younger of two brothers—the sons of an engineer. Their father had worked in the USSR and had had to leave with his family at a few hours' notice—the Russians accused the American and British engineers of trying to sabotage a dam which they had been hired to construct. Later, they moved to Australia, where Bill and his brother became expert swimmers. Bill's brother was very attractive, an all-round athlete and a war hero in the U.S. Air Force. Bill was the ugly brother (so he said); homely and fat up to the age of fifteen. Then he made a "decision" to be beautiful. After the war, his brother married and became fat and prematurely middle-aged.

Bill was well aware of being feminine—his resemblance to Marlene Dietrich was often remarked on—but he refused to get himself exempted from military service by declaring that he was homosexual. He wanted to be a model soldier. He worked very hard to keep his equipment clean. Then, after he'd been in the service for a week or two, he was bawled out at an inspection, and this discouraged him so much, after all his good intentions, that he burst into tears. The inspecting officer, amazed at such sensitivity, sent him to the psychiatrist, which resulted in his getting an honorable discharge!

The 1943 day-to-day diary, with the maddening vagueness common to all the early day-to-day diaries, records that, on August 21, Denny came down to Santa Monica to visit Christopher, who was staying for a few days at 206 Mabery Road, opposite the Viertels' home, 165—accompanied by "little Bill" and "blond Bill." I don't remember who "little Bill" was. I am almost certain that "blond Bill" was Harris. His blond hair was then the most immediately striking feature of his beauty, especially when he had his clothes on and you couldn't see his magnificent figure. Aside from this, Christopher used to be fond of describing his first glimpse of Bill Harris—how the erotic shock hit him "like an elephant gun" and made him "grunt" with desire, and how, at the same time, he felt angry with Denny for bringing this beautiful temptation into his life, to torment him.'Christopher first saw Harris through the window of the bathroom of 206, just as Harris was arriving with Denny in the car. This in itself fixes the date if my memory is accurate, because Christopher never stayed in that house again.

However, Bill Harris has nothing to do with the sex adventure referred to in the 1943 journal as having taken place on August 24. Christopher had gone into the ocean and was swimming with his trunks off, he was wearing them around his neck, as he often did.A man came along the beach—which was almost deserted in those wartime days—saw him, took his own trunks off, came into the water and started groping Christopher. What made the situation "funny and silly" was that the man was deaf and dumb. They both laughed a lot. Christopher refused to have an orgasm but he had been excited, and he jacked off later, when he had returned to the house...

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