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Called ?the best English prose writer of this century? by Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood is best known for Goodbye to Berlin?the inspiration for the musical Cabaret?but is also the author of plays, novels, and diaries. The Isherwood Century gathers twenty-four essays and interviews offering a fresh, in-depth view of Isherwood, his literary legacy, and his continuing influence as both a literary and a gay pioneer.
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Called “the best English prose writer of this century” by Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood is best known for Goodbye to Berlin—the inspiration for the musical Cabaret—but is also the author of plays, novels, and diaries. The Isherwood Century gathers twenty-four essays and interviews offering a fresh, in-depth view of Isherwood, his literary legacy, and his continuing influence as both a literary and a gay pioneer.
James J. Berg and Chris Freeman
The Isherwood Century
In January 1941, the writer Christopher Isherwood was living in Los Angeles, but his mind was in Europe. Feeling distant from the war on the Continent and ambivalent about himself as a pacifist and a writer, he wrote in his diary: "I must really try to keep this journal more regularly. It will be invaluable to me if I do. Because this year is going to be one of the most decisive periods of the twentieth century—and even the doings and thoughts of the most remote and obscure people will reflect the image of its events. That's a hell of a paragraph to start off with. Why are we all so pompous on New Year's Day? Come off it—you're not Hitler or Churchill. Nobody called on you to make a statement. As a matter of fact, what did you actually do?" (Diaries 1:132). Isherwood's instinct as a writer and his awareness of the events around him are clear from this passage, as they are from the voluminous diaries. What's remarkable about this passage is his inscription of himself into history. Part of what he did was write—he is aware that what he records will be important and useful for himself, and he knows that if he writes clearly and sharply enough, it will be useful to others. There is no pomposity in this claim. Instead Isherwood declares his commitment to recording the events in his world, and he can only do so from his place in that world. As the diary entry shows, Isherwood had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor and an unassuming recognition that he was a part of history but not a maker ofhistory.
Feeling himself to be both remote and obscure in 1941, Isherwood nevertheless continued to write in his diary and to work on his craft. Paradoxically, at the end of the twentieth century, Isherwood remains remote and obscure, but at the same time he is one of the most celebrated writers of his time and ours. While he is lesser known than many of his contemporaries—for example, W. H. Auden or Truman Capote—Isherwood's influence is strong among his readers and extends to many of the writers who came after him. For what Isherwood actually did was document the twentieth century, contribute to the development of memoir and autobiographical fiction, and pioneer gay writing in America and abroad.
Documenting a Century
The American Isherwood is a primary focus of this collection. Naturalized in 1946, Isherwood wrote most of his work—and some of his best—as a citizen of the United States and a resident of California. He published his first novel at twenty-four and in the next ten years published two more novels, an autobiography, and two plays and a travel book in collaboration with Auden. Such early success helped to solidify his reputation as the brilliant young English novelist of his day. As Somerset Maugham said to Virginia Woolf, "That young man holds the future of the English novel in his hands" (Christopher and His Kind, 325). Unfortunately, such acclaim almost inevitably meant that he would forever be thought of as falling short of his potential.
Sometimes considered lightweight and simplistic, or as merely documenting his life with little analysis, Isherwood's writing can now be seen as fulfilling its early promise in new ways. As Auden recognized, Isherwood's challenge in fiction was to "solve the `I' problem in narration" (Diaries 1:469). He met that challenge by developing a new form of documentary fiction, one that mixes autobiographical recording and introspection. Isherwood wanted to continue to tell stories that mattered to him, and his development as a writer led him away from the modernist concern with form and toward what might be called parable. Isherwood's fiction attempts to teach by example, to show modern men and women living their lives with integrity and intention.
Literary criticism in the middle part of this century was ill-equipped to appreciate Isherwood's work, as it was primarily interested in impersonal narrative technique and formal innovation. As Isherwood explained in a 1965 lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles: "I'm not finally concerned with this question of form. I'm very much concerned with it up to a point, but in the end, if I find that there's something I want to say, then that comes first." The nature of criticism has changed in the last twenty-five years as New Criticism has been seen more as a tool and not as the raison d'être of literary scholarship. Contemporary scholars have developed new methods through queer theory, new historicism, and feminist theory to deal with memoir and autobiography as viable literary forms. Hence literary scholars are more able to approach Isherwood's work and to understand and value his contributions, as shown here by the essays in Part 3, "The Writer in Context."
Because literary critics have not necessarily been Isherwood's best readers, we have chosen to arrange this volume in a way that does not privilege their point of view. Instead we take scholarship as simply one part of the legacy of Isherwood's life and work. Parts 1 and 2 of this book address Isherwood's life in a more personal way. We want the reader to become acquainted with Isherwood the man: the way he lived, the way he worked, and the way he and Don Bachardy made their lives together. Meeting Isherwood this way will give the reader a more complete understanding of his complex personality and the multitude of concerns that affected his work and that have affected his reputation. Part 4 is devoted to the spiritual aspects of Isherwood's life and work from the point of view of people who share his values or who recognize the influence of Vedantic philosophy in his life.
Why do we call our book The Isherwood Century? In chronological terms, the Isherwood Century extends beyond his own lifetime, from 1904 to 1986. Isherwood's close relationship with E. M. Forster, as well as his ties to his parents, whose lives he investigated and wrote about in Kathleen and Frank, links him to the late Victorian and the Edwardian periods in England. As Forster's letters indicate and as Isherwood discusses in Christopher and His Kind, the two writers valued each other as friends and colleagues, their deepest connection coming perhaps through Forster's posthumously published gay novel Maurice. Forster relied on younger writers' opinions of Maurice and showed Isherwood the manuscript soon after they met. Isherwood saw Forster as the "Master" and cultivated that relationship in their early associations. However, because Isherwood began to incorporate gay issues into his published fiction, notably in The World in the Evening (1954), their relationship began to shift as Isherwood became a mentor figure, with Forster admiring and envying his candor and courage.
The Isherwood that is perhaps most familiar is the politically active writer of the 1930s. After the 1972 publication of Samuel Hynes's seminal study, The Auden Generation, this period of Isherwood's career became inextricably associated the English writers who came of age between the wars: Auden, Edward Upward, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and others. We believe, however, considering this coterie of writers a quarter of a century after Hynes, that Isherwood emerges as the pivotal figure of his generation. We say this not to detract from the importance of Auden as a literary figure, but rather to highlight the fact that Isherwood was able to develop his identity and his vocation as a writer even as his involvement with the world continued to expand. Although he left some of his convictions and activities of the thirties behind, he explored new beliefs and incorporated them into his work, which encompassed not only fiction and autobiography but also television, film, and religious writing. His influence, we would argue, grew as the century progressed, and his role as a "leader" of the so-called Auden generation broadened to include younger generations of writers and artists. In particular, Isherwood's emergence in the 1970s as a voice for the gay community and his influence on gay writers through the end of the century have become increasingly recognized and are explored further in this book.
Isherwood became a "gay writer" gradually in the sense that his fiction from the mid-1950s on included gay characters and issues. In The World in the Evening, for example, he gives us a gay couple, an early definition of camp, and an impassioned discussion of gays in the military. His masterpiece, A Single Man (1964), presents a day in the life of a middle-aged gay man that resonates with gay readers more than thirty years later, as David Garnes's poignant essay in this collection testifies. Isherwood followed his fictional "coming out" with an autobiographical one in Kathleen and Frank, purportedly a biography of his parents but actually, as he said, "chiefly about Christopher" (510). His coming out in that book was rather matter-of-fact: "Despite the humiliations of living under a heterosexual dictatorship and the fury he often felt against it, Christopher has never regretted being as he is. He is now quite certain that heterosexuality wouldn't have suited him; it would have fatally cramped his style" (380). By the time these books were published, Isherwood and Bachardy had become a model of a long-term gay relationship, and the essays in this volume by Dan Luckenbill and Stathis Orphanos, in particular, document the significance of this couple to gay men of their generation.
Chris and Don Alive
This book began as a panel discussion at the Modern Language Association convention in December 1996. Titled "Christopher Isherwood: Ten Years Gone," the panel was designed to address the question of Isherwood's legacy. The liveliness of the discussion following the panel convinced us that there was a lot of interest among scholars and fans alike in a book on Isherwood's life and work. During the three years that we have been working on this project, we have been impressed by the breadth of interest, the quality of ideas, and the deep respect for Isherwood among people who knew him either personally or through his work. Most of the work collected here was written especially for this book, including new work by some of Isherwood's friends who saw The Isherwood Century as an opportunity for them to write about his impact on their lives.
For a long time the two of us have felt close to Christopher Isherwood as readers, as scholars, and as gay men. The week we spent in July 1998 in Los Angeles, however, took our involvement with him to a new level. We went not knowing exactly what we wanted to accomplish. We knew we wanted to meet Don Bachardy, to see Isherwood's environs, and to do some research. What we experienced was a series of "Isherwood moments" in which things went better for us than we imagined, doors were opened, and many people wanted to talk to us and tell us of Isherwood's importance to them.
Our first stop was the temple of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, near Hollywood and Vine. Isherwood writes in his diaries of attending Wednesday night talks by Swami Prabhavananda, and we were able to attend a Wednesday night talk by the current leader of the society, Swami Swahananda. We had notified them of our visit via e-mail, and one of the monks arranged for us to have dinner with Peter Shneidre. Peter told us of his friendship with Isherwood, and we convinced him to write an essay about Isherwood's Vedantism. Peter would be the first of many people during this week to take us directly to Isherwood; what came through in all of our conversations was fondness and a lasting connection to Isherwood. Peter also encouraged us to visit the Ramakrishna Monastery in Trabuco Canyon, where we happened upon a monk named Eddie who had known Isherwood well in the 1960s. He gave us a tour of the grounds and shared with us his view that Isherwood's writings provide the best introduction to Vedanta for a Western audience.
Though we were nervous about meeting Don Bachardy, with whom we had corresponded since April 1997, he immediately put us at ease and talked freely about his relationship with Isherwood, their work together, and his life after Isherwood. It is clear that he takes his role as Isherwood's executor seriously and that he has a loving interest in promoting Isherwood's work among scholars and readers. He helped us contact other friends and associates who proved supportive even if their contributions do not appear in the final volume. Sitting in the living room of Don and Christopher's house, and later being painted by Don in his studio, gave us a kind of immediate connection experienced by few scholars.
Visitors often comment on the abundance and variety of art in Chris and Don's house, which includes drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculpture. We were especially delighted to see David Hockney's Christopher Isherwood Talking to Bob Holman, Santa Monica, March 14, 1983. Depicting Chris and Don in animated conversation with a visitor in their living room, this photographic collage captures for us what we hope The Isherwood Century will provide our readers—the sense of Isherwood and Bachardy actively constructing their lives and their work together. Rather than fragmenting or freezing his subjects, Hockney's cubist technique adds layers of complexity and meaning to the scene by multiplying the visual image of the two men, making a dynamic portrait, one that shows Chris and Don alive.
Later in the week one of our contributors, Dan Luckenbill, arranged a dinner party for us, and we felt Isherwood's spirit with us. At this party we were able to meet another of our contributors, Stathis Orphanos, and one of Isherwood's friends from the 1950s, actor and writer Jack Larson. The people in Isherwood's diaries were suddenly real for us, as we were entertained by stories about Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Cliff, and Marlene Dietrich. We felt as though we were gaining a better sense of what Isherwood's life was like.
Returning from Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on this book, we felt closer to Isherwood as a person. This intimacy is akin to the feeling we get from reading his work, especially his diaries and A Single Man—a feeling we believe many of his readers share, despite the feelings of remoteness and obscurity he sometimes felt in his life.
|Introduction: The Isherwood Century||3|
|Part I.||Meeting Isherwood||9|
|1.||Who Is Christopher Isherwood?||13|
|2.||Isherwood in Los Angeles||31|
|3.||In the Blink of an Eye: Evolving with Christopher Isherwood||43|
|4.||Ish circa 1959-1963||54|
|5.||Reading from Isherwood's Letter circa 1959-1963||61|
|6.||Gay Isherwood Visits Straight Riverside||65|
|7.||My Isherwood, My Bachardy||71|
|8.||"Write It Down or It's Lost": Isherwood as Mentor||77|
|Part II.||Artist and Companion||87|
|9.||A Life Open to Art||91|
|10.||Portrait of the Artist as Companion: Interviews with Don Bachardy||97|
|11.||Frankenstein: The True Story: The Artist as "Monster"||108|
|12.||Pool in Rocks by the Sea: Isherwood and Bachardy||121|
|Part III.||The Writer in Context||137|
|14.||Aunt Mary, Uncle Henry, and Anti-Ancestral Impulses in The Memorial||141|
|15.||In a Populous City: Isherwood in the Thirities||150|
|16.||The Dog beneath the Schoolboy's Skin: Isherwood, Auden, and Fascism||162|
|17.||Documentary Dilemmas: Shifting Fronts in Journey to a War||172|
|18.||Strategically Minor: Isherwood's Revision of Forster's Mythology||187|
|19.||A Single Man, Then and Now||196|
|20.||Isherwood and the Violet Quill||203|
|Part IV.||Finding a Path||217|
|21.||Christopher under the Wishing Tree||221|
|22.||Christopher Isherwood in Jail||228|
|23.||"Always Dance": Sex and Salvation in Isherwood's Vedantism||236|
|24.||The Path That Leads to Safety: Spiritual Renewal and Autobiographical Narrative||247|
|25.||"The Wandering Stopped": An Interview with Christopher Isherwood||259|