“Except for Isherwood, I can think of no contemporary literary figure who has kept, for most of a lifetime, a journal.” In that aside 15 years ago, Gore Vidal revealed the existence of this book, of which the first installment, superbly introduced, edited and annotated by Katherine Bucknell, offers an enormous and exhaustive articulation of a life already much chronicled, mined out to display one of the most eloquent and attentive specimens in our modern menagerie harboring what Vidal again (who better?) calls “that rarest of creatures, the objective narcissist.”
Of course many of Isherwood’s fictions have assumed, all along, the form of a diary, an assiduous record of what he classified, 20 years ago, as “Christopher and His Kind”:
“The reason for this [fascination with movies] had, I think, very little to do with ‘Art’ at all; I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people--their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks. . . . The cinema puts people under a microscope: You can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects.”
Surely this is a remarkably enlightened narcissism, which concedes so much of the stage to other people, even if they are scrutinized as so many bugs! But such fictions as “Prater Violet” and “A Single Man” have been cunningly shaped and focused, fashioned into crystalline structures out of the magma of a mere existence here exposed, often in obsequious detail and obsessive repetition, between Isherwood’s arrival in Hollywood in 1939 (when he gets his quota visa for U.S. residency, writes his first movie and begins instruction in Vedanta) and 1960 (when his mother dies and, at the age of 56, he completes his last handwritten diary as well as the novel I regard as his masterpiece, “Down There on a Visit”). The diary is certainly a compelling document, at least in its initial decades (see accompanying extracts), with wonderful first glimpses of what is to become the “Supporting Cast.” Here are two from that first year:
“Dinner with Lincoln [Kirstein], that somber, electric creature. In his blue pea-jacket, he looks like a mad clipper captain out of Melville. His hair is cropped like a convict’s, and his eyes, behind austere tin spectacles, seem to be examining you through a microscope. I call him Jean Valjean.”
Hardly surprising if Isherwood is sensitive to that same intense scrutiny he has made his own, but how just and how illuminating the analogies to Melville and to Hugo’s convict: Isherwood is never a critic but always a wonderful reader, even of the classics of his new country. The examination is enlarged when he meets the “Enigma of Hollywood” and shows us how the microscope becomes the method of a master:
“ ‘You know,’ I announced solemnly, ‘I really wish you weren’t Garbo. I like you. I think we could have been great friends.’ At this Garbo let out a mocking, Mata Hari laugh: ‘But we are friends! You are my dear little brother. All of you are my dear little brothers.’ ‘Oh, shut up!’ I exclaimed, enormously flattered. I suppose everybody who meets Garbo dreams of saving her--either from herself, or from MGM, or from some friend or lover. And she always eludes them by going into an act. This is what has made her a universal figure. She is the woman whose life everyone wants to interfere with.”
The acuteness of these perceptions is not blurred by the good nature of the attention, nor is the good nature diluted by the startling recognitions, even when the “subjects” are the very great, such as Stravinsky or, more professionally, Thomas Mann:
“Mann died last Friday--tidily, as he did everything. There was a greatness in his dry neatness, and I must say I think of him with real love. He was somehow very supporting--not because of his great gestures, his public self-questionings. No, he was lovable in a tiny, cozy way--he was kind, he was genuinely interested in other people, he kept cheerful, he was gossipy, he was quite brave--he had the virtues of a truly admirable nursery governess.”
Alas, the diary settles into a very different kind of observation by the time Isherwood has become a sort of Hollywood institution, a resident alien much more grounded, so to speak, in Santa Monica than Aldous Huxley or Gerald Heard (Isherwood is happily at home in the landscape and weather of Southern California), anxiously caring for (and being cared for by) a much younger lover, yielding his yeoman inheritance to an alcoholic brother, nursing what appears to be a pretty vigorous case of alcoholism (and consequent writer’s block), fretting over the institutional infighting that is probably not peculiar to the Hollywood chapter of Vedanta (Isherwood is not a religious man; he is a diligent disciple of his guru).
The last half of this volume is something of a trial to read through to the end, even for an enthusiast of Isherwood’s art and Isherwood’s gossip: The glamorous encounters with the great have been foregone and all the microscopy is reserved for the “Home Front” (Isherwood’s war, of course, was a private one, focusing on an agonized apprehension that Heinz, the German lover of his younger days who had been obliged to serve in the Nazi army, might be dead or worse; miraculously Heinz survived, as Isherwood too survived to rediscover Heinz and his wife in that bafflingly prosperous, post-Wagnerian Germany).
Here is a sample of Isherwood’s later manner (August 1955), warranting an impatience I suspect other readers beside myself will feel, ensnared as we are in the longueurs of this meticulous chronicle (not since Amiel has there been so relentless an account of a diarist’s frailties):
“I’m getting to be such a crazy old thing--frittering away the last of my life--uneasily dozing, or drunk, or going around in a daze. I seem to myself much more like an old-fashioned, creaky machine than a sentient human being. I make a great show of functioning. I know many people regard me as well able to be allowed out by myself. Yet I’m actually next door to madness, with my frantic resentments, my fears, my refusal to believe I shall die. I have the cunning of a miser when I think of the time remaining to me. Instead of laying it out prudently and deciding how to spend it, I just clutch it like a bag of coins--in which there’s a hole I can’t mend. Oh shit! This talk is all insincere. I’m just playing around the subject--it’s the madman himself who’s writing this. But one day I’ll catch him off-guard maybe, and get some message through.”
That last sentence suggests why Isherwood persists in his diary, and why it is ultimately rewarding to persist with him. Something of the ethical enlightenment of his Vedanta masters glistens ahead of the pilgrim, whose slogging self-observation is analogous to the last years of Maria Callas’ art, when the voice was no longer there but the diva would not betray the dynamics of her aria and the drama of her opera merely to avoid an ugly sound, an inadequate vocalism. Isherwood will not spare himself:
“April 8, 1960. I realized again today how terribly I fool around and waste time.” “June 23. Yesterday evening, like idiots, we proceeded to get utterly plastered. And I fell down some steps and hurt my back--quite badly, I fear. Today I can hardly walk and have stabs of pain which make me yell.”
“July 4. I record all this because it is too often not recorded. And one ought, when things are going well, to marvel at the madness of human beings who claim they love each other and yet can behave like this--with death and H-bombs and every sort of real disaster just around the corner. How dare we act like whining 10-year-old spoilt darlings? Well, we dare. We shall go on doing it until we drop.”
The discipline of abjection is not a pretty sight or an entertaining process, but Isherwood persists in it, for hundreds of pages, without charm or satisfaction. Perhaps his Vedanta exercises keep him at it, as relentless in his chastisement as in his lapses from grace. Appropriately enough, in 1955 he rounds on Vidal as on himself, and perhaps that is where I must leave him, as I began:
“August 1955. Lunch with Gore. I guess he’s still wondering what I think of his novel. Well, I don’t. I’m bored and stuck fast. . . . I believe he really thinks about ‘posterity’ and its ‘verdict'--just like a 19th century writer! And I don’t know whether to admire this, or just regard him as a conceited idiot.”
It is that not knowing that makes Christopher Isherwood, after a thousand pages of unswerving self-scrutiny, so luminous and so blind, a proper saint of our literary modernity.