I have just spent 21 years in the company of one man. Are you in prison? I hear you cry. No! For the last few weeks I have been reading this 1000+ page volume of diaries, beginning when Isherwood emigrated to the USA with W H Auden in 1939 and finishing with his 56th birthday in 1960. Isherwood was a consummate and dedicated diarist, skills learnt from his mother. There are lapses and inconsistencies of diary-keeping, inevitably, over the years (including a significant gap between 1945-7 where his personal and professional life went slightly off the rails) but generally speaking he made an entry 2-3 times a week. The early wartime diaries he edited himself, preparing them for publication but it is Katherine Bucknell’s task to sort out the rest and provide the introduction. Isherwood made the job relatively easy for the editor. Throughout the diaries there is no code used, very few corrections and hardly even crossings out. His skill with language was such that he was able to express exactly what he wanted to say at first go, even though he painstakingly edited and rewrote his novels and other writings.
One of the most fascinating aspects of reading the diaries is the way in which Isherwood tended to use them as to keep himself on the straight and narrow, he regularly admonishes himself over neglecting work and other duties and uses these entries to clarify his thoughts. (It is interesting that the period where he felt he deviated from the “straight and narrow” was the 18 months or so he gave up diary writing).
I do love reading diaries. I like the feel of the passage of time as well as getting a view into something which wasn’t intended for publication. I like the immediacy of reading about events as they happen, I like the name-dropping and I love the way the diaries show the writer in true human form, which is often constant moaning and grumbles about health. For me, Isherwood joins the list of other great diarists (and moaners) that I have read: Samuel Pepys, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Kenneth Williams and Joe Orton. I have noticed that this is a very male list – I’ll have to do something about that. Recommended female diarists – anyone? It is also, apart from Pepys, a homosexual list – men who found themselves outsiders from the establishment they attempted to embrace because of their sexuality and attitudes towards it at the time they were writing and probably were more likely to feel the need to record their observations in what often was, a double life.
Isherwood was writing at much the same time as Coward and Beaton and the same names do tend to crop up in each of their diaries. (Did Laurence Olivier do any work?) Isherwood befriended Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, John Gieguld, Charles Laughton and many other notables of their time. The Editor provides a thorough Glossary which helps put more detail to the names recorded
But this is not just a Hollywood record (Isherwood worked as a screenwriter from time to time). In fact, the War Years diaries have a very different feel as Isherwood opts for a spiritual life. He is introduced to Vedanta, a form of Hindu philosophy, he undergoes training by a Swami, lives in a religious commune and contemplates becoming a monk. He also finds work in a German refugee environment (before these diaries he lived in Berlin which provided the setting for his most famous works) run by Quakers. This was perhaps the slowest section. I got bogged down with him recording the minutiae of those he lived and worked with during this time, the religious and philosophical debates, often with friends Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley which led later on to the use of mescaline to enhance their spiritual experiences.
The wartime anxiety of being away from home is clearly conveyed and the ongoing guilt about not participating (although he was a pacifist). After the war there are the lost years. Things settle down considerably when he meets 18 year old Don Bachardy (with an age gap that we would still today feel unsettling).
This relationship is often tempestuous as Don regularly feels he is not being taken seriously by Isherwood’s friends but they never give up on one another. Bachardy becomes his life-long partner and provides the stabilising influence which keeps Isherwood working.
Still together in later years
There is a second volume of these diaries sitting on my shelf but the intensity of reading this lengthy work means I will need to give it a while before I tackle them. These document the Sixties where artist Bachardy will become more established and Isherwood still has one of his most significant works to produce. I also have a three book novel set I purchased from “The Book People”. I have read some Isherwood a long time ago and only have a very dim memory of his work so I will look forward to reading them.
“I’m horrified to find, as I look at these diaries of twenty-five years ago or more, that I don’t remember who the people were. Bill and Tony were constantly in and out. We went to La Jolia – or something, I haven’t the bluest idea who they were!” (Christopher Isherwood)
Diaries: Volume 1 – 1939-1960 was published by Methuen in 1996