The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood. – Review

The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood. – Review – book review

Robert Plunket

The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood

Edited with an introduction by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman

University of Wisconsin Press $34.95

From reprinted novels and diaries to a previously unpublished memoir, everything’s coming up Isherwood

Perhaps the most telling anecdote about Christopher Isherwood’s long and crowded life occurred in the high bohemian society of Hollywood in the 1940s. It must have been a golden gay era–all those parties around George Cukor’s pool, all those soldiers and sailors ready for anything–and Isherwood was very much at the epicenter. So much so that Greta Garbo took a fancy to him and began to drop by uninvited. Soon, he reports, she became a nuisance. The image of Garbo, banging on the door like a jilted girlfriend who won’t get the hint, sums up Isherwood in a nutshell. He was so smart, such good company, so “cool” that even the elusive Garbo wanted to hang.

Isherwood chronicled his life extensively in both fiction and memoirs, to the point where the two started to blur. One section has been missing, though: the period right after World War II, when he stopped keeping his diary. Before his death in 1986 he began to reconstruct these years, using old appointment books and such to jog his memory. The results, edited by Katherine Bucknell, are now being published as Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951. It is a book that anyone with even a passing interest in Isherwood or gay social history shouldn’t miss.

The period covered was a crucial one for Isherwood. He was juggling many things: his devotion to Hinduism, his professional triumphs and defeats (one of his major projects at the time was the screenplay for The Great Sinner, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner), his relationship with his lover Bill Caskey (whose career he was trying to advance), and finally his many sexual adventures, which are recounted at great and delightful length. An astonishing cast appears–Igor Stravinsky, Bertolt Brecht, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marlon Brando–and each member is described with an illuminating story or two. My favorite may well be a teenage Roddy McDowall having sex at home with a rugged young actor while his parents sit unaware in the next room.

Isherwood finds just the right tone in which to couch his recollections. He writes in the third person, as if describing a young man named Christopher. Rather than distancing the reader, this allows for greater analysis and intimacy. He never brags, though he has plenty to brag about, and readily admits his many insecurities, including a martyr complex and a drinking problem that sometimes got out of hand–Charlie Chaplin accused him of peeing on his couch, and the friendship never recovered. He is often irritated with his younger self. What he remembers most, he acknowledges ruefully, are the compliments paid him and the sexual episodes. Evenings spent deep in conversation with E.M. Forster and Igor Stravinsky are blurred and impossible to reconstruct.

Lost Years ends in 1951. Just ahead were two major events: the Broadway production of I Am a Camera, based on his Berlin stories, which would make him a household name. Then, in 1953, he was introduced to an 18-year-old artist named Don Bachardy after seeing him on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., and thus began one of the century’s great love stories. They were still together 33 years later; Bachardy sketched Isherwood on his deathbed.

The new memoir is just one of a group of Isherwood books on tap. Adding to its ongoing reprinted series of Isherwood’s novels, the University of Minnesota Press has just reissued Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, the first of Isherwood’s autobiographical writings. And from the University of Wisconsin Press, a selection of essays titled The Isherwood Century has also reached bookstores. With contributions from Edmund White and Armistead Maupin, among others, it provides an invaluable look–sometimes lively, sometimes just academic–at an amazing life. Isherwood was always a step ahead. His artistry, his delight in sex and friendship, his intensely social manner, and finally his devotion to his lover make you feel, as Maupin puts it, “more connected to a past I had never known and a future I had yet to realize.”

Plunket is the author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.

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