The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Like many couples, they communicated in a private language, a sort of nursery camp in which they were cast as the “Animals”.

Christopher Isherwood. Image: Getty
 
In 1952, the then 48-year-old Christopher Isherwood met a beautiful teenage boy on the beach in Santa Monica. None of his friends thought the liaison would last but it proved unexpectedly durable. Despite a 30-year age gap and affairs on both sides, the two men remained emphatically together until Isherwood’s death in 1986 – a relationship considerably longer-lasting than most Hollywood marriages.
 
Like many couples, they communicated in a private language, a sort of nursery camp in which they were cast as the “Animals”, sometimes beleaguered by the human world (the “Others”) and sometimes resplendent in their difference. The Animals were evidently well established by the time written communication began, on a trip to London in the winter of 1956. They make their inaugural appearance not in the first, rather shy letter from Isherwood but in Bachardy’s reply. “I miss rides through London on old Dobbin,” he writes, “and think a lot about him, sleeping in a strange stable, eating cold oats out of an ill-fitting feed bag and having no cat fur to keep him warm . . . And tell him an anxious Tabby is at the mercy of the RSPCA and counting the days till his return.”
 
In this pleasurable and increasingly powerful masque, Bachardy is Kitty, a small, well-bred white kitten, while Isherwood is Dobbin, Dub, Drub or Plug, a weary, reliable old horse (sometimes a stallion, sometimes a loyal mare). Gags about riding and furry parts aside, it’s a mode for the establishment and continuance of intimacy, rather than any especially outspoken sexual desire.
 
When the Animals are separated (most often because Bachardy, a gifted and increasingly adept portrait artist, is in London or New York pursuing commissions), they long to be reunited in their dear dilapidated “basket”. “It seems so wrong and unnecessary for the Animals to be apart,” Bachardy declares in one homesick missive. “Nobody understands about them really.”
 
There’s plenty going on outside the basket. The letters run intermittently through to 1970, after which there was no separation long enough to require epistolary infill. During that period, Isherwood wrote Down There on a Visit (1962), his late masterpiece A Single Man (1964) and A Meeting by the River (1967); he also worked on film scripts and saw his novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) transformed for the stage and screen into I Am a Camera and the lucrative Cabaret. Bachardy, meanwhile, schmoozed and sketched on both sides of the Atlantic, producing portraits of an impressive array of artists, aristocrats and writers, among them Francis Bacon, Roman Polanski, Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara and Tennessee Williams.
 
Although work is a regular topic of conversation (particularly Bachardy’s sometimes anguished attempts to find his métier), the keynote here is gossip. On Auden at 59, Isherwood notes, “Wystan can never possibly look older,” while Bachardy memorably describes Vanessa Redgrave as a “pod-born replacement for real humans”. Observations on the love lives of the beau monde are traded back and forth like cigarette cards (a pearl for the susceptible: Vivien Leigh’s private number in the 1960s was Sloane 1955).
 
Gossip is a leveller but one of the oddities of this capacious book is how similar the two voices sound, considering the vast gulf in age and experience, background and nationality. The struggle to bridge these gaps forms the great underlying drama of the letters. Dobbin is Kitty’s mentor and teacher, someone to mimic but also to rebel against, escape and defy, while Kitty is a prodigal whose return will always be an occasion for joy. Isherwood, who had been a serial connoisseur of boys in his youth, wisely gave Bachardy his freedom, allowing him to roam romantically and providing instead the absolute security of home.
 
In Iris, the critic John Bayley wrote of how he and his first wife, Iris Murdoch, communicated from the start in an infantile babble, a private language that nourished them through the decades, well into her descent into dementia. Virginia Woolf, too, had a penchant for writing in the persona of animals. “I often feel,” Isherwood wrote of his contribution to this canon, “that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness . . . They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.”
 
At times, the constant references to tiny kittens threatens to contradict him. Yet it becomes increasingly apparent that the Animals sustained the pair through their early travails and that as such they served as the glue for one of the few publicly gay relationships of the period. As Isherwood put it, writing one Christmas Eve from a monastery near Kolkata: “Away from you, I can’t talk, I don’t feel this is my language or my world.” One might think he was talking about the culture shock of India but for the next plaintive sentence: “I want to talk Cat-Horse again.”
 
Olivia Laing’s latest book is “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)
Christopher Isherwood. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder