Underperforming

Christopher Isherwood: lost years, a memoir 1945-1951

Edited by Katherine Bucknell <em>Chatto & Wi

In the early 1970s, Christopher Isherwood, at the age of 40, attempted to reconstruct his life in postwar Hollywood. It is impressive that he could remember, 20 years later, and working only from the hints of an appointment diary, such an abundance of sexual encounters with so many young men. It is remarkable, too, that in these years, save for a period of recovery from a minor operation to his penis, Isherwood so rarely failed to pull or perform. What he did feel, and presumably felt again in serene old age, was a certain guilt at postponing the aspiration towards chastity that his increasing preoccupation with Vedanta called him to - he got to have his cake, eat it and then say grace.

These were not especially productive years for him - he was writing material for rather ephemeral Hollywood films. The Men was about the best film with which he was involved; his research into the mores of paraplegic veterans led him to make many hospital visits, demonstrating that he was not the cold-blooded observer he is sometimes thought to have been. Working on this film also meant having Marlon Brando around, wandering into his kitchen at all hours from the beach to make a sandwich - Isherwood assumed at the time that he was a brash young actor who would never amount to anything (perhaps, in the long run, he was right).

In this memoir, there is much retrospective opinion about things he read, saw or listened to - usually without any clear explanation; the older Isherwood cannot remember what the younger Isherwood thought of the "hateful" Les Enfants du Paradis, but does not feel obliged to say why he disagrees with its popularity. The judgements on literature often have a slightly self-seeking quality to them - he is always prepared to praise interesting newcomers such as, say, the young Ray Bradbury, and is solid in his remarks about the unquestionably important such as, say, E M Forster, but he is less generous to writers such as Ford Madox Ford, whom he ranks in the lower second division.

It is a shame that he lacked, by this point, Ford's mythomania, or even the younger Isherwood's capacity to turn his friends into memorable types. We are told about hiding under a bed with his lover in order to avoid going for a walk with Garbo, but nothing about why she was so boring. We learn that he fell out with Chaplin, but not why or how - there was some misunderstanding about whether or not he had pissed on Chaplin's sofa, and we would rather have a gaudy lie than endless footnotes about the dates on which it might not have happened.

Katherine Bucknell provides a comprehensive index, a gazetteer of almost everyone mentioned and occasional interjections from dissident surviving witnesses - boyfriends who find his occasional mild anti-Semitism irritating, or who want to claim that particular people fell asleep during particular conversations. But Bucknell's tireless work and Isherwood's diaries cannot make up for the truth that he is at his most interesting in those books where fact has been almost entirely digested into fiction. What lives from his work are early archetypes of seedy glamour such as Sally Bowles, not the considered spiritual and sexual dissection of his later self-portraits.