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17 June 2024

The real Christopher Isherwood

The poet’s candid project of self-discovery prefigured autofiction and shaped a generation of writers.

By Andrew Motion

Christopher Isherwood spent much of the first half of his life writing fiction that was based closely on his own experiences in England and Germany, and much of the second half expanding, revising, and interrogating those original accounts. On the face of it, the whole endeavour looks like solipsism on a grand scale; for Isherwood, it was an attempt to rid himself of false impressions and distorting influences so that he could discover and then accurately represent his authentic self, in particular, his identity as a gay man. Parents, friends, lovers, sex-chums and spiritual advisers were all subjected to his objectivising gaze (“I am a camera”), and all were enlisted in his process of self-discovery – something that was evidently rewarding as an end in itself, and which has also turned out to be powerfully influential for younger generations of writers.

The contemporary vogue for auto-fiction, let alone the introspections of Karl Ove Knausgård, all owe something to the example Isherwood gave in his Berlin novels of the 1930s, his subsequent short masterpieces Prater Violet (1945)and A Single Man (1964), and the late scrutinising of Christopher and His Kind (1976). His work might be less loudly celebrated than that of his friend and occasional collaborator WH Auden, but its legacy is just as substantial.

Since Isherwood’s death aged 81 in 1986 a number of biographers have elaborated his own practice of self-analysis, none more effectively than Peter Parker, in his hefty but elegantly written A Life Revealed (2004). Now, having already edited three volumes of Isherwood’s diaries, his memoir Lost Years, and an edition of letters to and from his long-term companion, the artist Don Bachardy, the pre-eminent Isherwood scholar Katherine Bucknell has crowned her life’s work with a biography of her own.

This book, like Parker’s, is immensely thorough (Parker’s runs to 815 pages, hers to 864), but has at least one great advantage: Bucknell has had “unlimited access” to Bachardy, now aged 90, and is therefore able to investigate Isherwood’s “inner world, and his life project of coming to understand his own feelings” to a depth never reached before. The result has some longueurs – the inclusion of lengthy passages of literary criticism can’t help but slow the narrative momentum. But overall, her book is a triumph of sympathetic understanding. She has carved her subject a place in the pantheon, and the benefits of her work, to general readers as well as to scholars, will last for a very long time.

Bucknell divides Isherwood’s life into nine substantial sections but from the beginning establishes continuities between his early English years and his later life in California. Isherwood was born into the landed gentry and raised as the heir to an estate on the border between Cheshire and Derbyshire – his father Frank Bradshaw Isherwood was a captain in the York and Lancaster Regiment, and his mother Kathleen expected her son to secure the family line and continue its affably snobbish traditions. Pressures of this sort are always likely to prove counterproductive, especially when they combine with a spirit that is hungry for independence and at the same time troubled by a lack of resilience in the status quo.

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The family’s fortunes were nothing like as stable as they seemed – Frank was a second son – and Bucknell is quick to explore the various ways in which Isherwood’s early responses to life were shaped by fearfulness. His father’s peripatetic army life didn’t help. By the time Isherwood was dispatched to a boarding school in Surrey in 1914, after the family had followed Frank to Aldershot and Limerick, his vagabond life had bred in him a form of anxiety which made him at once highly appreciative of friendship, and emotionally self-protecting in ways that bordered on coldness. It was an early form of the paradox which shaped his adult view of the world: anyone might equally well turn out to be a victim or a perpetrator.

Isherwood’s father stood tall at the centre of this well-managed turmoil but was far from being a martinet. He was a good soldier, certainly, but also a thoughtful and sensitive man – a talented painter, and determined that his son should follow his own instincts rather than bow to conventions. In one of several letters to Kathleen that brood on Christopher’s youthful character and prospects, Frank writes, “the whole point of sending him to school was to flatten him out, so to speak, and to make him like other boys and, when all is said and done, I don’t know that it is at all desirable or necessary, and I for one would much rather have him as he is”.

This speaks to a degree of sympathy between father and son that made the impact of Frank’s death in the First World War all the more devastating. And all the more formative as well, since the shock of his death itself was compounded by the fact that his body was never recovered. How could Isherwood’s emerging thoughts about identity not be both accelerated and deepened by this? Like the conundrum of what makes a victim and what makes a hero, it is a question that dominates all Isherwood’s youthful writing and is still vibrant at the end of his life.

Two early friendships intensified Isherwood’s concentration on these themes – the first with Auden, a fellow pupil at his prep school, and the second with Edward Upward at Repton and Cambridge, where they developed the surreal fictional world of Mortmere as a means of satirising their contemporaries. By this stage, Bucknell writes, Isherwood was so “all in on his writing” that he felt obliged to take the first decisive step away from the path his inheritance had predicted and withdrew from the university (his tutor conceded that it was preferable to being sent down). Inevitably his mother Kathleen was dismayed – so much so that Isherwood, although never likely to back-track, sought to reassure her for a while by toying with the idea of getting a steady job: he considered working as a librarian in the British Museum and attended medical school for six months. But – with the encouragement of Auden, with whom he had now reconnected – these flirtations with orthodoxy soon came to nothing. In 1929, the year after his first novel, All the Conspirators, had been accepted for publication, he left England and joined Auden in Berlin.

And for sex with boys: as Bucknell says, even in 1936 and 1937 when he was writing Lions and Shadows, the celebrated account of his life in Berlin, “he never mentioned love. He focused on morality, freedom, and avoiding the hypocrisy of self-sacrifice.” At the same time – and it’s this that gives his renditions of this period their distinctive flavour – he cast an equally observant eye on the wider picture: on the rise of fascism and the threats it held for the future. Sex and violence, one might say in summary – but the tone in which these things are mingled, the highly individual blend of involvement and detachment, sleaze and sympathy, black comedy and latent terror, brings subtlety to what might otherwise seem a banal dichotomy. It’s no exaggeration to say that as Isherwood found his social identity in Berlin, he also found his true note as a writer, and held it steady whether his camera-gaze was turned on Sally Bowles, on Nazis and communists, the book burning in the Opernplatz, or himself and his erotic adventures.

Bucknell follows all the walks of Isherwood’s Berlin life with equal care, and is similarly scrupulous in her account of the years immediately following his final visit to Germany in the summer of 1933. Travels through other parts of Europe, the travails of his affair with Heinz Neddermeyer, his entry into the film world via dealings with the Austrian screenwriter and director Berthold Viertel, his collaborative playwriting with Auden and their trip to China in 1938: all these have been pored over by previous biographers, as well as by Isherwood himself, but Bucknell gives them a coherence that is fresh and valuable.

At the same time, her slow-moving style can tax a reader’s patience by making every incident seem equally important, and by levelling the moments of high drama that Isherwood himself evidently enjoyed. Up to its halfway point, her book is most arresting when dealing with Isherwood’s childhood and his life in Berlin. When she reaches 1939, the year Isherwood and Auden left England for America, it hots up again.

The hostility that both men suffered for their decision is largely explicable by reference to the war: their critics thought they were cowardly for deserting the ship of state in its hour of need. In fact, of course, both men had lived outside the country for much of the previous decade, so their departure was consistent with a pattern of living that they’d already chosen. Indeed, their principal reason for leaving had nothing to do with the war: their celebrity at home, and the habit of gossipy denigration that characterises English cultural life, had left them feeling suffocated. “We had forgotten our real vocation,” Auden said, at once modestly and proudly. He felt that in America, “We would be artists again, with our own values, our own integrity, and not amateur socialist agitators, parlour reds.”

The last two-thirds of Isherwood’s life is structured by Bucknell as a dilating narrative of new friends made, new books and film scripts written, new travels undertaken and new appreciations bestowed. But two overwhelmingly important elements occupy its centre. One is Isherwood’s involvement with the Vedanta Society of Southern California – a Ramakrishna monastery in Trabuco Canyon – and his discipleship of Swami Prabhavananda. The other is his devotion to Bachardy, who first met Isherwood in 1952 and began living with him the following year. Initially these two commitments seemed in opposition to each other: Vedanta required Isherwood to be physically restrained in ways that were very challenging for him (he lived as a monk for a while); Bachardy, on the other hand, was someone to whom he became more openly loving than anyone else he ever met, despite and partly because of the several periods of difficulty they endured.

Bachardy, who was young enough to be Isherwood’s son, had his own questions of independence and identity to answer; the most original part of Bucknell’s book records these in detail, which is exhaustive and often moving.

The greatest achievement of Isherwood’s personal life was to see all aspects of his existence as a search for the best way to manifest his truest feelings and most fundamental beliefs. It was an effort that has attracted a certain amount of incredulous mockery over the years, but in essence it was noble, and bravely realised. It is also inseparable from the most important elements in his work – not just the rapprochement between intensity and clarity in his style, but the increasingly sharp focus on his gay identity. His candour, and his courage in the face of prejudice as well as legal constraint, blazed a trail for younger writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Always nimble-minded, shimmering with light touches, mischievously disdainful of solemnity, Isherwood’s purpose was constant and absolutely serious: to be equally honest in art and life.

Andrew Motion is a former poet laureate. His “New and Selected Poems 1977-2022” is published by Faber & Faber

Christopher Isherwood Inside Out
Katherine Bucknell
Chatto & Windus, 864pp, £35

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation