Darling Me

Christopher Isherwood followed Oscar Wilde's prescription for lifelong romance by falling in love with himself—over and over again

By Thomas Mallon

Winsome and boyish (preternaturally and studiously so), Christopher Isherwood always appeared to be the youngest of Britain's young writers of the thirties, those clever, slippery wünderkinder of a "low dishonest decade," as their chieftain, W. H. Auden, put it even better than he knew. In fact Isherwood was older than Auden and Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Last year he reached his posthumous centenary.

What's more, as Peter Parker's elephantine but finally energetic new biography reminds us, Isherwood was the most aristocratic of the bunch, destined from birth to inherit Marple Hall, a huge Elizabethan house on the border of Cheshire and Derbyshire. The place would be near ruin by the time it came his way, in midlife, but he was still glad to turn it over to his addled younger brother—the sort of renunciatory gesture Isherwood had been making toward hierarchical, heterosexual England ever since public school.

His precocity and dandyism were established well before the loss of his father, Frank, in the Battle of Ypres, when Christopher was eleven. It seems unlikely, even without Frank's early death, that his firstborn would have turned out any less willfully feckless than he did, leaving Cambridge with no degree and finding less interest in medical school than in tutoring young boys. The most important psychological fact of Isherwood's early life was the overeager embrace of widowhood by his mother, Kathleen, who became in her son's mind a monster of nostalgia, a ruffled, squawking martyr suspended in an amber of Edwardian pride and prejudices. "Just think of her!" Isherwood cried out from Cambridge. "Sitting in front of a fire in Kensington, warming her cunt!" She would live well into her son's middle age, indulging his rebellions to a degree he couldn't see despite his nasty, persistent fixation on her.

Kathleen shows up, unpleasantly, in Isherwood's earliest novels, All the Conspirators and The Memorial, and she remains with him toward the end, in the memoir Kathleen and Frank, where—with customary reference to himself in the third person—he finally acknowledges her usefulness as the "counterforce which gave him strength … [what] saved him from becoming a mother's boy, a churchgoer, an academic, a conservative, a patriot and a respectable citizen."

Kathleen was the most otherly of what Isherwood always called the Others, those Blimps and boors he felt nipping at his heels. (Never mind that he inherited several parts of their mindset, including anti-Semitism.) Parker seems sympathetic to Kathleen in exactly the right measure; however admirable Isherwood's literary and sexual rebellions, the biographer knows when to get fed up with his subject. Once Isherwood starts exalting his myriad gay romances over the "evil old sentimental lie" of family ties, Parker declares his "remark about his hundred brothers and thousand sons, with its unfortunate echo of Goodbye, Mr. Chips," to be "quite as much of a sentimental lie as any notions about blood relationships."

Isherwood's sexual bravery was generally uncompromising and entirely adult, but his actual desires had an aspect of perennial adolescence. He derived his most reliable erotic pleasure from wrestling, usually commencing sex "in mock-innocence as a fight." (Parker leaves no doubt that Isherwood came out of these encounters on top.) The novelist found his lasting type at Repton School, when he was assigned a pint-size fag named, believe it or not, Austen Darling. He developed a consuming crush on the child actor Jackie Coogan, the movies' delicate Oliver Twist, and forever sought to be the protective older brother of his partners.

"Berlin meant Boys," Isherwood reminisced, with a delighted new impunity, in his 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind. The only remotely competitive motivation for the first of his many trips to Germany, in March of 1929, was a chance to spite Kathleen, widowed as she'd been by the Hun. When abroad, Isherwood settled into a routine of writing by day and cruising the bars of Berlin's east end by night. He wrestled, and bankrolled, a series of obliging youths from the working class, blending commerce and sentiment as potently as Hallmark or Disney ever would. He liked to idealize whatever tacit or explicit bargain underlay his relationships with Bubi and Walter (eventually Otto in "The Nowaks") and finally Heinz, with whom the writer exchanged rings and went on the run once Hitler clamped down and the German draft law threatened to scoop the boy into the army or prison.

Isherwood toyed with the idea of getting Kathleen to adopt Heinz, and tried, through the raffish adventurer Gerald Hamilton, to buy the papers of a new nationality for him. "Isherwood could, if provoked, come up with all manner of moral arguments for sticking by Heinz," Parker writes, "but a major reason for his loyalty was that it gave him the opportunity to defy the Others"—as they were represented by both petty officialdom and the first revvings of the Nazi killing machine.

Even so, Parker is right to label his subject "the least political member of his particular generation." (Hitler, the biographer convinces us, could never hold a candle to Kathleen in Isherwood's demonology.) The novelist might explain, with a certain regret, to his lifelong Communist friend Edward Upward that the personal would always trump the political in him ("I have made a mess of my leftism"), but Parker, a believer in each according to his means, values the remorseless detachment of Isherwood's Berlin short stories more highly than anything false ideological piety might have produced. Even Isherwood's deadpan depictions of Nazi violence had a defensible artistic integrity, Parker argues: "This was after all a city in which appalling things were shrugged off or regarded as a price worth paying for the improvements political change would supposedly bring."

Isherwood's credo, or confession, of objectivity found its most famous expression in the sentence "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." The detachment seemed to include his references to himself as "Christopher Isherwood" or, in the speech of his German landlady, "Herr Issyvoo." But self-portraiture by Isherwood's camera actually involved a lot of soft light and flattering refraction, and his friend Spender warned him against the airbrushed results: "I can't help protesting against the little comic-cuts Charlie Chaplin figure into which you are getting so adept at turning yourself … You are far more interesting, and rather more sinister in some ways, than you make out." In a 1938 diary Isherwood recognized himself as less a personality than "a chemical compound" whose "'character' is simply a repertoire of acquired tricks [and] conversation a repertoire of adaptations and echoes." He would urge those opening his memoir Lions and Shadows to read it like a novel, and eventually admitted to having used the persona "Christopher Isherwood" so often and so elastically that it began to confuse even him.

It is difficult to say whether all these permutations represented some new height of egocentricity or an attempt at self-annihilation. The author's relationship to his other real-life-based characters seems to have been equally curious. Parker surmises that Isherwood saw both his lovers and his dramatis personae "principally in relation to himself, rather than [as] autonomous beings." He took unusual pains to get the originals to sign off on their imaginary isotopes, seeking the approval of Jean Ross (Sally Bowles), Gerald Hamilton (Mr. Norris), and Lincoln Kirstein (Charles Kennedy in The World in the Evening) before releasing them into print. The effort went well beyond legal caution, as if the subjects' failure to acknowledge and sanction the portraits might make Isherwood doubt the actuality of his sitters.

Only Auden, the novelist believed, understood the real nature of Christopher Isherwood without the quotation marks. Friends since their time together at St. Edmund's School, in the last days of the Great War, the two enjoyed—it seems exactly the right word—an intermittent twelve-year sexual relationship. Isherwood repaid Auden's insights into his character with shrewd, proprietary critiques of Auden's verse. The two collaborated on a series of verse dramas (The Ascent of F6) for the Group Theatre of the 1930s, and on Journey to a War, an account of their travels through China as it fought off Japan. Their sometimes antic tale of air raids and outrageous outfits earned a scolding from the Daily Worker.

This was nothing, however, compared with the contempt excited by their departure for America in January of 1939, a few months after Munich. During the late 1930s Isherwood's life had been held, like most Europeans', in a dangerous diplomatic abeyance (Hitler, he wrote, "is now the Bank manager to all friends, all lovers"), and after drifting from one affair to the next—with a boyfriend of Spender's; a former pupil of his own; a chorus boy of Guy Burgess's—Isherwood caught sight of America as a shiny escape from England's doom. The British papers sneered; Cyril Connolly's Horizon regretted; an MP raised a question in the House of Commons; and Evelyn Waugh plunked Auden and Isherwood, as Parsnip and Pimpernell, into Put Out More Flags. Isherwood tried dressing up his desertion in a lot of Forsterian finery (is it really braver to betray one's country than one's friend?), but he eventually admitted the irresponsibility of his having left.

Still, he had to say that "all turned out for the best." In the years to come his diary would more often refer to the British as "they" than "we"—the Others at last having become just that. To paint the American lily, he settled in California instead of New York, taking out citizenship and taking up yoga. His involvement with Eastern religion, in the form of Vedanta, resulted not so much in the attainment of a higher life as the achievement of a parallel one. His friend the playwright Dodie Smith, like many of Isherwood's readers then and now, could not quite understand his "craving for discipline," as she declared to her diary. "He seems to want to force himself beyond his own inclinations." Actually, the novelist's swami, Prabhavananda, was so reluctant to lose his celebrity disciple that Isherwood was permitted to leap off the various wagons of abstinence whenever he wanted. By 1948 Isherwood estimated that he'd had 400 sexual partners, and throughout the years of Vedanta he continued to make time with young men about as often as he "made japam," the meditative recitation of his customized mantra.

All this took a lot of energy, as did occasional scriptwriting, teaching, and—at the swami's behest—a biography of Ramkrishna. Novels didn't come thick and fast, but a large portion of edgy domestic contentment arrived once Isherwood took up with the artist Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior and a college student when they met, in 1952. (Bachardy looked so much younger still that even Isherwood's friend Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist who pioneered tolerance toward homosexuality, felt scandalized.) The relationship endured, despite spats and sulks and many other lovers for each of them, until Isherwood's death, in 1986. "With love there ought to be a need to worry, every moment," Isherwood said in his later years. "Love isn't an insurance policy. Love is tension."

He did of course have a character, however often he blurred it in fiction, and the elements from which it cohered are given vivid if delayed expression by Parker's huge book. Strong-willed to the point of petulance, inclined to psychic vibes and ghostly "apparitions," Isherwood was above all a tough little narcissist who seems to have profited from Oscar Wilde's prescription for lifelong romance by falling in love with himself—over and over again. The "kind" in his by now famously titled Christopher and His Kind can be read as standing not merely for homosexuals but for homosexuals rather like Christopher. A number of the writer's lovers, Parker says, "would strike Isherwood as just like himself at an earlier age." If Vedanta presented a radical means for unburdening himself of "that old harp, the Ego, darling Me," Isherwood was at bottom frightened of letting all that go.

It's hard to argue in favor of the scale of this book, and hard not to accuse Parker of falling into the biographer's version of the imitative fallacy, by which a lived life seems best replicated in being laid out day by day. The book gets off to an excruciatingly slow start, with inventory substituting for description, and detail for meaning. Every time the reader begins to walk across an apparent narrative fairway, some minor character's CV is there to spring up like a rake handle and thump him on the forehead.

But in a strange defiance of literary physics the enterprise gains pace and pith as it goes along. Like his comic-book namesake, Peter Parker eventually manages to take off his geeky glasses and boldly leap—a life-writing Spider-Man at last!—toward acute inference and surprising judgments. Once Isherwood is in California, the book begins to approximate Parker's insightful (and leaner) 1989 biography of the editor and memoirist J. R. Ackerley. Indeed, Isherwood's Ackerley-like forthrightness about homosexuality—his early courage in refusing to see himself as criminal or crazy—will probably be the lasting basis of his reputation. The film version of Cabaret, derived from his Berlin material, may have brought Isherwood a new readership in the 1970s, but his willingness to serve as what Parker calls "the homosexual movement's favorite uncle" ensured his enshrinement in at least one pantheon, albeit a political rather than a literary one.

He earned his place in it by producing assertively gay books well before Christopher and His Kind, during the 1950s and 1960s. The happy endings (as opposed to the usual punishments and miseries) he insisted on meting out to his gay characters in The World in the Evening (1954) no doubt contributed to that book's bad reviews—as did, by Parker's estimation, its "startlingly dud writing." But ten years later Isherwood tried again, with A Single Man, the unsparing, pissed-off tale of one day in the life of a fifty-eight-year-old gay man named George. Parker does not overestimate this novel when he calls it "Isherwood's most profound and most skillfully written book." Gone was all the crafty preening of earlier Isherwood personae; every card was face up, and the only apologies forthcoming would spring, thank you, from the shamed straight reader.

Presented with a new era's opportunities for candor, Isherwood did not let them go to waste. He had had an object lesson on this score from E. M. Forster, who had shown him the manuscript of Maurice, the older writer's self-suppressed gay novel, as far back as 1933. In the early 1950s Isherwood would suggest changes and the addition of a chapter to the still-hidden book, and two decades after that, in 1971, following Forster's death, he would finally supervise the novel's publication.

A David Hockney painting of Isherwood and Bachardy has achieved "an almost iconic status in the gay world," according to Parker, who nonetheless finds the picture "more subtle and ambiguous" than some interested parties are likely to. He's on to something here, and although the only thing worse than speaking ill of the dead is speaking for them, the portrait inevitably makes one guess at what Isherwood might add these days to our debate over gay marriage. One supposes that he'd be all for its legalization, but one wonders, too, whether this rebel wouldn't also be more than a little skeptical of our kind's headlong rush to the altar, which lies straight down the aisle in the church of the Others.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/01/darling-me/303675/