Magazine article The Spectator

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Magazine article The Spectator

Photo Finish

Article excerpt

Liberation: Diaries, Volume III, 1970-1983 by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell Chatto, £30, pp. 875, ISBN 9780701184490 Christopher Isherwood kept diaries almost all his life. The first extant one dates from 1917, when he was 12, and like most schoolboys he used it more to measure than record his days: 'Work in morning, walk in afternoon. In choir. More work. Nothing special.' At Cambridge, however, inspired by the W.N.P. Barbellion's The Journal of a Disappointed Man, he began keeping a more detailed and reflective record of his experiences. Fragmentary diaries survive from the years 1928 to 1938, but the four volumes of Isherwood's published diaries begin with his arrival in America in January 1939 and end in 1983, three years before his death. One volume, 'reconstructed' by Isherwood from pocket diaries, because he failed to keep a proper journal between 1945 and 1951, was published as Lost Years: A Memoir.

The decision to publish these diaries in full was taken by his partner of 33 years, Don Bachardy, who began reading them the day Isherwood died and 'wanted to share the experience I'd had with others'. This has resulted in more than 3,000 printed pages, meticulously and lovingly edited by Katherine Bucknell. Given that Bucknell embarked on this project back in 1989, the title of this final volume has a personal resonance - as the funny and touching envoi in her acknowledgements suggests. The title principally, however, defines a period in which Isherwood became a sort of honorary uncle to the gay liberation movement and was able at last to write freely about his own homosexuality.

The 1960s had proved a difficult decade for Isherwood and Bachardy, one in which their relationship had undergone a series of crises. While these are not entirely resolved (Isherwood is still fretting about someone with whom Bachardy had a serious affair in London), the 1970s inaugurate a period of comparative calm. Isherwood had published his final novel, A Meeting by the River, in 1967, but at 65 he remained intellectually and physically active, working equally hard at his desk and in the gym.

Deciding to revisit the past, which had already supplied much of the material for his novels, he started work on what amounted to a non-fiction trilogy: Kathleen and Frank, about his parents and his early childhood; Christopher and His Kind, about his peripatetic life during the 1930s; and My Guru and His Disciple, about his relationship with Swami Prabhavananda. A fourth volume, about his time in California, was falteringly started but never completed, and these diaries often find him thinking aloud about his books.

He was also collaborating with Bachardy on a number of plays and film scripts. As Bucknell notes, the fact that many of these projects failed to find producers or backers, or fared badly when they did (their stage adaptation of A Meeting by the River being a notable Broadway flop) was less important than Isherwood's pleasure in the act of creative collaboration with Bachardy. In addition, Isherwood's accounts of crass producers, inept directors and inadequate actors provide the diarist with a good deal of scarifying and entertaining material.

Barbellion was a naturalist and what his brother wrote about him might equally apply to Isherwood:

Barbellion was intensely interested in himself, but he was also intensely interested in other people. …

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