The narrator of Christopher Isherwood’s early novel, GOODBYE TO BERLIN (1945), famously proclaims, “I am a camera.” Thereafter, it has been Isherwood’s literary fate to be equated with that narrator and with that narrative method: the cooly distant observer who objectively records experience, his own and others’, in neat, spare, unrhetorical but effective prose. Like all such literary commonplaces, it captures more than a grain of truth. Certainly the power of his novels resides in this ability to report on sensational or piquant or mysterious events in just such an unostentatious voice. What these diaries make clear is that this directness of expression, the unflinching observation and chronicling of life, was very much a habit of mind, evident in his public as well as in his private writing.

The rewards of this kind of candor are immediately apparent in the earliest entries here: keen-eyed portraits of the Hollywood people he associated with when he arrived in California. There are studio bosses and movies stars, intense ex-patriate intellectuals and casual romantic pick-ups, literary colleagues and spiritual gurus. The descriptions are deft and merciless. Greta Garbo, for instance, is caught repeating “quite irrelevantly,” every one of her famous expressions in the course of a quarter of an hour. It is not for nothing that the diaries could only be published after his death in 1986. Yet one almost wishes that they had been published in a...

(The entire section is 436 words.)