The narrator of Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel, Goodbye to Berlin, famously proclaims, “I am a camera.” Thereafter it has been Isherwood’s literary fate to be equated with that narrator and with that method: the coolly distant observer who objectively records experience, his own and others’, in neat, spare, unrhetorical but effective prose. Like all such broad critical commonplaces, it is unfairly reductive, and yet it manages to capture more than a little of the truth as well. Certainly Isherwood’s best writing has exactly this quality of keenly focused, mercilessly accurate representation of incident, character, scene. Whether in the memorable early novels and stories of the 1930’s, full of idiosyncratic personalities and complex social politics, or in a later novel such as A Single Man (1964), a much less populated canvas though no less richly rendered, Isherwood is able to report on the piquant or sensational or mysterious in just such a detached, unobtrusive voice. What these diaries make clear is that this directness of expression, this unflinching examination of the life around him, very much reflects a habit of mind, evident in his public as well as in his personal writing.
The diaries collected here represent all of Isherwood’s private writing from the eve of his journey to America in 1939 up until the time he abandoned handwritten entries for typed ones in August of 1960. Yet as Katherine Bucknell, the splendidly indefatigable editor of the volume, remarks in her helpful introduction, Isherwood had been recording his life long before his departure from England. Although they have not survived, diaries he began at age four with the aid of his mother attest his lifelong obsession with the passage of time and what Bucknell calls his puritanical need to account for himself, to prove that he was not wasting his life, that he was paying attention.
One suspects that she is right to attribute this lava flow of prose over sixty-odd years to his perennial battle against the puritanism of his youth. His flight from the repressive brand of Protestantism he knew at home had the potential to lead to a saint’s renunciation or a sinner’s indulgence; indeed, one of the recurrent themes of the story these diaries tell is of this struggle between the need for a disciplined life of spiritual growth and the desire for a materialistic existence of sensory pleasure, between the solitary life of meditation, writing, and soul work and the glittering, densely packed social life of a successful Hollywood screenwriter and personality. There are periods of months or even years when Isherwood recoils from the churning world of mammon and lives, celibate as a monk, in one of the Vedanta Society’s temples or retreats. There are also spells (one such, from 1945 to late 1947) when he throws himself giddily, if not quite happily, into the social stream, drinking too much, smoking too much, sailing through the melodrama of doomed romances and casual sex without taking the time to reflect on what it all means, and certainly without taking the time to record it all in a diary.
Those are the extremes, but they do highlight a pattern of conflict and contradiction. The bursts of hedonism and subsequent bouts of self-flagellation over such spiritual backsliding were regular events, and as unsettling to read about as they clearly were for Isherwood to experience. Yet it can all seem pretty theatrical at times, as if he is enjoying just a hair too much the act of penance, the litany of sins and failings he carefully inscribes in his diary. Nevertheless, out of this extravagant self- scrutiny comes a clarity about what will constitute a meaningful life, a life that serves others and fulfills the self. He wants a balance: not, finally, renunciation of the world but a dedication to what Gerald Heard, one of his earliest religious influences, called “intentional living.”
It was Heard, another of the British expatriates living in Southern California in the late 1930’s, who first introduced Isherwood to Swami Prabhavananda, the Hindu monk who had founded the Vedanta Society of Los Angeles and who became Isherwood’s spiritual guide for the next forty years. There was something immensely attractive about the swami and about the Vedanta philosophy he powerfully but unostentatiously embodied. Isherwood fell under the spell immediately, as he would later write in My Guru and His Disciple (1980), and spent the next decades of his life trying to contain—or as he says “smash”—the ego, freeing it from its attachments so that the individual might realize its true nature, its true oneness with the final reality. This would turn out to be hard work indeed.
A rebel at the University of Cambridge, a pacifist at the beginning of World War II, an openly gay Englishman, and a socialist who largely exiled himself from England and its sexual and political orthodoxies, Isherwood had achieved a considerable reputation among the up-and-coming generation of writers...
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