Christopher Isherwood: A Personal Memoir

Christopher Isherwood: A Personal Memoir by John Lehmann was a Glad Day purchase from thirty years ago which, like Christopher Isherwood I am only getting around to reading now. The author was the managing director of Hogarth Press, the British firm that published Isherwood’s first novels. Lehmann and Isherwood had a professional relationship that lasted over fifty years and this slight book of 142 pages captured their platonic intimacy through correspondence. It was indeed a personal memoir and not an Isherwood biography, and the author did not deal with any part of Isherwood’s life that he did not have any part in.

I had never read Isherwood’s correspondence and I can see how seamlessly his writing style in letters translated to his prose in novels. His wit and personal observations are evident in both. I was able to eavesdrop on two friends who dished, complained, worried, trashed and praised without ever feeling like an unwanted stranger in the room, hence my use of the word “intimacy”. The letters were never long (unless Lehmann edited them for publication, which is likely) and you see the evolution of comfortability in confessions over decades of correspondence.

While Isherwood was based in Berlin, he wrote of Hitler’s rise to power and how it was transforming the world around him. His immediate concern was the fate of his boyfriend Heinz, who as a German was eligible for conscription. The couple travelled throughout Europe on any kind of visa they could get in order to grant Heinz some kind of safe haven. In spite of the dire situation they were in, I had to have a chuckle at one of their considerations:

“Once he had rejoined Heinz in Amsterdam, the great debate about plans for where they were to go next–and for longer and further away–began again. Quito? Tahiti? The Seychelles? Tristan da Cunha?”

These letters shared Isherwood’s insecurities that undoubtedly many writers feel about their work and their ability to create. Isherwood was often self-deprecating to the point where he fulfills the maxim that you are always your own worst critic. After his Berlin stories and two subsequent works of nonfiction, Isherwood returned to the realm of fiction and wrote to Lehmann:

“In a few days I hope to start driving the plough over the terrain for my new novel. I have terrible stage-fright about it but the only thing is to make a start. At all costs, I’m resolved, this time, not to be funny. I don’t care how dreary and boring it is, as long as it isn’t the kind of book anybody could possibly read for pleasure on a train. People resent being amused more than anything, I’ve decided.”

One of the nonfiction books Isherwood was working on at the time was a travelogue to South America, called The Condor and the Cows: A South American Travel-Diary, with photographs by his companion William Caskey. Thirty years ago in my quest to read all of Isherwood’s work, I had the toughest time finding a copy of this book, which most likely had never been reprinted since its publication in 1949. I was delighted to acquire it as an interloan from my library system. It is one of my favourite Isherwood works. The book is often ignored by critics of the Isherwood oeuvre and was given only a mention in the literary encyclopedias my library had at the time. The digital age has given me a wide world of literary sources to find other critics’ opinions of The Condor and the Cows, but nothing they wrote could compare to Isherwood’s own thoughts in his correspondence with Lehmann. Maybe the reason I liked the book so much is because of Isherwood’s honesty: he didn’t like South America and told us so:

“Caskey paints, carpenters, sews and cooks untiringly, and so far we have had only one wild party. I am churning out a travel-book, which is going to be my longest and worst work, I fear. I just can’t do straight journalism, and the truth is that South America bored me, and I am ashamed that it bored me, and I hate it for making me feel ashamed. However, I am determined to go through with it and then get on with the novel, which at least will be an honourable failure.”

The novel Isherwood would eventually write, which he alludes to in both cited passages above, would be The World in the Evening, published in 1954.

Although Isherwood was living his life out of the closet and not keeping his homosexuality a secret from his friends, he still hadn’t acknowledged his gayness professionally. His readers certainly picked up on his violet quill–even I did years before I drew back the rainbow curtain–yet the closest he had come to coming out in public had been to disguise himself as closeted gay characters in his fiction. Thus it wasn’t until 1976 that he finally decided to write about his life as a young gay man living in Berlin. Lehmann wrote:

“He showed me parts of the new book, which indicated that he was at last going to make no bones about his queerness.”

That new book would turn out to be Christopher and his Kind 1929-1939.

Lehmann wrote this charming memoir shortly before he died in 1987. It was a privilege to share fifty years of epistolary intimacy between him and my favourite author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *