Christopher Isherwood

My favourite fiction author is Christopher Isherwood. Thirty years ago I read his entire fiction oeuvre, which comprises nine novels. Although I didn’t write regular book reviews at that time, I did keep a daily diary, which is full of a succession of entries where I recorded the latest Isherwood novel I had just read. I acquired all nine of his novels (and some of his nonfiction) as library discards, from second-hand bookstores or at downtown Toronto remainders pop-ups. I also amassed a small collection of six Isherwood biographies and literary criticism exclusively from Glad Day Bookshop, which used to be located on the second floor just north of Wellesley on the west side of Yonge. The poison of personal procrastination permeated these nonfiction works and as I look at my full bookshelf housing my Isherwood collection, I can remark that after thirty years and three different homes, I still hadn’t read everything. Books by Isherwood = all read.

Books about Isherwood? None read. And so three decades later I started with the slimmest volume, Christopher Isherwood by Claude J. Summers. (Whenever I have multiple books on the same subject, I always start with the slightest work first then make my way up to the largest.) This work of 176 pages was a hardcover of pocketbook size, published in 1980, thus when Isherwood was still living. After a short biography as the first chapter, Summers analyzed all of Isherwood’s works in chronological order, with works of fiction profiled first. I was taken back thirty years as I read these critiques, and recalled some plots whereas I had forgotten others. Enough time has passed to influence me to reread all his novels in chronological order (I had started reading them out of order with the Berlin stories first) but this time with the wisdom of a quinquagenarian gay sensibility. I will admit that I was not a naïve reader when I first embarked on the Isherwood oeuvre while in my early twenties. I could read between the lines and pick up on the violet quill but I am curious if thirty years of out queer life may have changed my perspective. Will I find Isherwood’s closet-case protagonists as pathetic figures? Would I find his novels quaint period pieces? Would forty-one years since the publication of the Summers book, which was post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS, alter my opinion of his reviews?

Summers established a common theme throughout all of Isherwood’s work: that of the struggle between the Truly Strong Man and the Truly Weak Man, and the Evil Mother that lurks behind them. As all of Isherwood’s novels were in some degree autobiographical I can see parallels within his own life, especially how he was affected by losing his father during the Great War. Being fatherless–a classic condition in influencing boys towards homosexuality, as I do not believe that anyone is born gay–is seen in the insecurities of Isherwood’s protagonists, even those who are middle-aged. Isherwood himself didn’t break out of his own closet and come out publicly until he had reached the age of seventy.

For me, Christopher Isherwood served as a tentative yet respectable introduction to the world of lavender letters, all the while allowing me to choose to come out when I was ready. I did not need a radical liberator yanking me out of the closet telling me what to think or read. With my five other books on the author, I am now interested in reading what Isherwood’s contemporaries wrote about him, and what Isherwood wrote of himself in his last, truly liberated (yet revisionist) autobiography.

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