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- Mad about the boy

THE SIXTIES: DIARIES, VOLUME II, 1960-1969, By Christopher Isherwood, Chatto & Windus, $39.99

The dust jacket of the 1962 British edition of Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit — his best novel so far, according to Auden — shows three different, but instantly recognizable, figures drawn in black. On the front cover looms a sprucely middle-aged Isherwood holding a valise that, even in the early Sixties, would have looked antique Berlin. He stands in a Dorian-Gray-like posture, grimly looking at himself in an oval mirror. But what the mirror throws back at him is a younger, leaner self, with one brow arched, as if to keep the signature thatch of cropped-floppy hair from getting into the eye that holds the reader to its famously camera-like gaze. The back cover shows the Author, casual in his established middle years, hands in trouser pockets and head turned away from the reader to look out at the world with unhoping, but not hopeless, clarity. This, the caption declares, is “CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD/ drawn by Don Bachardy/ Autumn 1961”. Bachardy’s signature is also on the front cover; he has designed the jacket.

“I’m sure the mirror idea is good,” writes Isherwood, then 57, in his diary on August 4, 1961, “but making the faces look like me makes the whole thing somehow indiscreet.” Thirty years younger, and Isherwood’s lover and companion since 1953, Bachardy had his own complicated reasons for feeling “dubious” about the cover. It certainly would help him in his struggle to set himself up as an artist in his own right. But does he want that? So, his jacket both celebrates and undercuts the game of hide-and-seek that authorial vanity plays with the elusiveness of fiction in this novel of diffracted identities. In Isherwood’s diaries of the Hollywood Sixties — a brilliantly etched record of a legendary writer living out a legendary decade in a legendary setting — his scandalously younger lover becomes a cruel-kind mirror, which confronts the writer with a self that is at once his own and not his own. The story of this most difficult of loves — slowly but surely becoming the gem-like core of a life of compulsively-multiple loving — is the great gift of this volume. Katherine Bucknell, with two earlier volumes and Auden’s juvenilia behind her, is a remarkably intuitive editor, who avoids fag-haggery in spite of her long and committed relationship with the boys.

Bucknell not only rescues ‘Chris & Don’ from pink sentimentality, but also helps the reader to see how their shared lives run into, or parallel to, the other unfoldings in the diaries. First, the life of writing. Apart from Down There on a Visit, Isherwood’s work of the Sixties includes A Single Man, his first explicitly homosexual novel; the Ramakrishna biography, a labour of love watched over by the Order; its mischievous fictional twin, A Meeting by the River; and Kathleen and Frank, an “archaeological excavation” into himself through the lives of his parents, exhumed from their diaries and letters. Second, the forging of a spiritual life through rigorous japam and devotion to Swami Prabhavananda, his Indian guru and founder of the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. It was a convergence of sacred and profane that became the other, equally muddled and rebellion-prone, side of Christopher’s soul-making with Don, as turbulent and full of intimate comedy. Together, the lover and the swami kept Isherwood in love and out of “respectability”, the “advertisement life” of bourgeois heterosexuality that made up the “California horror”. Third, the draining but irresistible life of friendships and sociability of a writer and an artist as they become icons among the icons: Igor (Stravinsky) and Vera, Wystan (Auden) and Chester, Gore (Vidal) and Howard, Tennessee (Williams) and Frank, Aldous (Huxley) and Laura, Charles (Laughton) and Elsa. Meanwhile, the wars got colder, a wall came up in Berlin, Cuba got missiles, flowers got power, Vietnam burned, Marilyn quit and Warhol brought her back, Gagarin flew into space, a president was shot, and Antonioni made Blow-up.

As Christopher’s celebrity friends sit for Don’s portraits, soon to hang alongside those made by Hockney and Bacon in the richest homes and museums of California or London, Don’s youthful “declarations of independence” — his attempts to make a life apart from, yet closer to, Christopher’s — become the abiding subject of the older man’s diary-keeping: “Right now, Don is drawing Wystan, who keeps talking to me as I write: Falstaff and Don Quixote are the only satisfactory saints in literature, etc. etc. Relations with Don are a shade better, but I think he would like me to go away for quite a bit of the time between now and his show, when he needs my moral support. It’s the old story: he can’t have any friends of his own as long as I am around, because, even if he finds them they take more interest in me as soon as we meet.” “I am not going to comment on any of this, for the present,” Isherwood continues in a June 1961 entry, “I shall try to abstain from philosophizing and analysis, and stick to phenomena, things done and said, symptoms.”

‘Symptoms’ already hints at what would end up being the diaries’ toughest subject. As, one by one, in a slow-motion danse macabre, his friends fall to what invariably turns out to be cancer, terror of the disease erupting in himself compels a bodily alertness in Christopher that far surpasses the pull of vanity drawing him to the mirror: “A mysterious swelling on the middle joint of the small finger of my left hand. A tumour, seemingly, quite hard and without feeling.” During his stay in England in 1966, on a trip to Cambridge to visit E.M. Forster, then 87, Isherwood is overpowered by “a sense of death”: “What seemed so terrible was that the buildings of King’s hadn’t changed at all. They were like merciless instruments which had whittled away at us human beings and worn us out. We had rubbed off our youth on them. Morgan was so gentle and faint and humble; thanking me for coming to see him until I wanted to weep. And looking down from his window through the yellow afternoon murk, I saw an undergraduate throwing up a bowler hat and another undergraduate trying to hit it with cracks of a long bullwhip — and it seemed that they, too, had only an instant in which to be young.”

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