Thursday, November 27, 2008

Isherwood giving thanks

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Exactly 50 years ago, the British-born writer, Christopher Isherwood, who had taken American citizenship by then, wrote in his diary about being thankful - thankful for being alive, having just crashed a car while drunk; and thankful for the sweetness of Don, his partner of five years, a young man all of 30 years his junior.

Isherwood was born in Cheshire, UK, the son of an army officer killed in the First World War. He studied at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. Thereafter, he earned a living as a private tutor. His first novel, All the Conspirators, was published in 1928. He spent several years teaching in Germany, a period which provided the material for his best-known novels, such as Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. During the 1930s, Isherwood collaborated with an old school friend, W H Auden, in three verse dramas. In 1938, the two of them went to China and jointly published Journey to a War.

From 1939, Isherwood settled in California, still working as a teacher but also as a script writer for Hollywood films. The Second World War inspired him to become a pacifist, and during the conflict, he worked at a Quaker hostel with refugees from Europe. He also began to follow the religious philosophy of Vedãnta, and write tracts. Several other novels followed, although Isherwood was never prolific. In 1953, he met and fell in love with a teenager, Don Bachardy, 30 years his junior, who would become an artist, and with whom he would have a relationship for the rest of his life. From 1959 to 1966, Isherwood taught at various US universities. By the 1970s, partly because of his autobiographical novels, he had become a leading spokesman for gay rights. He died in 1986.

Isherwood’s first diary dates back to 1949, and was published by Random House: The Condor and the Cows: A South American Travel-Diary. It tells of a journey Isherwood undertook with his lover Bill Caskey, at the behest of RandoM House, during 1947 through Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. University of Minnesota Press brought out a new edition in 2003 which includes additional photographs by Caskey and a new foreword by Jeffrey Meyers. The diary is said to be ‘unsentimental, rich, and wonderfully rendered’ - see However, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities (RALPH), finds nothing commendable about the book: Isherwood was ‘too lazy to make the most of what could have been a true adventure into the depths of South America’, and his writing was ‘by rote - I did this, I saw that’.

A first and very substantial edition (over 1,000 pages) of Isherwood’s main diaries were not published until 10 years after his death, in 1996 - Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960 - by HarperCollins and Methuen. The promotional material on says that Isherwood ‘put at least as much of his genius in his diaries as he did in his writings intended for immediate publication’, and that the diaries ‘are beautifully written, gossipy, and indispensable for anyone who cares about writing, the creative process, and gay history’. There appears to be no sign yet of a second volume.

Wikipedia and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation website provide biographies of Isherwood, and The Diary Junction gives a few links to online information about, and quotes from, his diaries. But here, to coincide with Thanksgiving Day in the US, is an extract (taken from Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960) dated exactly 50 years ago today.

27 November 1958
‘What I chiefly have to give thanks for, this Thanksgiving, is that I’m still alive. The night before yesterday, bored after a long, long evening . . , and somewhat though not really drunk, I fell asleep at the wheel driving home and ran smash into a parked car. I guess I was knocked out. I remember nothing - until there was this very furious man, the owner of the parked car, yelling at me that he’d like to bash me to pulp - ‘And I’d do it too,’ he said, ‘if you hadn’t got blood on your face already.’ I had, as a matter of fact, hit the steering wheel, which was twisted up, cut myself between the eyes, bruised both eyes, maybe broken my nose, cut one knee and maybe hurt some ribs. The furious man . . . was eagerly expecting my arrest on a drunk, driving charge. But the police were very nice and sent me home in a taxi after I’d been fixed up at an emergency dressing station.

The other think to be thankful for is that Don and I have finished the rough draft of our play The Monsters, also the day before yesterday. We are cautiously starting the rewrite.
Don has hit a new high of sweetness. He is very happy about the play.’

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