‘The Sixties: Diaries:1960-1969’ by Christopher Isherwood

Gertrude Stein said, “A diary means yes indeed.” That’s the same unrestrained affirmation Christopher Isherwood brought to his life as captured in his diaries The Sixties: Diaries:1960-1969 skillfully edited by novelist Katherine Bucknell, editor of all three volumes of Isherwood’s diaries, as well as his memoir, Lost Years. Christopher Hitchens wrote the Vol. 2 Foreword.

Involved in Isherwood studies for nearly 20 years, Bucknell has written useful introductions to both volumes, and gives readers a chronology and name glossaries as interesting as the diaries themselves.

Author of more than 20 books, including his best-known work “Goodbye to Berlin,” developed into the musical “Cabaret” (he skipped the Broadway opening) and later as a film winning eight Academy Awards, Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) emigrated to the US in 1939 with W. H. Auden. He settled in Santa Monica, later writing in his dia, “California is a tragic country – like Palestine, like every Promised Land.”

In Vol. 1, Isherwood works as a Hollywood screenwriter, cultivates pacifism, and makes friends with Garbo, Chaplin, E. M. Forster, Tennessee Williams, David O. Selznick, and Igor Stravinsky. His diaries record his lifelong relationship with American portrait artist Don Bachardy, 18 when he met 48-year-old Isherwood on the beaches of Malibu, a relationship incinerated into being Feb. 14, 1953. A number of paperback editions of Isherwood’s novels feature Bachardy’s pencil portraits of the author. A film about their relationship, Chris & Don: A Love Story, was released in 2008.

Vol. 2 reveals a different Isherwood. As the 60s dawn and he nears his 56th birthday, he completes his seventh novel, Down There on a Visit. Like the decade itself, his life swirls in turmoil and self-discovery. In the pit of his simmering soul two tumultuous relationships stay on low boil, splashing over as life unfolds: Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, through whom he sought insight, and Bachardy, searching for his own artistic identity while sleeping with, among others, a literary giant his father’s age. Isherwood muses on space travel, mini skirts, the Afro, the Kennedy-Nixon election, Hippies, and America’s declining cities.

Crammed with wicked gossip and probing insights about cultural icons Richard Burton, Marianne Faithfull, David Hockney, Mick Jagger, Somerset Maugham, Vanessa Redgrave, Gore Vidal, hordes of others, Isherwood’s words display probing insights.

Last year’s film release of his novel steered the Klieg lights back toward his life. Isherwood’s thoughts about these luminaries reflect the same ordinariness Edmund White noted in an LLF interview. White remarked, “…you have to wait until you get to A Single Man before a reader can find a picture of a guy that is just a guy. There’s no one who’s gay, no ideology, you don’t know how he came to be that way.” And therein is one potential crossroads with Isherwood’s personal and artistic life. His on/off age-spanning relationship with Bachardy simmered, boiled over, and cooled down time and again. The same ambivalence, punctuated with real fears of living alone, that movie lovers saw on the big screen where in many ways identical fears, collisions of the heart, and mitigating circumstances Isherwood strove to understand through Swami Prabhavananda. He tried to calm his life’s clamor with an authenticity he hope to perfect through Hindu practices. He wanted to undecorate his otherwise colorful life.

“Imagine the life they led, Bachardy seeing all these famous people, he so young and wanting, needing to establish himself among them,” Bucknell tells LLF. “The diaries essentially cover the 20th century in all its aspects through the coming and goings of a truly creative household,” she said. Much of what his diaries show in himself and friends underscores his delight with the ridiculous aspects of everyday life. As Bucknell notes in her Vol. 2 introduction, Susan Sontag wrote “Camp sees everything in quotes.” Isherwood saw camp in life and put quotes around it in his diaries.

Unadorned portrayals, the sober honesty he chased in his own life, may have taken root in his early relationship with his mother Kathleen. At age 6, she had him dictate “The History of My Friends” while she wrote it all down. By 13, he was writing a diary page daily. Later he writes, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Flexing his writer’s muscle early may explain Isherwood’s clarity of mind, stunning mastery of syntax, precise diction. In more than 1 million diary words, only a few are ever altered. His camera eye honors the dictum: show, don’t tell. Perhaps an Isherwood diary entry says it best: One should never write down or up to people, but out of yourself. Vol. III is expected out by May 2011.
Diaries: 1960-1969