By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Photo by Humphrey Spender
"Honestly, I don’t know what to say," says a distressed Don Bachardy. "Chris’ centenary was in August, and the other two volumes of the Diaries were supposed to have been published by then. I don’t know when they’re coming out, and now we have this biography!"
"Chris" is, of course, Christopher Isherwood, the great writer whom the noted portrait artist loved and lived with from 1953 until Isherwood’s death in 1986. And "this biography" is Isherwood: A Life Revealedby Peter Parker, a massive 832-page, 12-years-in-the-making tome intended as a more or less definitive study — but not likely to be so if Bachardy has anything to do with it. The British-born author, who settled in Los Angeles in 1939 not long after his The Berlin Storieswon international fame (and pop-cultural perpetuity via its theatrical adaptations I Am a Cameraand Cabaret), is a figure of continued fascination. And part of that fascination stems from the fact that it was in presumably uncultured L.A. that Isherwood wrote his most important works, Prater Violet, Down There on a Visit, My Guru and His Disciple, Christopher and His Kind and, above all, A Single Man. But the mainstream media, dedicated to the simplistic, have tended to reduce this signal literary figure to a footnote in the career of Liza Minnelli — an impression Isherwood’s Diaries (the first volume of which appeared in 1996) was designed to correct. Meanwhile, the literary "carriage trade" has been little better, regarding Isherwood as British rather than a fully assimilated American. And it’s this aspect of Parker that most riles Bachardy.
"Parker adheres to the ancient British line that nothing Chris wrote was as good after he came here," Bachardy complains, though he fully cooperated with Parker in the research process. "Oh, he chews over a lot of history. But he really wasn’t interested in the California years. And he lied to me. He said that he admired Isherwood so much. [The book] is condescending from beginning to end. He’s a schoolmarm shaking his finger at Chris."
While intimations of Bachardy’s displeasure cropped up in the British press when Life Revealed was published there last spring, this is the first occasion he has been so explicit about his objections — leaving Parker, in popular U.K. parlance, gobsmacked.
"Who is going to spend 12 years of their life working on someone they don’t like?" argues Parker. "When I interviewed Don about his own work, he said, ‘A lot of people look at my pictures and think that they’re cruel, that I’m deliberately trying to hurt people. All I do is I draw what I see. What else can you do?’ And that would be my response to him. We had a contract where I agreed to show him the manuscript before it went to the printers and I agreed to listen to whatever he had to say about it. We got on extremely well. I sent him the typescript in February of 2000, and that’s the last communication I’ve had with him. What I’ve tried to do is present the evidence and let people make up their own minds."
And there’s the rub.
While not designed for readers unfamiliar with Isherwood’s work, Life Revealedisn’t a dust-dry academic exercise. It’s a lively, if complex, read. One may well take issue with Parker’s emphasis on all things English, but the sheer volume of "Isherwoodiana" he provides makes this biography difficult to dismiss in the way Bachardy would like.
As Parker traces Isherwood’s career through cross-Atlantic literary circles that included W.H. Auden, E.M. Forster (who entrusted him with the manuscript of the posthumously published Maurice), W. Somerset Maugham (Isherwood was the model for the spiritually questing hero of The Razor’s Edge), Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann and Gore Vidal (who dedicated Myra Breckinridgeto him), as well as the bohemia whose denizens included Jean Ross (the model for Sally Bowles) and David Hockney, Isherwood emerges as clearly the most fascinating and arguably the most important cultural figure of modern times whose importance continues to grow. And in George W. Bush’s America, whose gay community Isherwood did so much to inspire, a struggle against a powerful coven of "moral" posturers makes his living and working example more vital than ever.
"Nobody sees themselves that clearly when they look in a mirror," Parker says. But in Isherwood’s case, he’s arguably mistaken. Long before Truman Capote claimed to have invented the nonfiction novel, Isherwood’s early works All the Conspirators, The Memorialand Lions and Shadowsfeatured a character called Christopher Isherwood recounting experiences that were clearly autobiographical. By the time The Berlin Storiesappeared, he had become what Gore Vidal called "that rarest of all creatures, the objective narcissist; he sees himself altogether plain and does not hesitate to record for us the lines that the face in the mirror has accumulated, the odd shadow that flaws the character."
Isherwood was at first regarded as an adjunct to Britain’s "bright young things" of the 1920s — an entertaining sybarite. But his decamping to America at the start of World War II marked him as a betrayer of Mother England. "The literary world there has always been stifling," says Bachardy. "It’s tiny and full of backbiters. Everybody knows everybody else, and that’s not a very good atmosphere for a writer." Especially for one who wanted to deal honestly with his gayness. It was a crime in England, and an indulged vice in the Berlin to which he escaped. But then came Adolf Hitler, requiring Isherwood to escape once again.
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