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Excess Baggage—The Voluminous Diaries of Christopher Isherwood

I AM A camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” says the willfully neutral narrator of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. “Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” Just so, but it had to be cut and collated too, as the rest of Herr Issyvoo’s tightly structured masterpiece went on to demonstrate. Indeed, what genius Isherwood had was a genius for brevity. His best novels are all short—and made up of short, almost tabloid-style sentences and paragraphs to boot. The three “Berlin books” that document the rise of Hitler—and inspired Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret—total fewer than 400 pages. Prater Violet and A Single Man are slimmer still. True, Down There on a Visit is sometimes more than 350 pages long, but that book is less a novel than a collection of novellas. Unlike so many authors, Isherwood never believed the width of a book’s spine reflected the weight of its thought.

Meanwhile, here comes Liberation, the third volume of in this series of Isherwood’s posthumously published diaries. Two inches thick and close on 350,000 words long, it burdens the shelf already straining under the cumulative weight of its predecessors with another three pounds or. It is no insult to the effort Katherine Bucknell has put into sorting and assembling these 3,200-plus pages of mundane anecdote and suburban tedium to ask whether one slimmer book might not have sufficed. Isherwood obsessives might delight in the quotidian minutiae served up here; the rest of us can be forgiven for wondering whether hard covers are due every incontinent word that spills from an author’s pen.

Do we really need to know quite so much about Isherwood’s weight worries? In April 1970, he records “a severe shock on the scales this morning; I weighed nearly 160!” And though a couple of days later he’s managed to shed a little he’s adamant that he’s “still grossly overweight, about 158,” and therefore “ought not to eat starches or drink alcoholic drinks.” And so to the gym, where come October he’s down to “just a bit over 147.” Alas, a year later he’s distraught at having put a few pounds back on, having “set my heart on getting down below 145 for my birthday.” Oh, dear. Because despite Isherwood’s suggestion that “no one […] cares, within reason, how I look,” the fifty-odd entries on the matter of his weight suggest that he cares rather a lot.

If only he’d cared as much about his work. That way we might have had more books as vital and lucid as his All the Conspirators and Mr. Norris Changes Trains and rather less of this tedium about nosebleeds, sore toes, and “severe twinges in the upper buttock” following an over-vigorous jog. When Isherwood does get round to mentioning his writing in this volume, it is only regarding his screenplay for Frankenstein: The True Story, a big, moneyed but risibly sentimental TV movie that owes less to Mary Shelley than it does to Hammer horror.

Not, the diaries unconsciously make clear, that that project was an entirely impersonal one for Isherwood. The script’s startlingly misogynistic take on the tale—the villain of the piece is neither the monster nor his creator, but Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth—looks a lot less startling in the context of Isherwood’s more private musings. Women horrified him. A Freudian would have a field day with the gaudy gynophobia that’s on display here. As readers of his earlier diaries will know, Isherwood detested his mother—the “matriarch cunt”—with a vengeance. But in these, his twilight years, he saw instances of such, ahem, motherly malevolence everywhere he looked—and Liberation brims with his responses to them.

After his partner, Don Bachardy, endures a turbulent flight home to Santa Monica, Isherwood notes that things were made “all the more sinister because the cunty stewardess had just caused a drunk passenger to be removed from the plane right before takeoff.” Opening John Lahr’s biography of Joe Orton he is put in “a ready-to-become-hostile mood” simply because in the foreword Lahr thanks his wife Anthea for her “insight into the neurotic patterns of Orton.” “So,” growls Isherwood, “we are to bow to the authority of this cunt. Well, we’ll see.”

Nor does he bow to friends any more graciously. Michael York’s wife, the photographer Patricia McCallum, is a “silly pretentious cunt.” Dodie Smith is all right in herself, but her novel A Tale of Two Families is “so pleased with itself, so fucking smug, so snugly cunty.” It is, Isherwood says, mere “magazine writing […] the art of women who are delighted with themselves, who indulge themselves and who patronize their men.” There is, it seems, only one female in the world who is “sweet and uncunty.” She is called Vera Fike, and is, perhaps not insignificantly, Isherwood’s maid.

In the first volume of these diaries, Isherwood related with a kind of gleeful pride how Auden had once “almost admiringly” told him “that I was the cruellest and most unscrupulous person he had ever met.” Auden, who was far from well-behaved himself, knew of what he spoke. Indeed, the Isherwood of Liberation is so snidely self-regarding, so casually cutting, that it is hard to credit anyone believes this stuff belongs in the public realm. Couldn’t the entry on Auden’s death, for instance, have been cut? It’s one thing to read about Isherwood’s weeping over the fact that his friend “didn’t get the Nobel Prize, after all”; quite another to be told—in the very next breath—that our dear diddums of a diarist is suffering with a sore throat. But like life, death didn’t bring out the best in Isherwood. “I am glad that Chester [Kallman] is dead,” he writes in January 1975. After all, Auden’s lover “might just possibly have made difficulties for me, out of mere meanness, when the time came for me to ask permission to include some of Wystan’s lines in my book.” Not that his feelings were entirely selfish: Kallman “was obviously terribly unhappy—partly no doubt because of typical Jewish guilt feelings about his behavior to Wystan.”

That “typical,” by the way, is typical. In Goodbye to Berlin, Sally Bowles complains about the gropings she has to endure from some “awful old Jew” in the movie business. (By 1972, when the movie business proper restaged the scene, he’d become simply a “ghastly old producer.”) Isherwood, these diaries show, was no less prejudiced. Peter Brook is “a showy Jewish ass.” Elliott Gould is a “loathsome slob-Jew.” Olympic champion Mark Spitz is “a gloomy pretentious self-satisfied Jewish drear, with unsexy legs.” As for writers, Philip Roth’s The Breast is “so Jewish in its boring gallows humor and its delight in misfortune,” while Irwin Shaw “has turned into the usual type of heavy-duty huffing and puffing Jewish writer, oracular but unsure of himself, and expecting a pogrom to start any minute.” Can’t think why, Herr Issyvoo…

Reviewing the second installment of these diaries in The New York Times, Edmund White suggested Isherwood’s worst fault was his “casual anti-Semitism.” There was nothing casual about it, though, as White now realizes. In the Preface to the present volume, he writes that Isherwood was “seriously anti-Semitic,” a charge made all the worse by dint of Isherwood’s having “lived in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s [when he] witnessed directly the appalling effect of the Nazis on the lives of his Jewish friends.” Indeed, Liberation is so frequently vile that it tarnishes thoughts of the books that made Isherwood’s name. Who, having worked their way through these diaries, will be able to read Mr. Norris Changes Trains or Sally Bowles without wondering how genuinely neutral their narrator is, how easily he might have become complicit in the horrors he delineates?

White is wide of the mark, though, when he suggests that Isherwood “knew perfectly well that every word he wrote, even in these journals, would eventually be published.” Bluntly, no stylist so succinct could want prose this windy made widely available. A few comic moments of gawping desire aside (“despite the extreme longness and badness of the film we saw him in last night” the extreme shortness of Michael York’s shorts “kept me sufficiently stimulated throughout”), the only time Isherwood’s prose comes to life in Liberation is during the downfall of Richard Nixon. “He talked as though his resignation was a big patriotic act of self-sacrifice—of ‘binding up this country’s wounds.’ But he is The Wound. And he is being nicely dressed and bandaged by being given huge sums of money every year for the rest of his life, at the cost of the taxpayers.”

Isolating the personal within the political was the talent that made Isherwood famous, of course, which makes it all the more painful to have to point out the dearth of such insights in these diaries. “I am utterly utterly bored by myself as a party celebrity,” Isherwood writes in 1980. “I don’t want to hear what I am about to say—and neither do most of the people I’m about to say it to.” Would that his publishers had listened.

Christopher Bray is the biographer of Michael Caine and Sean Connery. He is at work on a history of British cultural change in the sixties.