Christopher Isherwood was an English-born novelist, playwright, screen-writer, autobiographer, and diarist. He died at home in Santa Monica, California, on January 4 1986. This interview with Isherwood was done during a rare visit to England. Brendan Lehane, who founded Image Magazine, interviewed him for the Telegraph magazine and it first appeared on August 7 1970.
He was born Christopher Bradshaw-Isherwood – double-barrelled, British, upper middle-class, officer s son, CofE, destined for Repton and Cambridge. Sixty-five years later he is Christopher Isherwood, one barrel down, American citizen, ex-conscientious objector, homosexual, ex-Quaker, proselytiser of Hindu Vedanta; and of course one of the most famous, and most unslottable, of English-speaking novelists.
He does not look as if he had come so far. When I met him, on a visit from his adopted California, he was quiet-spoken, charming, anecdotal, and – in an unobtrusive kind of way – perfectly assured. He could have been 20 years under his 65. His plain blue tie brought out the blue of his eyes, between pointed pixie ears. Hair was side-brushed, boyishly. Only his eyebrows, sprouting bushily upwards, carried the faint trace of Machiavelli. And his neck, in profile, had an unexpected butch thickness.
He answered questions to the point, as if it were a duty – which in a sense it was, seeing that the PR for his new play had arranged the interview.Isherwood thought about each question as if it was a challenge and it was only later, reading interviews of years back, that I saw many of my questions had been commonplace to him. He did not let on. That was partly good manners, on which he prides himself in his books; partly discretion – the new play; partly because “I’m always acting”; and partly because, as all his readers know, he likes to talk about himself.
He began it; and kept it going through 40 years of novels – the quest for Isherwood, the endless dialectic round his own identity. Those who have read his novels have kept up with a serial of self-exploration, and they usually return for the next – for that disingenuous allure and the polite, fluent being who seems to say, conspiratorially. “There; that surprised you? Well listen to the next bit”, and leaves readers thinking that what he reveals he reveals to each one, alone.
The play shortly to open is a stage version of his last novel A Meeting By the River. The novel, unlike most of his, is not in the first person (it takes the form of letters and diary extracts), but closely examines two brothers; and both have something of him in them. One, a perennial quester, has gone to India to become a monk, the other goes out to visit him. This other seems conventional – a prospering publisher, married and with kids, bland, insincere.
He also has a lover – a man in California, who lends him pornography. Both brothers, appearances apart, are out of step with society, a feature they share with their creator. For Isherwood is an exile. Not just territorial, but religious, social and sexual as well. He has made exile something of a fetish.
It has all taken time. Early on, it might have been hard to trace anything more than a leaning towards subversion. His early books and pieces show him pricking the premises and conceits of private schools. Funny, accurate, not very dangerous. By Cambridge he was more in the open, eschewing dons and hearties and most lectures, creating an imaginary world – Mortmere – to escape to. He answered his exams in limericks and blank verse, and was sent down.
Soon he was famous. A novel – All the Conspirators, with an Evil Mother at the core – slumped on the market but made him an idol for a group of his juniors, at Oxford. There the resident genius was Auden who, living in the perpetual winter of his curtained rooms, made poems and pontificated to a small band of aspirant creators, casting them for the Renaissance that would follow their going down. Isherwood was to be The Novelist. He had known Auden since they were fellows at a preparatory school (where Auden, seven, taught his elders about sex). For the Oxford group Isherwood, being outside and above, played God to Auden’s prophet.
The Thirties came, the Pink Decade. Imperial England weighed him down. Isherwood went to Berlin, staying longer than Auden and Spender, and became the “Herr Issyvoo” of Goodbye to Berlin. He taught English and ran out of money alternately. Spender on a visit felt guilty, departing to dine well after horse-flesh and lung soup with his friend. But Isherwood ate lots of iced coffee, sweets and toffee as well, as a gesture against hygiene, of which he and Auden disapproved.
He was a camera, in those days. Sally Bowles, Mr Norris, Frl. Schroeder, jack-booted blondes tanning the backsides of ageing libertines, jack-booted Nazis kneeing Jewish crotches; they all passed near his lens and were caught.
After Berlin – Greece, Portugal, Spain, Norway, and patches of England. More novels followed, and the verse-plays written with Auden, with whom he went to report on the Sino-Japanese War. “We’ll go to China,” they thought, where, unlike the intellectuals crowding into Spain, “we’ll have a war to ourselves.” In this and all else he was different; different enough to rouse debate.
He “held no opinion whatever about anything,” said Auden. “He was wholly and simply interested in people.”
“I am a camera,” Isherwood himself had written, “with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
But Cyril Connolly warned that behind his “fatal readability, so insinuatingly bland and anonymous”, he “secretly despises us”.
Auden persisted: “He simply regards people as material for his work.”
But Spender was more with Connolly: “So far from being the self-effacing spectator he depicts in his novels, he is really the centre of his characters ... His hatred is for English middle-class life.”
Arguments were complex enough to make him a myth, but a myth sculpted and cast in the Thirties so that, although he moved on, and is still alive and well and writing, and writing as well as he ever did, his repute is caught in a pre-war mesh.
Isherwood came back from the Chinese war to find one brewing here. But Chamberlain took Hitler’s love-draught and Isherwood, reassured, went to America and wrote scripts for Hollywood. He moved into a set that included Aldous Huxley, Charlie Chaplin, Anita Loos and Greta Garbo. Huxley, ten years his senior, preached oriental mysticism and introduced him to the Hindu swamis of Los Angeles. “At first”, Isherwood says, “I didn’t buy any of it.” But Auden had prophesied: “Christopher, you’re going to have such a conversion one of these days.” It happened, but surprised Auden too.Isherwood went spiritually oriental and since then has written several books explaining the Vedanta – Hindu scriptures – to the West.
California suited him because “everyone was from somewhere else, everyone was a foreigner; so being a foreigner didn’t matter”. Hinduism suited him because he had God sanctimony-free.
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