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Christopher and His Diaries : CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD DIARIES; Volume I: 1939-1960. Edited & introduced by Katherine Bucknell . Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins: 1,014 pp., $40

February 02, 1997|RICHARD HOWARD | Richard Howard is a poet, translator and critic. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Houston

"Except for Isherwood, I can think of no contemporary literary figure who has kept, for most of a lifetime, a journal." In that aside 15 years ago, Gore Vidal revealed the existence of this book, of which the first installment, superbly introduced, edited and annotated by Katherine Bucknell, offers an enormous and exhaustive articulation of a life already much chronicled, mined out to display one of the most eloquent and attentive specimens in our modern menagerie harboring what Vidal again (who better?) calls "that rarest of creatures, the objective narcissist."

Of course many of Isherwood's fictions have assumed, all along, the form of a diary, an assiduous record of what he classified, 20 years ago, as "Christopher and His Kind":

"The reason for this [fascination with movies] had, I think, very little to do with 'Art' at all; I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people--their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks. . . . The cinema puts people under a microscope: You can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects."

Surely this is a remarkably enlightened narcissism, which concedes so much of the stage to other people, even if they are scrutinized as so many bugs! But such fictions as "Prater Violet" and "A Single Man" have been cunningly shaped and focused, fashioned into crystalline structures out of the magma of a mere existence here exposed, often in obsequious detail and obsessive repetition, between Isherwood's arrival in Hollywood in 1939 (when he gets his quota visa for U.S. residency, writes his first movie and begins instruction in Vedanta) and 1960 (when his mother dies and, at the age of 56, he completes his last handwritten diary as well as the novel I regard as his masterpiece, "Down There on a Visit"). The diary is certainly a compelling document, at least in its initial decades (see accompanying extracts), with wonderful first glimpses of what is to become the "Supporting Cast." Here are two from that first year:

"Dinner with Lincoln [Kirstein], that somber, electric creature. In his blue pea-jacket, he looks like a mad clipper captain out of Melville. His hair is cropped like a convict's, and his eyes, behind austere tin spectacles, seem to be examining you through a microscope. I call him Jean Valjean."

Hardly surprising if Isherwood is sensitive to that same intense scrutiny he has made his own, but how just and how illuminating the analogies to Melville and to Hugo's convict: Isherwood is never a critic but always a wonderful reader, even of the classics of his new country. The examination is enlarged when he meets the "Enigma of Hollywood" and shows us how the microscope becomes the method of a master:

" 'You know,' I announced solemnly, 'I really wish you weren't Garbo. I like you. I think we could have been great friends.' At this Garbo let out a mocking, Mata Hari laugh: 'But we are friends! You are my dear little brother. All of you are my dear little brothers.' 'Oh, shut up!' I exclaimed, enormously flattered. I suppose everybody who meets Garbo dreams of saving her--either from herself, or from MGM, or from some friend or lover. And she always eludes them by going into an act. This is what has made her a universal figure. She is the woman whose life everyone wants to interfere with."

The acuteness of these perceptions is not blurred by the good nature of the attention, nor is the good nature diluted by the startling recognitions, even when the "subjects" are the very great, such as Stravinsky or, more professionally, Thomas Mann:

"Mann died last Friday--tidily, as he did everything. There was a greatness in his dry neatness, and I must say I think of him with real love. He was somehow very supporting--not because of his great gestures, his public self-questionings. No, he was lovable in a tiny, cozy way--he was kind, he was genuinely interested in other people, he kept cheerful, he was gossipy, he was quite brave--he had the virtues of a truly admirable nursery governess."

Alas, the diary settles into a very different kind of observation by the time Isherwood has become a sort of Hollywood institution, a resident alien much more grounded, so to speak, in Santa Monica than Aldous Huxley or Gerald Heard (Isherwood is happily at home in the landscape and weather of Southern California), anxiously caring for (and being cared for by) a much younger lover, yielding his yeoman inheritance to an alcoholic brother, nursing what appears to be a pretty vigorous case of alcoholism (and consequent writer's block), fretting over the institutional infighting that is probably not peculiar to the Hollywood chapter of Vedanta (Isherwood is not a religious man; he is a diligent disciple of his guru).

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