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The Lay of the Land

LOST YEARS A Memoir 1945-1951 By Christopher Isherwood Edited by Katherine Bucknell; HarperCollins: 388 pp., $26

October 01, 2000|JOHN RECHY | John Rechy is the author of numerous books, including "City of Night" and "The Coming of the Night." He is completing his 13th novel, "The Naked Cowboy."

When Christopher Isherwood died in 1986, his literary reputation seemed solid. He had written several fine books, including "Prater Violet" and "The Berlin Stories," that revealed him to be a masterful stylist. His novel "A Single Man" was that rarity in literature, a perfect work, every word exact: a wise, sad and funny novel.

Isherwood's life was marked by controversy: his fleeing London on the eve of World War II; his avoiding conscription into the U.S. Army by assuming conscientious-objector status after he became an American citizen; his association with the mystic spiritualism of the Vedanta Society, on and off intending to become a monk; his affairs with very young men and his intimations of anti-Semitism. Now, the publication of "Lost Years," which follows his "Diaries: 1939-1960" (which appeared posthumously several years ago), may further challenge his reputation.

In 1971, during an arid creative period, Isherwood began this "reconstructed diary" in order to keep himself "amused, like knitting." He attempted to record, from memory, events of years omitted in his formal diary of the time. Six years later, he abandoned the reconstruction, stopping with an entry dated 1951. The protagonist of the reconstruction is referred to as "Christopher." In copious footnotes, the older writer comments as "I" from the vantage of about 20 years later.

When his posthumous "Diaries" appeared, former friends and staunch supporters were jarred by the vituperative treatment of them by a man who had courted and often praised them. Many who admired him saw a different person, an abusive man. No matter how benign an encounter seemed to others, almost everyone who crossed his path was exposed to a malicious entry in his journals, an exploitation of the vulnerabilities he detected, like a spy. "Lost Years" compounds the nastiness of the "Diaries."

The only reason to read such a repellent work is to see what light a respected author might shed on his art (something that redeems Flaubert's letters to Louise Colet), but there is little such reflection here, only a torrent of slights and gossip, relentless renderings of messy affairs--so similar that only names change. It is not even reliable as a historical document, like Samuel Pepys' diaries. Major historical events are barely acknowledged: "The next month passed without any remarkable incidents. . . . It sounds crazy to say this, when, in fact, Mussolini and his mistress were killed . . . Hitler's death was announced . . . Berlin fell . . . and the Nazis surrendered. . . . [T]he day-to-day diary records that, on the 28th, [Christopher] took a taxi to the beach. . . ."

Isherwood's chronicle of affairs often reveals a lack of empathy. One of his sexual partners is described as "ridiculous" and "a fake." Those of us who knew the man recognized that what Isherwood dismissed as fakery was the clash between the man's desire to have children and his homosexuality, a clash that, years later when he was married and had children, led him to attempt suicide, an attempt that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

There are some good passages--Isherwood's return to the country he abandoned, a visit to a veterans hospital; but those welcome respites are buried under slush: "Guy asked Christopher if he was in love with Jack, so Christopher had to assure Guy that he was . . ."

The book often becomes a series of name-droppings as rote as a mantra--"dinner with the Knopfs. . . . Supper with Peter Viertel." The name-dropping extends into an odd "Glossary" attached to the book (not by Isherwood), mini-biographies of the people, especially famous ones, whom Isherwood met even cursorily; Hedy Lamarr is included only because she was at a recital Isherwood attended.

One of the book's most disconcerting aspects is the author's treatment of his own sexuality. Claiming 400 sexual encounters, he informs us that in his middle years, he gained such accolades as "the best lay in the Pacific Coast." He guides us through the tiniest details of his sexual predilections. He boasts that even with an unattractive partner, "Christopher managed to get an erection." One of the 400 sweeps him aloft onto a waiting bed.

There are endless accounts of flirtations and crushes, of which he--"a born flirt"--is always the object. "Jack flirted with Christopher," "a very good-looking young actor . . . flirted with Christopher," "Truman [Capote] . . . flirted with Christopher," "Gore [Vidal] was flirting with Christopher." "Almost instantly Andrew Lyndon started to get a crush on Christopher," "Christopher was well aware that Jack would get a crush on him," "Sam had a slight crush on Christopher." Even "Rachel . . . had a terrific crush on Christopher."

He informs that he "almost never made a direct pass until he was certain of success." "[H]opeless passes [were] something that senile queens did." In truth, he was aggressive, especially when drunk. Rejected, he became spiteful.

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