Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood

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Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The first volume of Christopher Isherwood's diaries, covering the twenty-one years from his departure to America just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 1104 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099555827

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In January 1939 Christopher Isherwood left England for America in the company of poet WH Auden. This hefty volume covers his diaries from that date until August 1960, when he celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday. A 49-page introduction setting out the background leads us into the entries, which are divided into three sections – The Emigration, to the end of 1944; The Post-war Years, to 1956; and The Late Fifties. After these we have a chronology and glossary, or to put it more accurately a section of brief biographies of the main characters mentioned, these two sections comprising over a hundred pages altogether.

The predominant theme here is his search to make a new life for himself in California. He spent part of the time working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, while continuing to write and publish novels. He made friends with the likes of Greta Garbo, Charles Laughton, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as fellow authors E M Forster, W Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann and Tennessee Williams. On a more personal level, he made friends with the painter Don Bachardy, who at nineteen was thirty-four years his junior, and who became the love of his life.

People often use a diary for some sense of personal release, and also for the discipline of recording their thoughts. Isherwood is no exception. He writes at length on his feelings about the country which had become his new home, his health problems, heavy drinking, mood swings and bouts of depression, and the bitterness at some of those around him. Of great events in the world outside there is little. We have a reference in December 1941 to Pearl Harbor, and his returning home just as war was declared with Japan. Of course our group was wildly excited – which surprised me, in a way, because I had seen it coming so long. Yet there are no entries from January 1945 to May 1947, and therefore no clue as to his reactions to the end of hostilities. Nonetheless we can assume that he would have welcomed it as much as anyone. Although at heart a pacifist, he admits to a sense of guilt in leaving England when he did. Whatever good or bad motives are found for it, I can't honestly accept them. I can't think of myself either as a traitor or a disgusted prophet. Aware that his 'group' (Auden, Aldous Huxley and others) had been strongly criticized in England for leaving, with adverse comment in the press and even questions asked in Parliament, he writes of feeling guilty yet defiant at the same time: there is a strange exhilaration in being attacked.

During these years he travelled to Mexico, Bermuda, France and Berlin, as well as making two trips to England in peacetime. These journeys are chronicled, as are his film scriptwriting activities, broadcasting, teaching and lecturing, his thoughts on religion, philosophy and meditation - at one stage, he seriously considered becoming a monk – and above all, his friendships with other writers and actors. Although he was leading an extraordinarily full life, the impression comes across of a man riddled by insecurity and self-doubt, not at all sure he has done the right thing. There is certainly little humour to be found in these pages.

For the serious Isherwood reader, at whom it is clearly aimed, this very full book will supply everything and more. It is clearly not the lightest of reads, but for an insight into one of the most popular authors of his day, to say nothing of his role as a British expatriate at a controversial time, it can definitely be recommended. Some acquaintance with his fiction beforehand would be an advantage.

Our thanks to Vintage Books for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend a biography of his contemporary, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.

Buy Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Diaries Volume 1 by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon.com.


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