Glamourous Rags

Lost Years
by Christopher Isherwood

Published by Chatto and Windus, 388 pp. £25

Identity is a story we tell ourselves, but, if it is an illusion, it is, like the persistence of vision, an illusion which makes it possible to exist at all. When Isherwood attempted, in the early 1970s, to reconstruct his forty-year old self and his life in the Hollywood of the immediately post-war period, his use of the third-person starts as misplaced honesty and ends as disingenuousness - he had entirely good religious motives for wanting to break down the imperial ego, but the old Adam came rampaging back with a fair amount of what comes to look uncommonly like swanking.

It is impressive that Isherwood could remember, twenty years later, such a proliferation of sexual encounters with so very many young men; given that he was working from the vague hints of an appointment diary, and can reconstruct in such detail who screwed whom, awe becomes almost overwhelming. It is also remarkable that, in these years, save for a period of recovery from a minor operation to his penis, Isherwood so rarely failed to pull or to perform. What he did feel, and presumably felt all over again in serene old age, was a certain guilt at putting off until later the aspiration towards chastity that his increasing preoccupation with Vedanta called him to; he got to have his cake, eat it and then say grace.

These were not especially productive years for him - he was writing material,, for more or less ephemeral Hollywood films. About the best film he was involved with was 'The Men'; his research into the mores of paraplegic veterans led him to engage in a comprehensive programme of hospital visiting that demonstrates that he was never just the cold-blooded observer we sometimes think of him as being. It also meant having Brando around, wandering into his kitchen at all hours from the beach to make himself a sandwich - Isherwood assumed at the time that he was just a brash young actor who would never amount to anything, and it is far from certain that he was not, in the long run, right.

We get a lot of retrospect on his opinions on things he read or saw or listened to - most of it without any thought-through explanation; the older Isherwood cannot remember what the younger Isherwood thought of the 'hateful' Les Enfants de Paradis, but does not feel obliged to explain what would have been wrong with liking it as much as most people do. The judgements on literature often have a slightly self-seeking quality to them - he is always prepared to praise interesting minor newcomers like, say, the young SF writer Ray Bradbury, and is solid in his remarks about the unquestionably important like, say, Forster, but is a deal less generous to those writers like Ford Madox Ford with whom he ranks in the lower second division.

It is a shame that he lacked, by this point, Ford's mythomania or even the younger Isherwood's capacity to turn his friends into memorable types - there is a lot of potentially good gossip here, but much of the time it remains just chat rather than anything more. We get told about hiding under a bed with his lover in order not to have to go for a walk with Garbo, but nothing about precisely why she was so boring. We learn that he fell out with Chaplin, but not precisely why or how - there was some misunderstanding about whether or not he had pissed on Chaplin's sofa and we would rather have a gaudy lie about it than endless footnotes about the dates on which it might not have happened.

Katherine Bucknell provides a comprehensive index, a gazetteer of almost everyone mentioned and occasional interjections from dissident surviving witnesses - boyfriends who find his occasional mild anti-Semitism irritating, or who want to claim that particular people fell asleep during particular conversations. Generally, though, her tireless work on this and Isherwood's diaries cannot make up for the fact that he is at his most interesting in those books where fact has been almost entirely digested into fiction. What lives from his work are early archetypes of seedy glamour like Sally Bowles and not the considered spiritual and sexual dissection of Isherwood's later self-portraits.

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