"Lost Years: A Memoir
1945-1951," by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine
Note: a version of this
book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Isherwood died in 1986, his literary reputation seemed
solid. He had written several fine books that revealed
him to be a masterful stylist, including "Prater
Violet" and "The Berlin Stories." His novel
"A Single Man" is, in this reviewer's opinion,
that rarity in literature, a "perfect" work,
every word exact in its wise, sad, and funny documentation
of one day in the life of an older man who wakes, remembers,
and may perhaps, at the end, die.
respected literary standing allowed him to survive controversies:
There was his fleeing London on the eve of World War II;
his avoiding conscription as a conscientious objector
after he became an American; his association with Vedanta,
on and off intending to become a monk; his affairs with
very young men--and intimations of anti-semitism. The
publication of this so-called Memoir may challenge his
reputation more critically than anything else in his life.
1971, during an arid creative period, Isherwood began
this "reconstructed diary." "It might keep
me amused, like knitting...." [ix] He attempted to
record, from memory, events of years left out in his formal
diary, the years 1945-1955. He abandoned the reconstruction
in 1977, 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 past.
When the "Diaries" appeared posthumously, former
friends and champions were jarred by the vituperative
treatment of them by a man who had courted and praised
their friendship, often lavishly in public. About a close
writer-friend and ally he wrote in the "Diaries:"
"[H]e exudes ... a cynical misery and a grudge against
society which is really based on his own lack of talent...."
[Diaries, 533] About another: "[M]ost people dislike
[him] because he is ugly and unchic and not quite talented
enough." [Diaries 852]
Many who knew Isherwood and liked him (including this
reviewer) saw someone else revealed, a mean-spirited man,
although in forced retrospect one was able to detect avoided
hints of that new person. "Lost Years" compounds
the nastiness of the "Diaries," and Isherwood
emerges as even more of a stranger, an abusive, vindictive
Some of the most apt descriptions of this book may be
borrowed from Isherwood's remarks about others: "[His]
name-dropping soon got to be a bore and his tale-telling
was so indiscreet that you became afraid to open your
mouth...." (232) About another "friend":
"... his approach was demure until he had detected
your weak points and was ready to play on them."
 Isherwood's name-dropping becomes as rote as a mantra--"dinner
with the Knopfs ... Supper with Peter Viertel." .
No matter how "demure" an encounter might have
seemed to others, everyone who crossed his path was exposed
to later-recorded malice that exploited vulnerabilities
he detected, like a spy.
How is "Lost Years" different from other candid
accounts that put an author's life in a negative light?
Flaubert's letters to Louise Colet reveal him violating
her trust with false expectations of a permanent union.
Dealing primarily with the author's theories on the novel,
the letters illuminate his work, become literature. There
are many other such works--Rousseau's "The Confessions,"
Virginia Woolf's "A Writer's Diary, "Boswell's
Even a generous definition of the word would disqualify
"Lost Years" as literature. A torrent of slights
and gossip, relentless renderings of messy affairs--so
similar that only names change--it contains little about
the author's art, his novels, his philosophical views.
It is not even reliable as a historical document. repressive
times: Major historical events surrender to chat: "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...."  In retrospective notes
that might have allowed him ironic perspective about changing
attitudes toward homosexuality, he chooses instead to
extend the gossip.
Curiously driven to find fraudulence in others, he becomes
insensitive to genuine confusions: 169. "What really
repelled Christopher [was] his dishonest, tricky bisexual
posture.... [H]e became maudlin over his marriage, and
his responsibilities as a father. Stephen Spender is deeply
false in the same way, but not nearly as disgusting....
They are both utterly untrustworthy." (Apparently
Isherwood forgot that in his Diaries he claimed at least
one bisexual seizure: "I made violent love to that
Russian girl.") ["Diaries," 67]
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