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Review of "Lost Years: A Memior 1945-1951 by Christopher Isherwood"
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Review "Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951," by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell

Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.     

When Christopher 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.

     His 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.

     In 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 stranger.

     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." [43] Isherwood's name-dropping becomes as rote as a mantra--"dinner with the Knopfs ... Supper with Peter Viertel." [490]. 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 London Journal."

     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...." [31] 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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