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Review "Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951," by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell (continued)

     One of his sexual partners is described as "an essentially ridiculous character, even a bit of a fake." What Isherwood dismissed as "fakery" was the clash between the man's desire to have children and his homosexuality. Years later, even more conflicted by that confusion--married and with children--that same man attempted suicide, an attempt that put him in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. (The latter information is not noted in a strange name-dropping "Glossary" (not Isherwood's), odd mini-biographies of all the people, especially famous ones, whom Isherwood met even cursorily; Hedy Lamarr is included although she was merely present at a recital he attended.)

     There are some fine passages and sculpted sentences tinged with wit: "Collier found it thrillingly Proustian to look out of his office window and watch the discreet flirtations of the messenger boys." [33]. A notable section documents Isherwood's return after the war to siege-devastated London, the "dead city" he abandoned. Other good passages--a visit to a Veterans Hospital--provide welcome respite from the slush. But the awkward, gossipy voice takes over: "Guy asked Christopher if he was in love with Jack, so Christopher had to assure Guy that he was--though he doubted it...." [9]

     One of the most disconcerting aspects of this book lies in 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." [48] He guides us through the tiniest details of his sexual predilections, including scatological sex. Even with an unattractive partner, "Christopher managed to get an erection." 99 One of the 400 sweeps him aloft onto an awaiting bed.

     There are endless accounts of flirtations and crushes, of which he--"a born flirt" [93]--is always the object. 93. "Jack flirted with Christopher," [93] "a very good-looking young actor ... flirted with Christopher," [211] "Truman [Capote] ... flirted with Christopher," [125] "Gore [Vidal] was flirting with Christopher" [127]. "Almost instantly Andrew Lyndon started to get a crush on Christopher," [270] "Christopher was well aware that Jack would get a crush on him," [99] "Sam had a slight crush on Christopher." [198] Even "Rachel... had a terrific crush on Christopher." [90] From his present vantage, he does not even pause to comment on the fact that even during repressive times an open homosexual life was possible, despite dangers.

      He goes after writers: Camus' "The Stranger" is "faky," Sartre's "No Exit" is "phoney," Huxley's "Ape and Essence" is "cheap and nasty."

     In locating the "postures" of others, he ignores his own. He informs that he "almost never made a direct pass until he was certain of success." [157] "[H]opeless passes [were] something that senile queens did." [245]: In truth, he was aggressive, especially when drunk. Rejected, he became spiteful.

     The most despicable aspect of this book is Isherwood's flaunting of his repugnant anti-semitism. He recounts an affair with a "Jewboy ... about eighteen." [220] He defines "an almost classically Jewish Jew, bald, bearded, sly eyed, somewhat rabbinical in his manner, full of hostile mocking flattery, aggressive humility, shrewdness, rudeness, taste, vulgarity, wit and fun." 126.

     And this: "The first evening in bed together, Barry said, `How extraordinary this is! Here am I, a Russian Jew, making love with Christopher Isherwood!' His remark jarred on Christopher; it seemed indecent, masochistic, sexually off-putting. But, as Christopher got to know Barry better, he found a different significance in it. When Barry thus called attention to his Jewishness, he wasn't really demeaning himself. He wasn't at all a humble person. Indeed, he had that Jewish tactlessness, argumentativeness and aggressiveness which always aroused Christopher's anti-semitic feelings. Only, in Barry's case, Christopher's anti-semitism quickly became erotic. It made him hot to mate Barry's aggressiveness with his own, in wrestling duels which were both sexual and racial, Briton against Jew. Barry's aggressiveness became beautiful and loveable when it was expressed physically by his strong lithe body grappling naked with Christopher's. As they struggled, Christopher loved him because he was a pushy arrogant Jewboy." 262.

     Even in the area of homosexuality, Isherwood exhibits a reactionary attitude toward sexual roles, references to male partners as "unalterably female," [56] a "wife," "efficient as a nanny," [162] "a good woman," a "truly feminine soul... properly domestic." [93].

     How reliable is this Memoir? It depends on self-serving, years-ago recollections about a period when Isherwood might find himself "lying on the floor, dozy with drink"--not the clearest time for retention of memories. There are editorial vagaries to be considered, including confusion about the nature of profuse footnotes. Ellipses appear in ambiguous brackets. Occasionally the "I in the footnotes lapses into the "Christopher" of the Memoir.

     It would be good to think that Isherwood did not intend these journals to be published, that he did not want to be remembered the way they portray him; that they were private exercises to keep him writing. It would be good to think that he abandoned this Memoir because he recoiled from its damaging betrayal of friends, that he was repelled by its rancid attitudes. Perhaps he intended both the "Diaries" and "Lost Years" to find a place in his archives, not in leering public.

     The rationale for their publication is emphasized in the Foreword by Editor Katherine Bucknell: Though "never completed," these entries were "also never destroyed."

     The final irony of this shoddy performance is that, for all its broadsides at others, the figure most assaulted is Isherwood himself.


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