I KNOW YOU'RE READING THIS

Over the course of 60 years, Christopher Isherwood wrote more than a million words of diaries; after his death in 1986 his companion of 30 years, Don Bachardy, decided they should be published - uncut. As the first volume appears, Christopher Robbins talked to him in the Santa Monica house the couple used to share

On the night that Christopher Isherwood died, Don Bachardy - his companion of more than 30 years - sat down in their home in California, on the edge of Santa Monica Canyon, overlooking the Pacific, and began to read his diaries. Bachardy started with the last entry and worked his way back in time.

"I'd got through the day and had done some last drawings of Chris after he was dead, and I was getting ready for bed. Without any premeditation I went right to the desk where I knew he had kept the diaries all those years. Like a dog on scent."

During the period of his deepest grief, Bachardy was led gently back over his life with Isherwood by means of a literary time machine. That first night he read for about an hour, and every day afterwards before he went to bed, always in reverse order. "And there were sleepless nights when I would get up at three in the morning and read for a couple of hours. I read them very slowly. It took me months. I didn't want them to stop."

There were 12 volumes - six handwritten, six typewritten. Dotted throughout were paragraphs of advice and personal comment, some planted 25 years earlier. "Don, I know you are going to be reading these words after my death..."

"It was a very peculiar experience. And it was exactly the experience I needed because reading his words was as close a contact as anything apart from his physical presence. It accentuated my loss, of course. It made me know in a very acute way what I wasn't going to have any more. But it was also comforting - a kind of sublime anguish."

Now, ten years later, the rest of the world can begin to read the diaries, albeit in the conventional order. Isherwood had no interest in seeing his diaries in print during his lifetime, and the decision to publish was taken by Bachardy, who demanded that they be uncut. Volume One (1939- 1960), meticulously edited by Katherine Bucknell with index and glossary, is just published, and an exhibition of Bachardy's drawings of people who feature in the diaries - from Francis Bacon and Cecil Beaton to Igor Stravinsky - is on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

Keeping a diary seems to have been encouraged from a very early age by Isherwood's mother, Kathleen. At the age of six he dictated to her a tiny book called "The History of My Friends". Later, and for 60 years - until a month before his 79th birthday - he wrote diary entries several times a week, although most of the pre-1939 diaries have not survived. He records his own, self-searching obsession: "Who are you - who writes all this? Why do you write? Is it compulsion? Or an alibi - to disprove the charge of what crime?" (June 1958), and Katherine Bucknell's excellent Introduction describes the compulsion: "Isherwood wrote in his diary to provide evidence, week by week, that he was neither wasting his life nor spending it in the wrong way: that he was paying attention, that he was doing something of value ..."

The first volume opens with his emigration to the US with W H Auden, on 19 January 1939. They are seen off by E M Forster who asks whether he should join the Communist Party. "I forget what I answered. I think it was, `No'." The volume ends with the last handwritten entry on 26 August 1960, when Isherwood records celebrating his 56th birthday (Don gives him a Brooks Brothers shirt and a pair of barbecue bellows).

There is not a page that does not contain a good joke, original insight, deadly accurate description, or delicious nugget of gossip. He met every major literary figure of his time, and wrote scripts in Hollywood during the so-called golden age, so that he mixed with many of the stars. He lived in a large world and enjoyed a wide circle of friends - a very mixed bunch indeed. He went to parties where Bertrand Russell (a "monkey-gland lobster in a woolly, toy-sheep wig") rubbed shoulders with Ronald Colman, and "dumb cluck" Garbo hustled a somewhat seedy-looking Krishnamurti for spiritual enlightenment. "Kittenish in a rather embarrassing way ... she wanted to be told the secret of eternal youth, the meaning of life - but quickly, in one lesson, before her butterfly attention wandered away again." And then there's Charlie Chaplin on the set of The Great Dictator, confiding wickedly, "I'm prepared to sacrifice my last relative so that democracy shall not die."

He included anecdotes that amused him: "A good - because psychologically true - Hollywood story. A maid boasts to her friend - also a maid - about the house she works at: wonderful people - they entertain every night - and always big stars. The friend is thrilled: `And what do they talk about?' The maid: `Us'."

Almost as soon as he arrived in California, Isherwood embarked on what was to become a lifetime's spiritual quest into the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. There's rather a lot of this, but Isherwood is such a natural sceptic that even the most worldly can maintain an interest. He originally dismissed those involved in mystical religion as "cranks, simpletons or sex maniacs", and once regarded the philosophy he was to adopt as "the ultimate in mystery-mongering nonsense". He abandoned an early ambition to become a monk, overcome by lust and repelled by asceticism: "Even the mildest kind of austerity affects me, somehow, like a cold breath from the grave."

The physical descriptions of the huge empty continent suggest that fundamentally America has not changed so much. As Isherwood leaves New York by Greyhound Bus - "a streamlined Martian projectile" - for California, he notes: "The road has eaten the landscape. Travel has defeated itself. You can drive at 80 mph and never get anywhere. Any part of the road is like all other parts ... Endless, flat-topped garage architecture." And on arrival in California, as he walks beside the Pacific, he observes "prima donnas of suntan frying slowly in their own grease".

He is hard on himself throughout, deploring his sloth and lust again and again: "I am lazy and dreamy and lecherous." He agonises over his safety in California during the war, admitting that his pacifism commingles with cowardice: "a very little danger goes a long way psychologically". He describes himself as "a sham, a mirror image, a nobody". After the self-serving literary memoirs of recent years, it is all very refreshing.

A major literary work, the diaries round off and complete the writer both as man and artist. They are intimate and intensely personal, the antithesis of Isherwood's detached and distant style as a novelist, where he deliberately takes on the role of an observer and chooses to see life through the lens of a camera. Strangely, the overall impression is of a man with a terrific sense of fun.

Two more volumes are scheduled. The second volume (1946-1952) is actually a reconstruction Isherwood wrote in the 1970s of a period in his life when he made few diary entries. It was a self-destructive, promiscuous, idle and hard-drinking time and, unusually for Isherwood, he recreates it with explicit sexual material. Bachardy refers to this as "the spicy volume". A third volume will cover the years from 1960 to 1983. Altogether the diaries run to a million words. There are few alterations in the original, and scarcely any awkward sentences or constructions. Isherwood polished and occasionally rewrote material up to the mid-1940s but, except for the reconstruction, the latter years are untouched. Even at his most unguarded and off-the-cuff, he is a stylist.

For the last six months of Isherwood's life, as he lay dying of prostate cancer, he was Bachardy's only subject. The drawings ruthlessly depict the suffering and anguish of a dying man, but even at the end Isherwood's mordant humour never left him. One afternoon Bachardy had been working in black acrylic and wash and had spread the drawings on the bedroom floor to dry. Unaware that he was observed, he picked up each one to check for wet spots. From behind him he heard Isherwood's voice: "I like the ones of him dying."

! Christopher Isherwood's `Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960', edited and introduced by Katherine Bucknell, is published by Methuen at pounds 25

! `Christopher Isherwood and his Circle: Drawings by Don Bachardy' is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 until 7 Feb; free

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee