Christopher Isherwood: Diaries Volume I, 1939-1960, ed Katherine Bucknell

Paperbacks Of The Year: Journal of a life-changing journey

"I love [this country] just because I don't belong.

Because I'm not involved in its traditions, not born under the curse of its history. I feel free here. I'm on my own." Christopher Isherwood might have made a new home for himself on the other side of the Atlantic at the end of the 1930s, but he was rarely "on his own". Just the next day, he's having dinner with Frieda Lawrence, one of the many starry names he drops throughout his diaries.

At more than 1,000 pages, this volume is a lot to get through, but there can rarely have been more entertaining, absorbing, self-examining – yet also outward-looking – daily accounts. Open it at any page and you're guaranteed a gem of some sort, from star-struck Hollywood gossip (page 49: "I've seen Garbo already, at the Viertels' ... she was kittenish, in a rather embarrassing way"), to creative agony (page 418: "But my novel – that's sitting in front of me again, undented, unformed – like some rubbery bit of material which pops back into shapelessness the minute you take your hands from it"), to personal revelation (page 566: "It's no use getting mad, and I wouldn't have written as I did above if I hadn't been drunk").

Isherwood felt bad for abandoning Britain, and touchily defended his decision. Bucknell writes that he wished to make of his life a work of art, though, and that meant experience. Without crossing the Atlantic to work in LA and write his books, we wouldn't have the life, or the work.

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