Vintage £18.99 (1050pp). £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Diaries Volume One 1939-1960, By Christopher Isherwood
Friday 07 January 2011
In her introduction to this vast, immaculately produced book, its editor Katherine Bucknell notes that Christopher Isherwood's handwritten diaries, which he maintained at great daily length (excepting a "wild" spell in the late Forties), contained "hardly any mistakes of any kind. The diaries are an endless transcript of life – without blot, without error, without misstatement, without verbal crime." As with the essays of his contemporary George Orwell, you could read this book as a primer on style. Bucknell points out that "page upon page reflect the clarity of his mind, his absolute mastery of syntax, his easy ranging, precise diction, his effortless power of description."
Unlike Orwell, Isherwood had both a taste for the high life and a yearning for the mystical. He found both in ample supply in Los Angeles after his famous departure from Britain in 1939. His arrival in the city where he was to spend the rest of his life was less than propitious. "Toward evening, we came into downtown Los Angeles, perhaps the ugliest city on earth... We saw three sailors carrying a girl into a house as though they were going to eat her alive."
Isherwood soon found his feet among the Hollywood community. We learn that Dodie Smith was "wildly neurotic about ants and bathroom taps". He saw Chaplin as "enjoying himself, not just being funny for a living. He is constantly experimenting. He burns with a kind of amateur eagerness." (Later he revised this view: "a clubland bore".) In close encounters with Garbo, he spotted her "dread of being recognised... coupled with a perverse desire to draw attention to herself." He is bemused by the "Gore-Newman-Woodward household" in Malibu: "Paul is hard at work proving he is an anti-intellectual nature boy... Joanne finds it a bore to keep the place clean... Gore is such a resentful, unhappy creature."
Even the minutiae of Isherwood's rackety life in the Hollywood canyons is entertaining: "Don has taken Marguerite's red Dior dress to the cleaner's because Monty Clift vomited over it."
Unfortunately, his spiritual strivings are rather less transporting. A considerable acreage is devoted to his swami, though even here Isherwood does not entirely lose his sense of irony. Not the least merit of this massive diary is its open treatment of his homosexuality, a topic that he had to skirt round until he published A Single Man in 1964.
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