Isherwood: a life by Peter Parker

Tomorrow belonged to him
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"Let's face it, Christopher, if it hadn't been for Berlin, where would you be now?" So Somerset Maugham, acidly, in 1961. Forty years on, the question remains central to Peter Parker's extraordinary - by turns resourceful, tart, fascinating, scrupulous, wilful, infuriating - critical biography of Isherwood.

Today, it is Maugham who needs an equivalent of Cabaret - based on Isherwood's Berlin stories - to resurrect public interest. Then, in 1961, he was among the world's most successful authors. The Kander/Ebb musical which brought "Herr Issyvoo" fame and fortune (though he never could admire it) was five years off. Meanwhile, Isherwood's seventh novel, Down There on a Visit, had been coolly received, seven years after the technical and critical disaster of The World in the Evening.

Maugham's comment must have hurt. He had long before anointed the author, telling Virginia Woolf: "That young man holds the future of the English novel in his hands". Isherwood's American fiction changed his mind. Maugham thought he had "thrown it all away" for happiness and Vedanta, the Hindu philosophy Isherwood pursued in California.

If Isherwood's spirituality provoked mockery in Maugham - and it partly inspired The Razor's Edge - Parker is scarcely more generous in this regard. Still, he wisely dissents from the view that Isherwood lost the plot in 1939, the year he and Auden "deserted their native country for America" (Maugham's words).

The legacy of their leaving Europe feels alive. By a twist of fate, John Sutherland's new authorised biography of Stephen Spender, the one-who-stayed, will be competing with Parker's life of his friend and sometime rival. This is especially poignant 70 years after Isherwood temporarily broke off relations, frustrated by Spender's meteoric early success.

Parker's book was also sanctioned, by Isherwood's surviving partner, the artist Don Bachardy. After allowing Parker access to the archives and signing away the right of approval, Bachardy finally determined not to endorse the biography, for reasons we may fathom.

In one sense, the two writers have attracted appropriate biographers. Sutherland squarely adopts the discretion of the older Spender and attends, one reviewer noted, "to his subject's head and heart rather than his genitals". Isherwood's libidinal preoccupations, meanwhile, were more various, conspicuous and enduring. They frequently propel Parker's narrative forward, even - especially? - when Isherwood's writing was becalmed. "To Christopher, Berlin meant boys," Isherwood wrote. It wasn't just Berlin.

In seeking to reconstruct himself in books, Isherwood almost single-handedly invented a new form, the fictional autobiography. The tendency "to imagine himself his own creation", as Parker puts it, first emerged in Lions and Shadows (1938). It involved, above all, displacing or discounting the influence of his mother - a process for which the author later atoned in part, with the study of his parents, Kathleen and Frank (1971). The title was more generous than his provisional one, "Hero-Father, Demon-Mother".

Since Isherwood's death in 1986, this deliberate self-reinvention has been subject to intervention. The publication of his unexpurgated American diaries began in 1997. Part two appeared in 2000; a third volume will follow. This tactical error - supported by Bachardy - threatens to replace in the public mind the knowing, self-deprecating author with a rather ungenerous, verbose curmudgeon. The hard-won grace of Isherwood's supremely readable, transparent prose - equalled only by Orwell - may similarly be obscured.

He gave no instruction as to whether these journals should appear. But, arguably, Isherwood's entire literary vocation involved the reconstruction not just of the self, but of English prose to move it away from the burden of the prosaic or everyday. He learnt the importance of selection, conciseness and evasion (Maugham, by contrast, had only the third quality). Parker understands these virtues, too, even if his ambition and resourcefulness threaten to pull his own book away from them.

His judgement of the writing is astute. Parker rightly considers as "remarkably assured" The Memorial (1932), Isherwood's overlooked second novel, and the only successful one not drawn from life. A Single Man (1964) is the key postwar work. A quarter-century ahead of its time in its portrayal of a quotidian homosexual life, it inspired a generation of gay writers in Britain, but more so in the US. (Edmund White's The Married Man and Andrew Holleran's The Beauty of Men are both, in part, tributes). Yet it was panned. The Los Angeles Times thought it a "Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga".

There is a general reluctance to argue for the scale of Isherwood's achievement, however. An afterword argues: "If he had written nothing other than the Berlin stories, he would have secured a place in the literature of the 20th century". But what sort of place? Parker takes the two German books as read. Are they read today? And how?

More encouraging is Parker's energy. Much new material has been gleaned. The surprising notes of misogyny and anti-Semitism in conversations and letters are well-glossed, if disappointing. Enthusiasts will prefer new details of literary influences. The much-invoked "I Am a Camera" phrase seems indebted to Katherine Mansfield, one of Isherwood's favourite stylists. Mansfield commented in a 1924 interview: "I did observe those things and I had to set them down. I've been a camera. But... I've been a selective camera, and it has been my attitude that has determined the selection."

Isherwood's recording was similarly subjective. Parker's portrait of his mother Kathleen - embodiment of England to her son - proves fresh, and quite distinct. Her younger son Richard - about whom very little was known - emerges as a diabolical, warped version of Christopher: idiosyncratic, if not insane; drawn, like his brother, to adolescent male beauty, less cautious in acting upon it.

Richard's wayward, tragic life understandably fascinates Parker, whose penchant for eccentric Englishmen found expression in his previous biography of JR Ackerley. How- ever, some of this risks distracting us from the key questions of Isherwood's personality, experience and merits. Parker's Strachey-like, waspish side likewise often amuses. At times, though, it is unduly harsh. Hagiography is a danger in biography. So too is relentless iconoclasm.

This reflects something Sally Bowles knew: sometimes you can spend too long with one man. When the 18-year-old Bachardy entered his life, Isherwood - at 48 - was older than his father. Bachardy's temper and Isherwood's will-to-dominate contributed to grievous arguments. Mysterious as alchemy, the fieriness merely purified and prolonged their intimacy. They were together for over three decades.

Parker, meanwhile, engaged with this project soon after the Ackerley biography appeared (1989). He seems to have fallen out with his subject. Isherwood will rightly attract further interest in the novelist; for this, and much more, we can be grateful. Still, when Isherwood abandoned the over-reaching Berlin saga "The Lost", he recognised something about his gifts best discerned in the fiction which replaced it. The brilliant, sketchy compression of Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin speaks volumes. Sometimes less is more.

Richard Canning is writing a biography of Ronald Firbank