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Christopher Isherwood Inside Out by Katherine Bucknell review – courage and camp

Christopher Isherwood Inside Out by Katherine Bucknell review – courage and camp

Christopher Isherwood was constantly pulled between the camp and the heroic. As a schoolchild, he went from military drills, emulating his soldier father, to doing square dances with his mother in her dresses. As a young man, he escaped upper-class England for 1930s Berlin with its drag acts and cabarets, but moved to the slums, wanting to join the workers he saw as the real heroes. Just before the war, he gave up politics and went to Hollywood, embracing the glamorous but rackety world of screenwriting. But he still needed the kind of challenge that he capitalised in his writing as the Test. He found a Hindu guru, Swami Prabhavananda, and tried out celibacy in his monastery just when he was finally within reach of the best gay scene he had ever encountered.

Katherine Bucknell’s Isherwood isn’t as camp as his previous biographer Peter Parker’s but he is preoccupied by heroism throughout. The editor of his voluminous diaries, she is interested above all in his inner life: in how he negotiated being the son of a fallen war hero and of an anxiously loving mother who turned to him for the intimate conversations she was missing. Isherwood, for Bucknell, is a writer who seems to become ill at every turn to avoid being overcome by anxiety (the “arch-fear” of “being afraid”), whose love of boys is both a transgression and a source of pleasure, who’s always in danger both of excessive passivity and wilfulness, and who’s always attempting precisely the heroism he has determined to reject.

Bucknell is right to put his psychology at the heart of his work, where there’s always an Isherwood figure, observing himself observing the world around him, as in the Berlin stories that made his reputation and sustain it now, especially in the form of Cabaret. With his mixture of camera-like objectivity and engrossed self-observation, he created a style that allowed him to capture the frenzied energy of 1930s Germany, where freedom and creativity collided fatally with authoritarianism, without losing sight of the oppressive Britain he had grown up in. His experiments border on what we would now call autofiction, but they have an engagement with the political context that feels broader than this category suggests.

The move to America might have provided an ideal canvas on which to combine the sweep of history with personal myth, but the American dream has a way of letting people down. Isherwood loved America precisely because he didn’t belong and because no one else quite did either: “I feel free here. I’m on my own. My life will be what I make of it.” He tried to write a novel about an addict saint and another about homosexuality, theorising camp a decade before Susan Sontag by distinguishing between Low Camp (“a swishy little boy with peroxided hair … pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”) and High Camp (“you’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of artifice and elegance”). His most successful work was probably A Single Man, a portrait of a middle-aged, gay college professor. Bucknell calls it the “masterpiece of his maturity”, which is excessive praise. It combines a commitment to arch style with a curiosity about how matters of courage and daredevilry play out in a curtailed world. But his dependence on Mrs Dalloway indicates a tiredness in the novelist as well as the protagonist.

I’m still unsure if we need another expansive portrait of Isherwood. Bucknell’s research is deeply impressive and her judgments astute, but there are so many minor characters and small shifts of allegiance that it’s hard to keep track of the larger arguments. For the generations less familiar with him, a biography of this kind isn’t the best way to bring the work alive.

Perhaps it’s a book to flick through, savouring the images. There’s Isherwood dancing with his mother, and there are the cars, which Bucknell revels in alongside Isherwood: his partner Don Bachardy’s wine-red Corvair, Isherwood’s black Volkswagen. They crashed them both. They skipped red lights, they parked illegally, and Isherwood continually drove drunk, falling asleep at the wheel. What was he doing? Was he revelling in his own louche camp, or heroically racing against death, outpacing his fears? The all-American pleasure in driving is dramatised in the brilliant early scene in A Single Man in which the protagonist travels across LA to his office, confident as he slips into high gear that this is “no mad chariot race” but “a river, sweeping in full flood toward its outlet with a soothing power”. But A Single Man has a fatal car accident at its core and Isherwood himself knew how foolhardy he was. He couldn’t give up on heroism, even as he became a figurehead for the gay liberation movement and declared on TV that the real heroes acknowledged their cowardice. Perhaps Bucknell’s achievement is to make so destructive a man determinedly appealing.

Lara Feigel is the author of Look! We Have Come Through! – Living With D.H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury)

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Source: theguardian.com