Christopher Isherwood Inside Out by Kathleen Bucknell - review by Valentine Cunningham

Valentine Cunningham

A Singular Man

Christopher Isherwood Inside Out

By

Chatto & Windus 864pp £35
 

We’ve long had the words for the being, doings, writings and career of Christopher Isherwood, eminent 20th-century man of letters. From his early twenties until two or three years before his death in the summer of 1983, he was an unstoppable producer of ‘fact-fics’, memoirs, autobiographies, confessions, travelogues and film scripts. In the words of W H Auden, his old school chum, collaborator in travel books and dramas and probably also lover, in his tribute poem ‘The Novelist’, Isherwood was the archetype of the writer who ‘must … among the Just/Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,/And in his own weak person, if he can,/Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man’. Isherwood so took these words to heart that he adopted them in his tribute to T E Lawrence in the South American travelogue The Condor and the Cows (1949), where Lawrence appears as the ‘Truly Weak and Truly Strong Man’, who ‘suffered in his own person the neurotic ills of an entire epoch’. Isherwood memorably put himself forward as the necessary photographer of the Nazi period. ‘I am a camera,’ he declared in the opening of his autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), ‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording … Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ Fixing the shots would be his life’s work, driven, in the words of his friend Francis Bacon, by the desire to ‘get down to the nerve’ of his tempestuous times – times demented by wars and in which male homosexuals like him remained outsiders.

These themes, all well known, are now mightily fleshed out in Katherine Bucknell’s epic new biography. And unsurpassingly so, I’d say. The learned editor of three copious volumes of Isherwood’s diaries, the compiler of a volume of childish love letters exchanged between Isherwood and his last great love, Don Bachardy, familiar with the hoard of diaries written by Isherwood’s mother, up on Isherwood’s endless drafts and rewritings, confidante of Bachardy, Bucknell knows Isherwood like no one else – indeed, as her title has it, inside out. 

Here he is, in all his grippingly messed-up splendour. Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood – posh scion of landed Cheshire gentry, devastated by the death of his father, Lieutenant Colonel F E B Isherwood, cut down leading an attack on German trenches on the Ypres Salient. We see him as a

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