- - Monday, March 11, 2013

By Christopher Isherwood
Harper, $39.99, 875 pages

The title hung awkwardly on this final collection of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries inevitably raises the question: liberation from what? Certainly not from all the things that troubled him throughout the previous decades, scrupulously recounted again here: his libido, concern for his excessive drinking, health, appearance, financial stability, jealousy and other passions, fears about mortality and the struggle to believe in an afterlife. Inevitably, the shadows of old age (the volume ends on the eve of his 79th birthday) lend an autumnal air, but the qualities of honest introspection that engendered such admiration for the previous published diaries shine forth here undimmed.

The finest quality Isherwood had as a diarist was that he followed Oliver Cromwell’s celebrated order for his portrait to show him warts and all, and so his self-portrait in daily journals, in contrast to the more sententious and posed memoirs, show him as he really was. This gives readers the opportunity to evaluate on their own his intellect and his aesthetic, his nature and his character — in short, his worth as a writer and as a man.

There is also plenty of material for readers to make up their own minds about his decades-long relationship with artist Don Bachardy, with whom he shared his life for his last three decades, for Isherwood is as frank about the infidelities and the torments as he is about the mutual devotion. Interestingly, Mr. Bachardy has stated that had Isherwood been alive during the period when same-sex unions were legal in their home state of California, they would not have married.

The unfiltered quality of Isherwood’s diaries, unfortunately, reveal a wart so ugly that Edmund White, in an otherwise admiring preface, singles him out for harsh condemnation:

“He was seriously anti-Semitic, and a year never goes by that he doesn’t attribute an enemy’s or acquaintance’s bad behavior to his Jewishness.”

To his credit, Mr. White refuses the easy excuse for this flaw being the time and milieu in which Isherwood grew up and wonders how his experiences in Nazi Germany could have allowed it to continue. Reading through these pages, the most striking thing about these outbursts is that they are uniformly egregious, not so much casual as almost reflexive. Yet they seem to have little if anything to do with his actual feelings about the person. After one such condemnation of the writer Irwin Shaw, he writes, “I liked him. I always have.” And after another, even when assured that the Jews present “didn’t mind,” he feels that at least one of them “did mind very much, which I’m truly sorry for.” And he not only felt “terrible the next day,” but continues to refer to the incident long after its occurrence.

This is understandable because in recounting his version of the latter event, Isherwood unwittingly reveals what seems to be the true root of his anti-Semitism. At an encounter with Sue Mengers, the celebrated Hollywood superagent, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, he writes:

“I told off Sue Mengers during dinner. She said the Jews were better than anybody, and because I was drunk, the words flew out of my mouth, and I said their art was fundamentally vulgar and second rate and that, having made themselves the boss minority, they did nothing for homosexuals, etc., etc.”

What an extraordinary admission, not so much excused by his being drunk, but more along the lines of “in vino veritas,” i.e., that truth is what comes out at such times. How misguided, as I think most disinterested observers would say, based on the record of Jewish tolerance in Isherwood’s lifetime and in his own actual experience. However, what that loaded phrase “boss minority” reveals most of all is the corrosive effect of identity politics, which, far from engendering solidarity among the oppressed and marginalized, as its proponents would have us believe, actually leads to bitter and divisive squabbling and resentment.

That’s the great thing about Isherwood’s diaries: their absolute sincerity, the authenticity of the portrait they present, artlessly and unguardedly without mental reservation. They give us, then, the real person behind the icon, the image and the works, the unvarnished Christopher Isherwood.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.