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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Christopher Isherwood, AGAIN... but this time his fiction

Yes, I spent a great deal of last summer and into the fall reading the mammoth "The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood - 1939 to 1960," all 1,130 pages worth of. I am man enough to declare it one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. When I finished, I felt as if these people (primarily Isherwood and his partner the artist Don Bachardy) were long lost friends telling me of their experiences since the last time we had met. What was particularly odd was the fact that I had never read any of Isherwood's fiction, and even more odd the fact that I couldn't find any of it at he local mega bookstores or even the used "mom and pop shops." At first I thought as I usually do when I find that one of my favorite writers cannot be found in a used bookstore. That is to say, authors like Paul Auster's and Haruki Murakami's books are books people keep and not donate or sell to the aforementioned businesses. But Isherwood, why? I asked some of my closest friends and colleagues if they knew something about Isherwood. Roughly 70% of them remembered the name but couldn't place it. About 20% remembered his work as the inspiration for the musical "Cabaret" (later made even more famous by the film starring Liza Minelli). The rest never even heard the name or cared to know. I even had one of my colleagues say, "Gay literature? Thanks but no thanks," which was a surprise to me since colleges and universities are usually strong holds of anything and everything resembling a liberal stance in argument. At any rate, Christopher Isherwood is under-appreciated and needs to come back to a position of prominence in modern literature.

I wrote an e-mail to Katherine Bucknell, the scholar who edited Isherwood's diaries and the world's foremost Isherwood scholar regarding the Volume 2 of the diaries (I imagined that after reading Volume 1 there should be a second volume). The first of these (1939--1960) was published in 1996. This fact made me believe that probably the project for Volume 2 had been abandoned or something of the like. Little did I know that Ms. Bucknell had been hard at work and that her e-mail came with outstanding news: Volume 2 scheduled to see the light of the world in November 2010!!! This calls for a celebration... any excuse to drink hard liquor is a welcome distraction to the demands of academia, at least for me it is. Now, I know some of you are thinking, "wait... 1939-1960 was 1,130 pages and now there's a second volume... did this man do anything else but write a diary?" That's the fascinating thing about Isherwood; his description of the most ordinary event or personage is so amazingly illustrated it's as if we were reading one of those pop-up books for children. Things and people come alive like very few writings of this type. In short, it is not hyperbole to qualify Isherwood a master of modern literature. Perhaps that is the very reason why I couldn't find his books in used bookstores.

Well, I am presently engaged in reading Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories," which are comprised of "The Last of Mr. Norris," and "Good-bye to Berlin," the commonly known story of Sally Bowles turned musical in "Cabaret." This being the first time I've read Isherwood's fiction, and expecting (probably unconsciously) that the narrative would be like, well, what else? a diary, I was slow in warming up to the first few pages of "The Last of Mr. Norris." Yet, I stuck it through and found one of the most amazing pieces of fiction I've read in the last five years or so. I can't put this blessed book away, and last night sleep finally won over around 3 AM. This is the powerful descriptive and engaging dialogue Isherwood is famous for. The initial conversation and meeting of Mr. Norris and Bradshaw seems slow to take off, but by the time they arrive in Germany. What follows is a turmoil-filled and at time angst-fueled friendship in which not only does Bradshaw fail to know and understand Norris, but also ends up rubbing elbows with the Communist party at a time when the Nazis were gaining political ground but had yet come to power.

Isherwood writes with confidence and a great deal of resourcefulness from his own experience. He is a master at descriptive passages and makes the world of the 1930s Germany (particularly those dark corners of the gay underworld) come alive with unique artistry. Here's a man writing gay literature before "coming out of the closet" (a phrase with both charms and fill others with indignation) was a matter of vogue. I don't think that I can express how much I recommend Isherwood's work, whether fiction or biographical diaries, and how fulfilled the reader is at the end of these remarkable stories. Make another notch on column--Isherwood is a GREAT writer!

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