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Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Sixties - The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood 1960--1969

I've owned two copies of "The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood Volume 1" in the last five years.  The first of these was a paperback edition purchased on the strength of its length--I was due for a long volume reading at the time.  Unfortunately, I "lost" my copy of Volume 1 when it suddenly disappeared from my classroom desk one day (I think some student "borrowed it" after I constantly praised it in class), and neglected finding another copy, even online.  I came to my second copy on one of my lucky trips to my used bookstore/literary "watering hole," and, as lucky can be, it was a hardcover copy! I fell in love with the Diaries from the moment I read the first page of the Introduction and didn't stop until the very end.

"The Sixties: Diaries 1960-1969" was released a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, I was at "Barnes & IgNoble's" door half an hour before they opened.  I consider it my "Harry Potter" moment every time my favorite contemporary author publishes a new book.  Presently, I am about 260 pages in and I cannot put "The Sixties" down.  In fact, I took a nap yesterday in the afternoon and ended up dreaming with the main characters of the diaries, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.  It was something really new!

"The Sixties" sees a much more mature Don Bachardy, and a not so much different than Volume 1 Isherwood.  It's very refreshing to read Isherwood's assessments of what Bachardy is going through (growing pains as an artist and as a lover).  Their love affair is so expertly detailed in the writing, as well as analyzed by the more "mature" Isherwood.  It seems to me he understands Bachardy better as the young man goes to the trials of blazing his own path.  Despite moments of real "bitchiness" (what Isherwood himself admits several times), the Sixties show are more understanding Isherwood, dedicated with renewed vigor his practice of spirituality and search for peace.  I have not seen the documentary "Chris and Don," and just found out no library in this area carries it (I wonder why!!!), but I really, really want to watch it.  Oh, the perils of living on the skirts of the Bible Belt.

So far, I have only underlined a couple of passages and they both deal with the writing craft, of which Isherwood is definitely an overlooked master of the 20th century.  The first of these stabs directly at the main problem with writing creatively.  Isherwood states: "I shall try to abstain from philosophizing and analysis, and stick to phenomena, things done and said, symptoms."  It is a sobering piece of self-advice, and what makes Isherwood so honest about it is the fact that 1) despite the fact that he was a master diarist, and 2) despite the fact that much of what is found in the Diaries crosses over (the experience not so much as the detail) to the fiction side of his writing, he sticks to this idea through and through.  Creative Writing 101: Internal monologues devoid of action do have their place in fiction, but can't hold an entire plot together all of their own (unless you are Joyce or Woolf).  The other passage was directed a "work in progress" and just as important self- advice: "Yesterday I reread my novel, the fifty-six pages I've written so far.  I am discouraged; very little seems to be emerging.  Maybe I really have to sit down and plot a bit before I go on.  I do not have a plot and I don't even know what I want to write a novel about... No, that's not quite true.  I want to write about middle age, and being an alien.  And about the Young.  And about this woman.  The trouble is, I really cannot write entirely by ear; I must do some thinking."  

My colleagues criticize my time allowance to volumes of work like the Diaries.  They think differently than I do.  I am a much slower reader (and grader, too) and it doesn't bother me one bit to find a minimal number of passages to underline (2 passages in 600 pages).  My colleagues use their time much more "intelligently," they argue.  If it's not helpful on research, it's not worth it.  Father forgive them, for they do not know what they say.

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