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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Christopher Isherwood's Last Volume of Diaries: Liberation

And so it happens that we come to the last of what has been the greatest diary reading of my literary life.  Christopher Isherwood's diaries are (and I am intent to NOT use a qualifier) the best literary diaries written in the 20th Century (yes, Virginia Wolff's included).  I am so unapologetic about my enjoyment of these volumes that I am willing to bet a great deal many people agree with me; unfortunately, the "many people" do not seem to include the NYT's book reviewers.  While it is not a surprise I am clashing once again with the powers of the NYT, this time (as opposed to the times when I defend Paul Auster's work), I am challenging any reviewer at the NYT to argue differently.

Christopher Isherwood's "Liberation," the third and last part account of a literary genius, begins as Isherwood welcomes the new decade (1970s) with the same type of foreboding yet full of enthusiasm--a paradox that is his and his alone.  The details included in "Liberation" follow the same pattern of Hollywood gossip, literary and movie producing heartache, sexual practices down to the most minute (weight recording) detail of life.  There are many of the same cast of characters I've grown to love and/or hate, and new ones that seem so transient it almost feels like Isherwood is talking about ghosts.  Along with the passage of the years, Isherwood records the passage of time with all of his health aches and that of others as well.  It is particularly sad to read when characters such as Caskey pass away--his case (dying alone in his apartment in Athens) strikes me as the worse of all the others.

Don Bachardy is steadfast in his love and support of Isherwood as the writer becomes increasingly unable to deal with his health problems.  Not without its growing pains, their relationship reaches a level not commonly seen in relations where the age difference is so great.  Both men face the future with courage as the inevitable was a matter of time and they both knew it.  Isherwood is particularly open about how strong Bachardy faces each and every one of Isherwood's increasingly debilitating illnesses.  Their collaboration (especially in the screenplay of "Frankenstein: The Real Story") is as strong as ever throughout the 1970s and 1980s, alongside Don Bachardy's own "liberation" as an artist begin recognized on his own talent and not just for being Isherwood's partner.

The title "Liberation" refers to Isherwood's own, but also to the entire gay liberation movement.  After the publication of "Christopher and His Kind," Isherwood established himself the elder statesman (or grand dame) of the gay movement during the mid to late 1970s.  Isherwood is candid in his views, not always agreeing with the political branch of the movement, and other such necessary differences when dealing with people of genius.  There are references to speeches and interviews, but to list them here would be somewhat of creating a catalog when in reality none is needed if you are to read the volume entirely.

The sadness of getting older, and, as a result, weaker in health is put down on paper here as the chronicle of a life well lived, albeit the hope for more and more years.  Isherwood is revealing in his faith and refers to his guru quite frequently during this time.  Despite the fact that after the death of his guru Isherwood stayed away from the Vedanta center doesn't seem to affect Isherwood's spirituality.  Yet, as in all tasks that demand unshakable discipline, he finds himself thinking he's lazy for missing a day or two of japam, or simply because he's tired of it all.  In all of this, Isherwood's relationship to Bachardy comes as the main source of comfort for the writer.  Isherwood explicitly elaborate on their daily life, a life that even though devoid of some of their activities in earlier years, seems to generate more tenderness and togetherness.

Despite the abrupt ending of the diaries (Isherwood died in 1986 but by 1983 he had become weak and unfocused to continue in a manner satisfactory to his earlier work).  I feel a sense of void, really, a big sense of having finished these massive volumes and having learned a great deal from them.  It's not always that one finds something that is both engaging and entertaining.  I have them to my left on the book shelve and look at their spine with a strange sense of nostalgia, as if I had come to befriend Isherwood and Bachardy and shared their extraordinary lives.

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