Where Joy Resides is intended to be an anthology of the best of Christopher Isherwood’s writing. The volume includes his novellas Prater Violet (1945) and A Single Man (1964), well-thumbed sections from Goodbye to Berlin (1939), half a dozen more or less self-contained extracts from other books, and nothing from Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), nor from Christopher and His Kind (1977), his revealing envoi. It is like opening a cupboard of old clothes once in fashion but now moth-balled, without occasion for future wear. Contrary to the pretensions of the title, there is no joy here.

Having grown up in England after the last war, I am able to recall how pervasive the Isherwood mystique then was. It was a legacy from the Thirties, a phenomenon peculiar to its time and place. With W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, he had formed a mutual admiration society, and Cyril Connolly, Somerset Maugham, and E. M. Forster were among those who proclaimed him the hope of English fiction. Whenever he published a book, the critics would repeat that it might be a trifle slight but his next was certain to be great. No other contemporary writer was so petted and indulged. Invariably his prose style was praised for making no demands upon the reader, but nobody cared to inquire further if that was a sufficient basis for the extravagant claims made on its behalf.

What friends and well-wishers were inwardly expecting was a coherent answer to the main question addressed by Isherwood (and by most of them, too): How in the politically and socially challenging circumstances of the period to go on enjoying privileges of birth and education while appearing to disclaim them? Naturally there is no answer: this is a circle which cannot be squared. Fact and fiction were blended for purposes of deceiving the reader into suspending moral judgment when knowledge of reality would make such judgment obligatory. “I am a camera” had no sort of truth. As though it were his natural right, Isherwood simply declared that he deserved special license to do as he pleased. This was privilege in its most traditional form, and perpetuating it in the modern world proved to be Isherwood’s specialty, the comprehensive subject matter of his small but consistent output. Those who encouraged him had a keen eye on similar privilege for themselves.

Born into a prosperous and well-connected family in Cheshire, Isherwood was numbered among those who had a stake in the country, as he liked to boast. The family manor house dated back to the seventeenth century. His mother and nanny remained devotedly loyal to him. At school, or later at Cambridge, he met Auden and Spender and Edward Upward and others in what became a coterie. Some rich uncle could be relied on to give him a private income; some influential friend was always ready to bail him out of trouble or to buy him a ticket for travelling. This background projected him effortlessly into the closed ranks of the privileged.

Unfortunately, the privileged in England between the wars were an undeserving crew, narrow-minded, philistine, and so frightened by the 1914 war and Communism that they were prepared to make allowance for whoever might save their skins, Hitler included. Isherwood’s early writing takes the position that no sensitive youth could possibly allow himself to turn into one of these grown-ups. The Test, The Enemy, and The Other are favorite metaphors for putting distance between himself and those among whom he well realizes that he belongs.

One conceivable escape from the predicament was to go beyond playing verbal games about The Enemy and to join the Communist cause.

One conceivable escape from the predicament was to go beyond playing verbal games about The Enemy and to join the Communist cause. But Communism in practice was certain to cut out rich uncles and private incomes and free tickets, and Isherwood and his like-minded friends were reluctant to take any serious steps in a direction harmful to them. The exception was Edward Upward, a writer without talent who chose to transform himself into a Zhdanovite literary policeman, much as Kim Philby was to convert himself into a KGB general. Politics for Isherwood therefore remained a matter of striking a pose, in order to be able to pass as someone who in spite of appearances really should not be counted among The Enemy. Another conceivable escape was to live abroad among people who could not discern English privilege for what it was, or if they did, then they admired it and would have wanted it for themselves.

This latter was the course Isherwood followed when he moved to Berlin at the end of the Twenties. The moment was dramatic. Hitier and the Nazis were in the penultimate stage of their seizure of power. Writing stories about Berliners, Isherwood seemed to be posting dispatches from the front line, and it was this immediacy which justified the critics in their reiterated hopes for him.

Years afterward, Isherwood expressed surprise that he had never thought of interviewing or meeting Nazis when it would have been so easy and obvious to do so. Nazis and Nazism appear in his stories only at a tangent because they were in fact of no real or moral concern to him, any more than the Communists were. The stories, and supporting parallel accounts published then or later by others in this coterie, created an impression of engagement which was flattering but quite untrue. Far from engaging with others, Isherwood was bent on self-discovery, and Berlin offered a providential stage upon which to dramatize himself to his own satisfaction. The characters whom he evoked in his stories were chosen for the light they threw upon him, and the strongest of them were not even German but English, like Sally Bowles or Mr. Norris. Displaced bohemianism like theirs was indeed a privilege in that other people invariably had to pay for it in every sense.

From then on, Isherwood was preoccupied with the homosexuality which he had confirmed in himself in Berlin. Whether a writer can build anything more than confession upon his sexuality is open to doubt. Although his homosexuality can be inferred from the Berlin stories, Isherwood repressed confession of it, on the understandable grounds that he would have been liable to prosecution under English law at that time. Narrating his self-discovery, he therefore proved untrue to himself—once again standing on the privilege to do as he liked without having to account for it. Not responsible for politics, he was not going to be responsible for his lovers either.

The second move of his life was to California in 1930. With hindsight, this was evidently disengagement of a decisive kind.

The second move of his life was to California in 1930. With hindsight, this was evidently disengagement of a decisive kind. Not even the war against Hitlerism was going to undermine his privilege to do as he pleased. What he had done now was to put a distance between himself and all those who felt public or civic responsibility to fight the war. To adopt his own metaphors, he had settled The Test by becoming The Other and even The Enemy himself, one of the narrow and selfish old grown-ups whom he had once derided and rejected. In California too there were many prepared to admire him just for his exercise of privilege.

The likelihood was that in California he would find little or no literary material. In the event, he tried to repeat what he had done before in Berlin, and use bohemian characters, real people, his acquaintances locally, to illuminate himself. Since he had already done all the self-discovering that he could, his writing over the thirty years he spent in California became feebler and feebler, the fictions disintegrating into little heaps of dead gossip. No morality is involved; nothing is better than anything else, and therefore everything is equally bland. The key Isherwood word is “grin,” and the older he became the more crucial was the timing of its use: the effect of his writing came to life in the grin, a second Cheshire Cat, with nothing behind it.

It might have been possible for him to assert that as an artist he was responsible only to his art, and California suited it. The argument is not very appealing, but Jean-Paul Sartre used it successfully to justify writing and staging his plays in Paris under German occupation. I suspect that Isherwood did not take this line because he knew it to be untrue, unbelievable, and that he had gone to California primarily to be safely out of the war, never mind art. Be that as it may, at the age of seventy-three he published Christopher and His Kind, an attempt to come to terms with himself and his past. At last he could declare his preoccupying homosexuality in the certain knowledge of approval rather than sanction.

The reality of his Berlin days, he revealed, had been his meeting a boy called Heinz, with whom he lived, journeying together in much of Europe as well as to his mother in England. It proved impossible to obtain papers for Heinz to become a refugee, and when he was obliged to return to Germany, he was imprisoned for failing to do military service, and in due course was drafted into Hitler’s army. Though pained by the separation, Isherwood conveys no sense that he might be responsible in any degree for Heinz’s fate. On the contrary, he often reflects how much better his prospects are without Heinz. Politics had put a convenient stop to their mutual exploitation of one another.

About homosexuality, ostensibly so central to him, Isherwood proved to have nothing to say. No insight into motivation, no account of putative gains or losses, no awareness of having used his position and money to seduce Berlin boys who might or might not have been able to defend themselves; only a repetition of lust, with the occasional outburst against women or what he flatly asserts to be “the horror of marriage.” Glorying in having disengaged himself from everyone and everything with no cost to himself, he ends his book at the point when he sets off to America with Auden, “exchanging grins.”

With narcissistic energy, Isherwood exposed the lying and prevarication of his earlier writing, which explains why no extract from the memoir is suitable for Where Joy Resides. The candor compels admiration, though qualified by revulsion at the dishonest and cowardly egoist he portrays himself to be. Is the portrait true, or a rationalization, or maybe an eleventh-hour romanticization? It hardly matters. It is a document in its way. Isherwood was finally telling everyone who had looked to him for hope that in his life he was glad to have found only privilege.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 7, on page 70
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