Isherwood in Transit

Isherwood in Transit
by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman, Editors

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2020
296 pp., illus., 7 b/w. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 978-1517909093; ISBN: 978-1517909109.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
October 2020

This summer I have had the great pleasure to read the two first volumes (1939-1960 and 1960-1969, together more than 1.500 pages) of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries. These fascinating books cover the American, more specifically Californian, half of the author’s life (1904-1986), a life often associated with his Berlin years described in the book that inspired Bob Fosse’s Cabaret: Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Both books also give a very direct insight in some of the “transit” issues studied in this new collection gathered by two eminent specialists of Isherwood studies (their two previous collections are The Isherwood Century, 2000, and The American Isherwood, 2015): the geographical issue, that is the becoming American of an English author (with his friend W.H. Auden, and after many travels through Europe and Asia, he decided to migrate to the US in January 1939); the ideological issue, that is the coming out of a gay writer and an increasingly explicit defense of queer culture in general (the aspect for which he is probably best known today); and the religious issue, that is the turn away from atheism to Vedanta, one of the schools of Hindu philosophy (a key aspect of his life and work, which has proved to be a challenge for himself, as an explicitly gay and individualist character, as for his contemporary and current readers, generally less open to this strand of spiritual life).

When reading Isherwood’s Diaries, it is crystal-clear that these three perspectives, geographical, ideological, and spiritual, are closely linked. When settling down in Southern California, Isherwood finds a social environment that fits his fundamental individualism, while putting him in direct contact with other intellectuals interested in Eastern philosophy and religion and, more importantly, a Vedanta community that he will consider his spiritual home for the rest of his life (for several years, he even considered becoming a monk; in later years, he will do a lot of translation work of Hindu texts and devote important publications to his personal guru). Yet in light of the questions raised by Isherwood in Transit, what comes to the fore in the Diaries is the increasing split between geography on the one hand and ideology and spirituality on the other hand. For while questions of personal life and the relationships between self and the other, both at the level of personal and sexual relationships and that of the relationship with the larger dimensions of life and the soul, are the subject of permanent struggle and internal debate, typical of Isherwood’s restlessness and his permanent refusal to take himself and the world for granted, his move to Southern California (more precisely Hollywood -and, yes, the Diaries are also a place of high gossip) was undoubtedly experienced by him as a happy arrival. Los Angeles became the place where he really felt at home and which he only reluctantly left (he particularly hated New York, for example). Such was the comfort he felt in the hills near Hollywood, that he did not cease to make sad and often naughty comments on the permanent … change of the city. The rapidly increasing population and the many disquiets this involved (noisy children, filthy beaches, visual pollution of the natural environment, racial and ethnic tensions, traffic jams etc.) are one of the small but revealing leitmotifs of his diary writing. Certain pages are even very close to the well-known soliloquy in Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949), where Marlowe expresses his growing disappointment with everything that had recently gone wrong in the city he both loved and hated.

In sharp contrast with Isherwood’s “goodbye to geographical transit” is his never-ending search for a freer way of living and thinking, as demonstrated by his defense of queer culture, but also by the extremely self-critical attitude toward his own thoughts and way of life. Isherwood in transit is a marvelous study of this edginess (one does not need to do digital humanities or statistical linguistics to notice that “edgy” is one of the author’s preferred adjectives). This unrest, however, is not empty or without a clear horizon, and the main line of Isherwood’s creative, intellectual and real-world activity is undoubtedly that of a queering individualism. Berg and Freeman’s collection examine this trajectory in a well-structured and almost exhaustive way: All important periods of Isherwood’s life (English, European, Asian, American) are carefully discussed; all major works, including early nonpublished ones, are discussed in clear and excellently written chapters that manage to combine general contextualization and close-reading (the only real missing item here would be Mr Norris Changes Trains, but given the richness of Isherwood’s vast production, this is no more than a tiny detail). Moreover, the book also foregrounds the necessity of studying the notion of “transit” from a wide range of perspectives, always keen to bring together the personal and the political, the local and the global, the material and the spiritual, fiction and nonfiction, in short life and work. One of the most innovative articles in the book offers for instance an audacious reading of Isherwood’s masterpiece, A Single Man, not as a campus novel but as an indirect attempt to express certain insights of Vedanta philosophy (on which the author was also writing, but with great pains and less successfully, in exactly the period he worked on A Single Man).

What makes this collection particularly interesting and worthwhile is however what I would like to call its own “sense of transit”, its own intellectual and scholarly restlessness and sense of self-criticism of the Isherwood community. The book does not try to dissimulate Isherwood’s hesitations and occasional mistakes, related to issues of class (for instance in his perhaps somewhat exploitative relationships with working class, that is unemployed and hungry hustlers in his Berlin years) or race (for instance in his contacts with Mishima). This is a very courageous and mature approach, and I think a very healthy stance in the current context of revenge culture.