A life of writer/memoirist Isherwood that emulates its subject’s detachment but hardly his conciseness.
Best known for Berlin Stories, the basis for the Broadway play I Am a Camera and for the even more successful musical Cabaret, Isherwood (1904–86) deserves recognition for a wider body of work, argues Parker, a British historian and biographer (The Old Lie: The Great War and the Public School Ethos, not reviewed). Scion of landed gentry and son of a soldier killed in WWI, Isherwood, in early adulthood, embraced left-wing politics, pacifism, atheism, and homosexuality. In the 1930s, he achieved fame as arguably England’s most promising novelist and as collaborator with ex-schoolmate and sometime lover W.H. Auden on the plays The Dog Beneath the Skin and The Ascent of F6. His life later included a controversial move to America, with Auden, in 1939; a surprising conversion to Hinduism and brief commitment as a monk in the 1940s; thirty years as a Hollywood screenwriter; and lionization as “favorite uncle” to the post-Stonewall generation of gay authors that included Armistead Maupin and Edmund White. Access to Isherwood’s longtime companion Don Bechardy and friend Stephen Spender, as well as to the novelist’s astonishing collection of diaries and letters, enables Parker to pull back the curtain on a writer who on the surface was utterly candid. Charming, witty, and generous, Isherwood could also be narcissistic, bossy, drunken, and, most shockingly, anti-Semitic. Parker points to memoirs, further, that not only altered details but also faked or censored diary entries. Unfortunately, although he has bravely plunged into the forest of Isherwood documentation, Parker sometimes loses his way through sheer inclusiveness, citing his subject’s every quarrel and patch-up with his widowed mother, troubled brother, and lovers (an estimated 400 by age 44).
Way too much information on the love life, but an essential resource for coming to terms with a key figure in the Auden circle. (16-page photo insert, not seen)