Beauties of the second rank

Isherwood - Stephen Spender
July 16, 2004

A sordid homosexual with 400 lovers and a restless bisexual - Jeffrey Meyers on two writers whose human flaws impeded their work.

Christopher Isherwood (1904-86) called himself "one of those animals who live by escape", who have "never taken root", who are always "foreigners by temperament". Born into the landed gentry of Cheshire, educated at Repton, Corpus Christi, Cambridge (which he left without earning a degree) and Westminster Hospital (briefly), he lived in Berlin from 1929 until after the Nazis took power in 1933. Then, fleeing Germany with his boring and extortionate lover Heinz, a draft evader, Isherwood wandered through the Canary Islands, Portugal, France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. In 1937, the Gestapo finally caught up with Heinz and threw him in jail. In the 1930s, Isherwood avoided the Spanish war, dropped in on China and saw the Nazi menace mainly as an obstacle to his love life. His stay-at-home younger brother, a grotesque alter ego, was mentally disturbed, alcoholic and also homosexual. He exposed himself in public and drank liquid paraffin, slept in the same bed as his mother and woke up one morning to find her corpse beside him.

Isherwood devoted much of his life and art to sex, and Peter Parker tells us much more than we want to know about his often-sordid existence. His 400 conquests ranged from a deaf mute encountered in the ocean to W. H. Auden and Tennessee Williams. But he always had to dominate his lovers. Indulging in sexual colonialism, he could not "relax sexually with a member of his own class or nation". Though curious about sexual encounters in which the cracking of whips reminded him of the Argentine, he was most erotically aroused by rolling about on the floor with leggy young men before rolling into bed with them. He was attracted to sexual ambivalence and domestic frolics: "little pats and squeezes, jokes, talk through the open doorway of the bathroom". But often, as he grew older and suffered bouts of gonorrhea and impotence, he found himself in "a world where if you were too long or too short or too quick or too slow, no one would have the slightest spark of affection for you".

After moving to Los Angeles in 1939, "separating himself from mother and motherland at one stroke", Isherwood's work deteriorated. He lived in three illusory worlds: that of the emigres who gathered around the screenwriter Salka Viertel and dreamt of returning to a prewar Germany; of the Hollywood studios, where he turned out dozens of mediocre scripts; and of Eastern mysticism, which he had first learnt about from boys' adventure stories.

Isherwood's mystical interests were credulous, fantastical and absurd. It is strange that someone apparently so intelligent would submit to the authority of the arch-crank Gerald Heard, who recruited him for the great fraud Prabhavananda. The swami liked to address his reincarnated disciples with "Son, haven't I seen you before?" and went in for profundities such as "the more you travel toward the North, the farther you are from the South".

Though Isherwood saw himself sinking into the vague and boring "Yoga bog", he longed for some sort of discipline and was initiated into the Vedantic cult by reciting a secret Sanskrit mantra. As the most famous disciple of his guru, he was mercilessly exploited and forced to turn out four books, four translations and two editions to publicise the movement. Somerset Maugham was dead-on when he told Isherwood that he had destroyed his literary career and reputation for Vedanta.

Parker's biography is intelligent and perceptive. His literary judgement is sound and he brings minor characters, such as James Stern, to life. But the book is far too long and detailed, with too many pages devoted to Isherwood's unpublished early stories (the "medieval surrealism" of the tedious Mortmere tales leads, circuitously, to Vedanta). There is no need, as in Isherwood's exhaustive diaries, to account for every minor event and change of address, nor to trace the spiky fever chart of all his sexual adventures. A few errors have crept in. Robert Louis Stevenson's grave is in Samoa (not Tahiti). Thomas Mann, who fell in love with men but avoided physical relations with them, was not "predominantly homosexual" and was not "more attracted to his wife's twin brother than he was to Katia herself" - with whom he had a long, happy and fruitful marriage.

Despite its enormous length, this biography neglects several important aspects of Isherwood's life: his friendship with Maugham, whom he called "an old Gladstone bag covered with labels. God only knows what is inside"; the influence of T. E. Lawrence, who inspired the mountaineer Michael Ransom in The Ascent of F6 , and of Katherine Mansfield, a model for the heroine in The World in the Evening . Isherwood told me that he took her self-criticism, "I look at the mountains, I try to pray and I think of something clever", as a personal admonition. Parker also skims over the incisive descriptions of China in Journey to a War and of South America in The Condor and the Cows .

Isherwood looked like a schoolboy well into middle age, and the nanny theme dominated his life. His nanny (who would never have allowed him to be killed in China) catered to his whims whenever he turned up in England. The nurse in the Vedanta centre "was the universal, cosmic Nanny". The house he shared with Don Bachardy had a "nursery atmosphere". The narrator in Christopher and His Kind "treats young 'Christopher' with the same sort of indulgence that Nanny did". On his deathbed he called for his nanny.

Isherwood's charming, engaging books were fatally flawed by his shallow character. Like Peter Pan, he was a "boy who wouldn't grow up".

Isherwood first described Stephen Spender (1909-95) as "an immensely tall, shambling boy of nineteen, with a great scarlet poppy face, wild frizzy hair, and eyes the violent colour of bluebells". His character was naive and indecisive, subservient and vague, and he once left his house wearing two ties. Thirty years ago, when I asked Spender if he were the model for Dan Boleyn in Wyndham Lewis' The Apes of God , he ingenuously replied: "He's a complete imbecile. But I suppose I am."

Spender's "manly" father, a would-be politician and embarrassing failure, was a parasite who lived off his wife's income. He felt his son was "unmanly" and sent him to a prep school that turned out to be a "brothel for flagellants". As restless as Isherwood, Spender loved to cross frontiers. He went straight from Oxford to Berlin, "the bugger's daydream", was in Vienna before the Nazi invasion and in Spain during the civil war.

He felt as if he were in "the final circle of the whirlpool"; and the Communist leader Harry Pollitt half-seriously suggested that Spender could at least "get himself killed, to give the Party its Byron".

Spender remained bisexual throughout two marriages. He never knew why he proposed to his first wife, Inez Pearn - beautiful, promiscuous, insatiable. He corrected proofs during their wedding reception; she left him for an inferior poet, Charles Madge. Spender then had a long affair with the Welshman Tony Hyndman, a high-class tart and (like Isherwood's Heinz) a bad egg. Isherwood, to keep it in the family, also slept with Tony. Spender's second wife, the concert pianist Natasha Litvin, held Spender's life together for more then 50 years, and he adored their two children.

After the Second World War, Spender made annual trips to America to earn money as a lecturer and teacher. In the 1980s, by then in his 70s, he came to my seminar on Hemingway, whom he had met briefly in Paris and Spain. He was lively and charming, patient and seriously committed to the students.

But an endless round of extra-literary events devoured his writing time. He never fulfilled the great promise of his first book of poems and (he said) "regarded myself as a failed version of myself". He had a weakness for celebrities and often gathered with the famous when they were being famous together.

John Sutherland, who decently defends Spender and claims - but does not show - his "literary greatness", rightly emphasises his extraordinarily varied career as "novelist, playwright, essayist, lecturer, broadcaster and prolific reviewer". Sutherland maintains that Spender did not know that the CIA funded Encounter , which he co-edited for 14 years, that he was "systematically deceived" and "honourable to the end". But Spender was repeatedly warned about the CIA's role by knowledgeable American friends such as Mary McCarthy. Always naive and naturally wanting to protect his job, income and reputation, he was a willing dupe and believed what he was told. Guy Burgess, who had excellent contacts in Moscow and accused Spender of being an American agent, must also have known about the CIA's secret role.

Though not as elegant and witty as Parker's biography, Sutherland's authorised life is professional and readable, solid and thorough, but too detailed and repetitive, too intent on covering all the ground. His narrative needs more dramatic propulsion, more focus on the larger issues, fewer facts and more analysis of what they mean. An authorised biography allows access to unpublished material and freedom to quote from it without payment. But it also brings obligations and silences, reticence rather than revelations. With Natasha Spender as collaborator and censor, Sutherland virtually evades the crucial issue of Spender's homosexual life when he was on his own in the US. He mentions one love affair with Brian Obst, an ornithologist, 50 years younger than Spender. But Sutherland's claim that "when in America (Spender) habitually lived the life of a monk" seems dubious.

Spender rarely wrote anything in verse or prose that was truly striking or original (he could exclaim: "Pictures are nothing unless they become great experiences"), and few of his lines are memorable or remembered. He belongs to the honourable second rank - with Maugham and John Steinbeck, Cecil Day-Lewis and Louis MacNeice. Isherwood and Spender reveal that being part of a group and extremely handsome (they would not have had the same appeal if they had looked like Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis) provides a great boost to one's literary reputation.

Jeffrey Meyers has recently published lives of George Orwell and Somerset Maugham.

Isherwood: A Life

Author - Peter Parker
Publisher - Picador
Pages - 914
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 330 48699 3

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