Interviews

Christopher Isherwood, The Art of Fiction No. 49

Interviewed by W.I. Scobie

Christopher Isherwood’s home is in “the canyon” on the edge of Santa Monica, California—a quiet bohemian district of stucco houses inhabited mostly by people involved in the arts. It preserves much of the character it must have had thirty years ago when it first became a haven for refugees from the vast sprawl of Los Angeles. But Demon Change is just around the corner. In 1973 Santa Monica is being Miamified. Pallid apartment blocks with factitious names (Highland Glen, Sunset Towers) are rising all around, and the coastline is dominated by fat piles of concrete.

Still, the developers have not yet hit the Canyon (though they are widening the road amid clouds of dust above Isherwood’s house), and you can see the ocean in the distance, a silvery blue, dotted with wet-suited surfers riding the swell like seals. The house is built into the steep side of the canyon, and you must slither down a driveway, past a garage containing two Volkswagens, side by side, to the door. Isherwood himself opens it and leads the visitor into the living room. He is dressed with great neatness: navy-blue jacket, open shirt, gray, well-pressed pants. He is neatly constructed, too: short, spry (“jockeylike,” said Virginia Woolf), with a lean, suntanned face. His most striking features are the bony, Celtic-looking nose and the pellucid blue eyes, which focus on you in oddly hypnotic fashion, as if observing neither dress, nor mannerisms, but Something Deeper. We agree to drink tea. “Do look around,” he says, “while I make it.”

The living room is high, white, a bit ascetic, but cool despite the hot July afternoon. Nearly all the paintings are modern, including several graphics of the kind that show cubes and cones suspended in space. There are many books, little furniture, and no clutter. A terrace has been added (“We eat breakfast here usually”), and vines cover it. The little houses descend below and climb the far side of the valley. This is the neighborhood lovingly described in A Single Man, by general agreement the finest of Isherwood’s ten novels. There is even a gay bar, which fits exactly a favorite haunt of that book’s protagonist, “down on the corner of the ocean highway, across from the beach, its round green porthole lights shining to welcome you.” But it is called The Friend Ship, not The Starboard Side.

Isherwood looks almost startled when you ask why he lives in California: “Why, it’s my home. I’ve spent almost half my life here.” Originally, he was drawn by the presence of Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, with whom he wanted to discuss pacifism and the impending war. There were trips to New York, lectures at universities, a journey across country by bus, and, during the war, after he had registered as a conscientious objector, a spell in Haverford working for a Quaker refugee hostel: “But apart from that I suppose I don’t know this country awfully well. I’ve been an American citizen for—what, nearly thirty years; yet I still seem very British, even to myself. I’ve lived in eleven places in America, and all of them are within sight of this window.”

In recent years, in common with many other writers and artists, Isherwood has become outspoken about the problems and advantages of being homosexual. He has discussed the subject in print and on television (the Cavett show). He says, “For me as a writer, it’s never been a question of ‘homosexuality,’ but of otherness, of seeing things from an oblique angle. If homosexuality were the norm, it wouldn’t be of interest to me as a writer.”

Isherwood works every morning and then usually walks to the ocean to swim. The substance of this interview was therefore recorded in a series of late-afternoon sessions—teatime. Possibly the conversation reflects something of the hour.

 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t mind if I record this? I have a terrible memory.

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD

Of course not. So do I.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask first how you came to write A Meeting by the River. It seems so different from your earlier novels.

ISHERWOOD

You know of course that I’ve been involved with a Hindu monk, Swami Prabhavananda, for almost the entire length of my life in America—more than thirty years now. A few years ago, there was a centenary of the birth of Vivekananda, who is the chief disciple of Ramakrishna and a great inspirer of Gandhi—he had all kinds of ideas about the future of India. So there was a great national celebration, especially in Bengal, that year, and they decided to have one of those congresses that they so dearly love with speakers from foreign lands; and Swami said would I come along. So I did. At the same time, two monks from the Vedanta monastery here were coming out to India to take their final vows, sannyas, and I was in close contact with their feelings and the whole predicament of being about to take sannyas. For a long time I’d wanted to write a confrontation story where the representative of something meets the representative of something else, and quite suddenly it came to me that this was the way to do it. I talked a great deal with the monks afterward while I was writing it and checked up immensely on the details. I had been to the monastery once before with Don [Bachardy] in 1957, but that was only briefly . . .. It was infinitely more comfortable than the hotel in Calcutta! Perfectly clean, with nice simple little rooms and a place where you washed down with a bucket of water.

INTERVIEWER

Has your involvement with Vedanta changed your life?

ISHERWOOD

It’s made a very great difference, but I couldn’t exactly describe to you what the difference is. I could say what, so to speak, I’ve got out of it. I simply became convinced, after a long period of knowing Swami Prabhavananda, that there is such a thing as mystic union or the knowledge—we get into terrible semantics here—that there is such a thing as mystical experience. That was what seemed to me extraordinary—the thing I had completely dismissed.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a passage in one of your books in which you and Auden are on a train, and you’re savagely attacking religion, and he says: “Be careful, my dear, if you carry on like that, one day you’ll have such a conversion.” Do you think of it in those terms, as a conversion?

ISHERWOOD

Yes. I rather think so. I went through all sorts of attitudes to it. There was a period when I thought I might become a monk myself.

INTERVIEWER

What would that have meant, in practice?

ISHERWOOD

It would have meant living at the Vedanta Center in Los Angeles; I’d probably have spent a great deal of my time helping to translate Hindu classics and increasing my knowledge about Vedanta philosophy; and perhaps giving lectures when I got to be a swami, which I should have been by this time if I’d stayed with it—it’s about twelve years before you take the final vows. Not long after I met Swami Prabhavananda, the war began, and I went to work with the Quakers at a hostel for refugees in Philadelphia, and after 1940 and Pearl Harbor I volunteered to join a Quaker ambulance corps going to China; but they only wanted qualified doctors or automobile mechanics—it was essential to be able to repair the ambulance. Then I would have registered as a conscientious objector and gone to a forestry camp for firefighting—like the one in Paul—but suddenly in the midst of the war they lowered the age limit, and I wasn’t liable for service. I was completely at a loose end, I’d untied all ties; and then Prabhavananda said, “Why don’t you come up to the center and help me translate the Gita,” which we did. There was a general feeling that I might become a monk, but then I decided, rightly or wrongly, that I didn’t have a vocation. But I’ve always remained in touch with Swami Prabhavananda; in fact, I see him every week.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve never been quite sure what people mean when they talk of a vocation.

ISHERWOOD

Well, would you say there is such a thing as having a literary vocation? Let me put it like this: You know the sort of person who goes around thinking I Wish I Were A Writer, and perhaps he does write a bit; and in the end his friends say, well, the trouble was he had no talent. Really, talent is vocation: there is such a thing as having a natural aptitude for a way of life; not everybody can become a monk.

INTERVIEWER

It’s the overwhelming desire to do that thing, then.

ISHERWOOD

Yes, the desire to do that rather than anything else. In the end it would have meant giving up a whole area of my writing.

INTERVIEWER

And you would have to be celibate.

ISHERWOOD

Yes, they make a great point out of that.

INTERVIEWER

All religions do, don’t they?

ISHERWOOD

One has to look at it from two angles, to hear the Hindus explain it. One is that by being celibate, you store up energy; and since there is only one life force, one kind of energy, that is what you are using, in one way or another. Even that Hindu attitude was a tremendous revelation to me. I’d been brought up in this puritanical way to think of flesh and spirit, the low and the high, the forces of lust and the forces of . . . something else. But they think it is the same thing on different levels: The Hindus have this image of what they call a serpent power, that rises through different centers—like an elevator that calls at the lust department on the bottom floor and rises to other levels. That’s one aspect of it—really little more than athletes are told: to lay off while they’re in training. From the other side there is the aspect of being devoted to this search, of avoiding human entanglements and devoting oneself to the love of God. And yet, of course, the Hindus are the first to agree that all love is related, and that one can go a very long way through genuine devotion to another human being. One always talks as if loving someone was simple and easy, but in fact it can be very hard work.

INTERVIEWER

The play of A Meeting by the River had a big success here in Los Angeles.

ISHERWOOD

I’m awfully glad. One of the most gratifying of all expressions on one’s friends’ faces is when they are genuinely surprised that you had it in you. It is far more realized than the book: It plays out the undecided duel between the two brothers more intensely, and so the nature of the comedy comes out more clearly.

INTERVIEWER

What made you choose that book to dramatize? You once described A Meeting as “rather a secret little book”; and the letter form seems prohibitive.

ISHERWOOD

Well, I would never have thought we could dramatize it. It was largely James Bridges, who’s an old friend, who insisted that we could. Then we asked ourselves: Is it possible? Then it became a challenge; and then we saw that the very fact that the characters were all elsewhere—except for the two principals—imposed a technique which was fun: The people are there, and yet they’re not there, just as they are in life.

INTERVIEWER

My one reservation about A Meeting by the River was that it seemed rather withdrawn about the ecstatic side of religious experience—a bit veiled: There were no Dostoyevskian agonies and ecstasies. Do you think religious experience of this kind can be transmitted in writing?

ISHERWOOD

I think it’s awfully difficult to do, but possible: Dostoevsky does it better than almost anybody. One day somebody gave Prabhavananda The Brothers Karamazov. Now, although he has read all kinds of books, he certainly doesn’t restrict himself, he had read no novels. And he said, “But this is absolutely marvelous!” He was astounded; he adored the character of Father Zossima. He really thought that all novels must be like this. I’m afraid he was badly let down. But I think the experience of many people who take to contemplative religion is that when you first stir the thing up you get extraordinary moments of joy, a sense of excitement which tends later to disappear and only come back when you’re much further on. There’s no question that Prabhavananda has such moments, and then he’s quite something. In A Meeting by the River, though, Oliver is rather dour: his temperament is such that it’s rather difficult for him to feel that kind of joy. He has something of that kind of experience when he sits on the stone bench in the monastery, and he feels that Swami has been sitting beside him. This is one thing we rewrote in the play and tried to bring out more strongly, making it more like a series of ejaculations: “Yes! Yes, I saw him! He was actually there!”—that kind of thing. It’s written now in a way that makes it easier for the actor to project that kind of ecstatic joy. It’s really a terrific sense of relief: that after all the whole thing is true! You’ve been telling yourself that it is, but you didn’t absolutely believe it, and it’s only after you’ve had such an experience that you realize it really is: There’s always a further dimension of belief which you don’t think you have reached. I agree that it’s rather missing from the book; I hope it isn’t from the play.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps it’s a Western Christian attitude to expect these agonies: I guess what I’m saying is that the Hindu religion may be more joyous. I missed the suffering.

ISHERWOOD

No, the Hindus are not so impressed by suffering: They don’t think it’s something marvelous in quite the same way. It’s true that Ramakrishna said that people shed buckets of tears over their families and their bank accounts, but they won’t shed one tear for God. . . . The Bengalis, anyway, are so absolutely non-Nordic, very lively and bright and mercurial, and if they weep, it’s not for long; much more like the Italians.

INTERVIEWER

Edward Upward once said that you became a pacifist after your journey to the war in China. Was that in fact a turning point for you?

ISHERWOOD

Well, I’ve always hated explanations that sound so rational. I’m quite sure that I’ve had a strong leaning toward pacifism throughout my life. But it was very convenient to say that, and it’s not exactly a lie. It did bring things home to see what people look like after they’ve been killed in an air raid, to see the effects of gas gangrene on boy soldiers, to see millions of innocent civilians dragged into a war they neither wanted nor understood.

INTERVIEWER

Here’s a quotation that interested me from Down There on A Visit. The narrator is going through a crisis of sorts about his pacifism at the start of World War II, and he says: “Suppose I have in my power an army of five million men. I can destroy it instantly by pressing an electric button. The five millionth man is Waldemar. Will I press that button? No, of course not, even if the four million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine others are world-destroying fiends.” Is this your basic, personal reason for being a pacifist?

ISHERWOOD

Oh yes—because once you have refused to press the button on account of Waldemar, you can never press it. Because Waldemar might be absolutely anybody! And since then, I’ve had occasion to say this, tentatively thinking it might be regarded as a self-regarding, capricious argument—but to my surprise people said that it had convinced them more than some high-sounding reasons for being a pacifist. They thought it sensible. But really I was just trying to describe what, when you’re driven into a corner, makes you react that way.

INTERVIEWER

What does Vedanta teach?

ISHERWOOD

It’s quite ambivalent on the subject. The Hindus believe in one’s dharma, one’s duty, one’s nature; they say the great need is to discover one’s dharma, which, of course, is an intense mystery nowadays; in classical India you had your caste; your caste had its own duties. If you belonged to the second caste, the warriors, you either fought or became a monk . . . rather like the Middle Ages.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose the Christian position in justifying war is that the wicked simply profit from meekness and go on to worse evil.

ISHERWOOD

But then that’s a political argument, really. It’s not an argument that cuts any ice in reference to what we’re talking about. . . . Above all, and this is really what made the greatest impression on me when I was young, I got into my head how loathsome older people were when they preached war, when they were well past the age when they could be sent out to die. And I always said to myself, I won’t be like that when I get old. And yet you know, one of the best and noblest men I’ve known, Bertie Russell, got into exactly that situation. We talked about it, and he was marvelous—he said how it embarrassed him, but yet that he did believe this war—the Second World War—was different. As you know, he fearlessly opposed World War I. I said, Well, I didn’t think you could only oppose some wars. Just as later I’ve sometimes got into arguments with people who specifically resist just Vietnam, for instance. Except that on a political level one’s absolutely entitled to do that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you follow a routine when you’re writing a novel? A certain number of hours a day, that sort of thing?

ISHERWOOD

I don’t have any special routine. The great thing is to get after it every day, and that to my mind applies to everything one does; even the tiniest act of the will toward a thing is better than not doing it at all.

INTERVIEWER

Do you type?

ISHERWOOD

Yes. For many years I’ve written on a typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take you to write a book?

ISHERWOOD

Hard to say. Eighteen months, two years for A Single Man. I wrote three drafts in that time. When I was young, I used to proceed like a rock climber: I had to get to a certain point, and then I considered that everything below me was conquered. But now I don’t do that at all. I go through the first time in a very slapdash way, and if I get into some nonsense or digressions, I write it through to the end and come out on the other side. I’m not at all perfectionist at first. I do all the polishing in the last draft. When I was young, I was absolutely fanatical. I wrote in longhand, and I couldn’t bear for there to be any erasures on the paper, and since this was before all these wonderful breakthroughs with Liquid Paper, etc., I used to scratch words out with a razor and then polish the paper with my thumbnail and write it in again. It was terrible! I wasted so much energy fussing!

INTERVIEWER

Have your books been widely translated? What countries like them?

ISHERWOOD

Everything has been done in French and Italian; a certain amount in German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch. One little thing, a story called The Nowaks, in Russian. A couple of Czech and Spanish translations. But I don’t think they’re really popular in translations. It may be a question of nuance. The French really liked the books; they’ve been more sympathetic than anybody. The Germans, who you might think would be interested, were not all that much. The Berlin Stories, to some extent; the play of I Am a Camera was performed in Germany. There are things that are very difficult to translate: half puns and concealed quotations and little things like that.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any particular aspect of your work that you dislike?

ISHERWOOD

Well, my attitude’s rather like Pontius Pilate: What I have written I have written, you know; and I can’t imagine—as some writers have—going through a book and producing a rewritten version. There are some gross mistakes which I should change if I could ever remember to. Wrong words in German . . . silly things like that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you rewrite much?

ISHERWOOD

Yes, a great deal. What I tend to do is not so much pick at a thing but sit down and rewrite it completely. Both for A Single Man and A Meeting by the River I wrote three entire drafts. After making notes on one draft I’d sit down and rewrite it again from the beginning. I’ve found that’s much better than patching and amputating things. One has to rethink the thing completely.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed a remarkable number of changes in the version of “Mr. Lancaster” that originally appeared in the London Magazine and the final version of the book.

ISHERWOOD

You’re really a student! But you’re quite right. I just changed my whole attitude in certain parts of that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work fast?

ISHERWOOD

I don’t know; it seems to take me quite a time to finish a book. . . . They say D. H. Lawrence used to write second drafts and never look at the first.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you cut what seemed to me a climactic scene from “Paul” about hashish smoking?

ISHERWOOD

Simply because it didn’t relate to Paul, the character. It related to me. I thought we were getting too far away from Paul.

INTERVIEWER

When I read it later in Exhumations, I wished you’d left it in.

ISHERWOOD

Well, we did have it in even when the book was in proof. I only cut it at the last moment. Perhaps I was wrong to do so.

INTERVIEWER

One thing that surprised me about Ambrose, from the same book (Down There on A Visit), was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for things Greek; you absolutely didn’t partake of that special British literary worship of that part of the world.

ISHERWOOD

Well, it wasn’t the best way of seeing Greece; here we were, holed up on this island, and we got rather used to it. But I remember certain things about Greece that moved me tremendously.

INTERVIEWER

Yet this Hellenic syndrome, the fetish for Greece, never shows in your writing. I’m thinking of . . . Durrell . . . lots of them from Byron onwards. Greece means to them what Italy did to Forster.

ISHERWOOD

Well, I was very prejudiced in my youth against the values of the academic world; and since then I’ve become prejudiced in another way because I think that Hindu philosophy is so much broader in its scope than that of, say, Plato. That’s a temperamental thing, perhaps, but I’m not really knocked over by the Greeks. I can’t feel that “everything started in Greece,” or “had they not been there, there would be nothing.” I daresay this is my ignorance, but it’s how I feel. One aspect of Italy turned me on far more. I had the atypical experience of never seeing Italy when I was young. I went first in 1955 with Don; we went like two innocents, and we were duly stunned. I was, what, fifty-one? And I was seeing all this for the first time. It was late in the year, with few people about, and the most marvelous Indian summer. We drove through Tuscany, and in Milan we met an old friend, King Vidor, who was making War and Peace, and took absurd home movies of that. All his best takes were ruined because the Italian extras were having such a terrific time falling off bridges and roaring with laughter. And it all culminated in a rather banal—I suppose—experience, which was also the greatest part of the trip. We went to Venice and arrived in a thick fog and occupied a vast suite in some grand hotel where the prices had been slashed to a tenth because of the season. And in the morning I went to the window and there was this wonderful Guardi sunlight, and the lagoon, and Santa Maria della Salute. It simply hit me over the head, and I burst into tears. I’ve never felt like that to the same extent, except perhaps when I saw Yosemite, which was rather different.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your books gave you the greatest trouble to write?

ISHERWOOD

That miserable World in the Evening, because it’s several different books. You know, I almost hate that book. I hate her,* and her pathos, and her heart disease—which I got out of a book called When Doctors Are Patients. It was written by doctors who had different complaints, and one of them gave a marvelous description of what it’s like to have heart disease, from which I copied several scenes, the situations, that is, her terror, and so on. I rewrote them completely, of course. But it was a remarkable book. This doctor caught the drama of the thing, and he was objective about it. In the middle of being scared, he was saying “How interesting.” This I tried to catch in describing Elizabeth Rydal and her attacks.

INTERVIEWER

What went wrong with the book?

ISHERWOOD

I started to write an “I” book about working in a Quaker hospital. And then I thought that the “I” of the story was so peculiar that I must explain how he got into a hospital at all. So I decided that he must have some sort of upset in his own life, and instead of sticking to the facts, which were far more interesting, I devised this young gentleman with a wife who is cheating on him and all that. And from then on we were in trouble. One lie leads to another, and it was all so factitious and false. In the first chapter of The World in the Evening there’s a couple making it in an outside doll’s house. This actually existed. I got to know Norma Shearer’s son and went down to her beach house with him and saw this great big doll’s house, big enough for children to get inside, and my first thought was, What a wonderful place to screw in. And the whole scene evolved from that idea. It’d be a nice movie. Jane, the wife, was practically the only decent character in that book. The Quaker aunt isn’t too bad—perhaps a bit too holy. Stephen, the principal character, is a kind of goody-goody, full of false humility. I know exactly what I should have done in that book. I should have written it from the point of view of a minor character, a slightly hostile person. Then it would have been all right. It would simply have sounded then as if I was a stinker. A very good thing in a novel, to have a minor character who’s hostile. Maugham did it, more or less. He was looking to see what the lie was in the lives of the other characters, and when he found it, he gloated appropriately.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite among your books?

ISHERWOOD

Oh, A Single Man. I think it’s the only book of mine where I did more or less what I wanted to do. It didn’t get out of control.

INTERVIEWER

It’s also the fiercest in tone.

ISHERWOOD

Oh, do you think so? I think it’s terribly restrained.

INTERVIEWER

I meant the revenge fantasies George has driving on the freeway and so on.

ISHERWOOD

Oh, yes. I wanted to show that there was something boiling underneath. But that was a very deliberately written book. It wasn’t composed with “hands trembling with fury.”

INTERVIEWER

Have you tried consciously to give your later novels, those written in America, any religious or Vedantic basis?

ISHERWOOD

In a way. The first book I wrote after I’d become involved with Vedanta was very definitely an attempt to put myself back in an earlier phase of my life, and therefore I scrupulously left Vedanta out of it. There is at the end of Prater Violet a kind of soliloquy that’s very pessimistic in tone. I made it so deliberately because I was trying to give a true account of how I felt at that time. But of course it was really conditioned by contact with Vedanta.

INTERVIEWER

Does Vedanta appear at all in A Single Man?

ISHERWOOD

There are touches: the image at the end of the rock pools that are separate entities while the tide is out, and then the water comes, and they are all one flood of consciousness, and you can’t say that one is separate from the others. But of course it’s not about someone who’s religious in any sense. The man in A Single Man is a stoic, a very back-to-the-wall character.

INTERVIEWER

But possibly your belief in Vedanta influenced you to write about George in quite a different way than you otherwise would?

ISHERWOOD

Perhaps I felt more objective towards him. I really admire the sort of person that George is: It isn’t me at all. Here is somebody who really has nothing to support him except a kind of gradually waning animal vitality, and yet he fights, like a badger, and goes on demanding, fighting for happiness. That attitude I think rather magnificent. If I were in George’s place, I would think about killing myself because I’m less than George. George is heroic.

INTERVIEWER

But is George’s lifestyle dreadful to you, then?

ISHERWOOD

We have to be careful about what we mean by dreadful. I don’t mean I’m condemning it morally. I couldn’t live it without some kind of support.

INTERVIEWER

Would you write more about homosexuality if you were starting out now as a writer?

ISHERWOOD

Yes, I’d write about it a great deal. It is an exceedingly interesting subject, and I couldn’t, or I thought I couldn’t, go into it. It’s interesting because it’s so much more than just “homosexuality”; it’s very precious in a way, however inconvenient it may be. You see things from a different angle, and you see how everything is changed thereby.

INTERVIEWER

Maugham’s habit of writing about his male characters from a hidden gay angle gives his work a curious ambiguity.

ISHERWOOD

The book of his that seems to me most homosexual is The Narrow Corner. I think it’s my favorite. A very romantic book. It’s set on a ship. There’s this beautiful boy who’s wanted by everybody, including the police. There’s a wonderful doctor with a Chinese assistant who smokes opium. Very glamorous. I adore that book.

INTERVIEWER

What good do you think the gay liberation movement is doing in the United States? What do you think of its tactics?

ISHERWOOD

I think it’s a necessary way of doing things. It’s part of an enormous uncoordinated army that is advancing on various fronts toward recognition, toleration, and the acquisition of very simple rights. I never want to knock anything people do in a movement like that unless they resort to bomb throwing or something which is completely destructive.

INTERVIEWER

How about the protests against vice squad tactics at the LA police HQ, or the disruptions at these conventions of psychiatrists who seem these days to be the arch enemies of gay people?

ISHERWOOD

They’re very valuable. I welcome them enormously. What a waste of time and taxpayer’s money it is to have these healthy, well-equipped policemen used on such a frivolous chore as pushing homosexuals around in bars! This extraordinary harassment that goes on because somebody or other is supposed to have made a complaint. And at the same time the police here are saying they need more men!

INTERVIEWER

Still, public attitudes are changing.

ISHERWOOD

Oh yes. But what irritates me is the bland way people go around saying, “Oh, our attitude has changed. We don’t dislike these people any more.” But by the strangest coincidence, they haven’t taken away the injustice; the laws are still on the books. And if you ask them why that is—”Oh, it’s boring; it’s difficult; how does one go about it. . . .” A thing that seems to me almost worse than hatred and active opposition is the indifference that most people have toward minorities. Let them rot, they don’t care, they don’t care a bit! Also they’re hypocritical. They pretend to be much more shocked than they are. I often feel that worse than the most fiendish Nazis were those Germans who went along with the persecution of the Jews not because they really disliked them but because it was the thing.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you use the phrase “Whitmanesque homosexuality.” What exactly do you mean?

ISHERWOOD

I had in mind the concept of two men going off together, living a life that is in many ways not confined in the sense that recognized heterosexual marriage is confined. It’s a way of life that disturbs some people—quite needlessly, in my view—because there is at the back of their minds this illogical fear that something will happen. Their children will leap up and follow the Pied Piper, the whole structure of their lives will be changed—they don’t know what the threat is. They don’t know because really there is none.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask your opinion of Forster’s Maurice, which was so heavily criticized, even attacked, in the British press when it came out last year. Everyone had a go at it.

ISHERWOOD

What I loved about it was its passion. There Forster really spoke.

INTERVIEWER

More than elsewhere? He always spoke in a very passionate way, wouldn’t you say?

ISHERWOOD

Yes, there’s a great underlying passion. But this is the only time he spoke about homosexuality, which he felt very strongly about. He had a burning indignation about the way homosexuals were treated during much of his lifetime. That I love. I love works written in passion by great writers even when they’re a bit silly. I love Tolstoy’s furious essays.

INTERVIEWER

People have called Maurice sentimental.

ISHERWOOD

So it is, in places. But it’s a daring sentimentality. It does honor to Forster as a man. We’re not afraid of what’s called pornography, but we are terribly afraid of what we call sentimentality—the rash, incautious expression of feeling. And yet that sort of sentimentality is something an awful lot of us need to practice. Have you seen any of Forster’s homosexual stories? They’re going to be published—a man wrote to me asking if the ones I had were the same as he’d seen. There’s one—it’s quite late—that’s a tremendous melodrama of passion and fury . . . It takes place on a liner coming back from India. It’s very moving, quite beautiful.

INTERVIEWER

Yet we have people like Muggeridge saying he “can’t imagine” who reads him now.

ISHERWOOD

Forster is still Forster, and he will be read. He’s someone about whom I feel Thomas Hardy’s lines on Meredith apply: “No matter, further and further still thro the world’s vaporous vitiate air, his words wing on, as live words will.” I feel that he wings on.

INTERVIEWER

Was it E. M. Forster’s writing about India and Indian religion that first interested you in the subject?

ISHERWOOD

No, I wouldn’t say that was an influence. He influenced me purely as a writer by the way that he wrote. I had a glimpse from him of a whole new approach to the novel. His casualness, the way he lounges so easily into his novels, is a demonstration of something that is now really taken for granted, a kind of informality; instead of solemnly approaching the novel in the great classic manner and setting the scene, he says: One may as well begin with somebody’s letters. The other people who were writing then—Wells, for example—was tremendously modern in a sense, and yet there are more vestiges of the nineteenth century in his work than in Forster’s. He had relaxed, and that seemed immensely valuable. Also, he said about himself that he was a comic writer: I don’t think that was quite exact. I think he’s more what Gerald Heard called metacomic; a kind of comedy that goes beyond both comedy and tragedy. Both comedy and tragedy followed to the end are tiresome, sterile, empty, and unsatisfactory.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a lot of mysticism in his writing, too.

ISHERWOOD

Oh certainly, he was highly serious. But it’s just that whenever people are getting high-falutin he deflates them; and yet you never feel that he is merely sneering. He is doing it because he feels they are not really having the emotion appropriate to the occasion. In that way, both from his writing and from knowing him, he taught me a tremendous lesson. He did just the same kind of thing in person. I remember during the Spanish Civil War, we were all showing off a little bit—I was supposed to be going out on some kind of delegation (actually I didn’t go, we went to China instead), but I remember I decided I must make my will. Virginia Woolf was there, too. Anyway, I was showing off a bit, and somebody said: “Morgan, why don’t you come to Spain?” And he said: “I’d be afraid to,” and this completely deflated us. It was a remark of a really sterling character.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know Virginia Woolf well?

ISHERWOOD

Not well. She was my publisher, so to speak. Hogarth Press published The Memorial, Mr. Norris, and Lions and Shadows. I was fascinated by her, though. She was one of the most beautiful women I’ve met in my life, really absolutely stunning, in a very strange way. Of course she was middle-aged when I knew her. She had the quality that manic-depressive people have of being up to the sky one minute, down into despair and darkness the next. She had these terrible phases, as we know now; but what one saw was her tremendous animation and fun, on a gossipy level. She loved tea-table talk. One time I was at her place with a lot of people, and something happened to me that’s never again happened in my life. We had tea, and she said, “Do stay to dinner.” So I did and sat there absolutely enthralled. And suddenly, with a terrible shock, at about ten in the evening, I remembered that I was supposed to be going on a very romantic trip to Paris with somebody who was in fact waiting at the airport at that moment. I had completely forgotten about it. She had that effect on people.

INTERVIEWER

What brought you out here in the first place?

ISHERWOOD

I came out here primarily because the people I really knew in America were here. I knew Gerald Heard, and I was very anxious to talk to him about pacifism. Also I wanted very much to meet Aldous Huxley, whom I didn’t know before I came here. And I’d always wanted to see the West, in a romantic sort of way; so I just took off. We came by bus, stopping at various places. It took us about a month. People said that was the way to see America; and it was, I think; better than going on the train. We started in New York, then Washington, New Orleans, El Paso, Houston, and into New Mexico.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds a bit like Humbert Humbert’s trip with Lolita.

ISHERWOOD

It does, rather. I always loved the part of Lolita, the descriptions of the motels and that world of travel. I liked the film very much, too. I’m a great fan of Kubrick.

INTERVIEWER

Heard was a pacifist, of course?

ISHERWOOD

Yes. He was one of the most astounding people I ever met. He was a wonderful mythmaker. It was something approximately like knowing Jung. He saw the great archetypes that govern life to an extraordinary extent, and he knew an immense amount about what was going on in the world, all the really important advances on different scientific fronts, and how they related to each other; and he had taken in the whole area of mysticism and reconciled that with his other areas of knowledge. And he was Irish and had that magic gift of talk. An absolute spellbinder, and yet really extraordinarily little known.

INTERVIEWER

Was that perhaps because he wrote a body of work that makes such a complex structure? You have to read all the books to comprehend the scale. . . .

ISHERWOOD

Very complex. And also he had a very meandering and involuted style. He started with great sentences that wander on and on. There’s a very crude parody of the way he talks in Down There on a Visit, in the character of Augustus Parr. He was the sort of person who, if you asked: “What do you think about Vietnam?” would answer, “I suppose you know, of course, Holstein’s great work on the soldier ant . . .” and then go into a tremendous dissertation and about fifteen minutes later you would realize that this was a very appropriate way of answering the question. By that time, however, you’d be so awfully interested in what he was saying that you’d forgotten what your question was. But if you did remember, then you saw that he did in fact answer the question. But you had to sit still for it. He gave very definite answers, yet at the same time contrived not to be dogmatic.

INTERVIEWER

What did he think of the way you portrayed him?

ISHERWOOD

I think he thought it was a bit much, a bit of a caricature. But he wasn’t offended. He liked my writing quite a bit. I dedicated A Meeting by the River to him because he liked it so much.

INTERVIEWER

You lived close to him for several years, then?

ISHERWOOD

Very close, yes. He had an incredibly protracted death. He had a series of slight strokes and very slowly lost the faculty of speech. I think it went on for three years. And yet all the time you felt this very, very bright mind and no distress at any of it. He seemed to live more and more in a kind of meditative state and just be aware of the body lying there, obviously irreparable and soon to be abandoned, and he finally died very unobtrusively, just as he was about to drink some soup. He had a secretary who looked after him with absolutely superhuman devotion. One thing he was afraid of, as many of us are here, was of going into a hospital. The California hospitals are really something. It’s not that they’re not marvelous; it’s just that the most awful inhuman way to die is in one of them. Michael Barrie knew this, and he looked after him day and night throughout this whole period. I don’t think he would have lived much longer himself if Gerald hadn’t died. He’d lost so much weight, and he was like a wisp moving about. He could hardly lift Gerald at the end. He’s more or less recovered physically now. He has masses and masses of material which he’ll either put into shape or give to someone.

INTERVIEWER

When Aldous Huxley died, he took LSD, I believe.

ISHERWOOD

An incredibly weak dose. His wife asked the doctor, and he said, “Sure, what does it matter?” Needless to say, rumors got around until people were talking as if she’d performed a mercy killing or something, which was idiotic. I urged her, among other people, to print it, to stop all this nonsense. People talk about him as if he were an absolute hophead, but she told me—and she knows a good deal about drugs—that in many cases the kids who are really into this thing might take more in a single week than Aldous took in his entire life. He used very, very small amounts and almost always under scientific conditions . . . because it began as a scientific thing. A scientist from Canada asked if he would submit to it as a scientific experiment. He was very much against indiscriminate use, and he believed that everybody took far too much.

INTERVIEWER

Stravinsky refers to you very affectionately in one of the books with Craft. What do you remember about him?

ISHERWOOD

I always think of Stravinsky in a very physical way. He was physically adorable; he was cuddly—he was so little, and you wanted to protect him. He was very demonstrative, a person who—I suppose it was his Russianness—was full of kisses and embraces. He had great warmth. He could be fearfully hostile and snub people and attack his critics and so forth, but personally, he was a person of immense joy and warmth. The first time I came to his house, he said to me: “Would you like to hear my Mass before we get drunk?” He was always saying things like that. He seemed to me to have a wonderful appreciation for all the arts. He spoke English fluently, but it astonished me what an appreciation he had of writing in the English language, although he was really more at home in German or French—after Russian.

INTERVIEWER

In the Craft books, he manages superbly.

ISHERWOOD

Yes, they’re marvelous. When I was seeing a great deal of him, I was usually drinking a great deal, too, because he had these wonderful drinks. I recall a fatal, beautiful liquid called Marc—Marc de Bourgogne—made out of grape pits, colorless but powerful beyond belief. I used to think to myself, Goddamn it, I’m drunk again, and here’s Igor saying these marvelous things, and I won’t remember one of them in the morning. And along came Craft’s books years later, and I recognized that this was the very essence of what he’d been saying.

INTERVIEWER

He accuses you of falling asleep on one occasion during some of his music.

ISHERWOOD

Oh yes, I’m sure I did. When I think of those days, I really seem to have behaved very oddly. I remember once I’d actually passed out on the floor, and, looking up, I saw at an immense altitude above me, Aldous Huxley, who was very tall, standing up and talking French to Stravinsky, who never seemed to get overcome, however much he drank. And Aldous, who I think was very fond of me, was looking at me rather curiously, as much as to say, “Aren’t you going a little far?” It’s not like me to behave like that, or so I imagine. Perhaps it is. But I suddenly realized how relaxed I felt, how completely at home. It didn’t matter if I blotted my copy book.

INTERVIEWER

The Marc was at work?

ISHERWOOD

Well, you can get drunk in many ways, but the Stravinskys projected the most astounding coziness. Because Vera Stravinsky was a part of it, she had enormous charm and style, and she’s very amusing. Going out with them was always an experience. We drove up once to the sequoia forest, and I remember Stravinsky, so tiny, looking up at this enormous giant sequoia and standing there for a long time in meditation and then turning to me and saying: “That’s serious.”

INTERVIEWER

Are you musical?

ISHERWOOD

No, not at all. In the first place I’m very conventional. I don’t consider that you really have a feeling about an art unless you react to its most modern manifestations. In the graphic arts I’m much more flexible and interested in all kinds of painting. But with the best will in the world, I just don’t dig a lot of modern music. I like Beethoven and so on.

INTERVIEWER

But you like Stravinsky’s music.

ISHERWOOD

Yes. But even with Stravinsky it took me an awfully long time.

INTERVIEWER

W. H. Auden has also worked with Stravinsky. You first knew Auden at school, didn’t you?

ISHERWOOD

Yes, at my first boarding school, but he was three years younger than I. He showed absolutely no interest in poetry in those days. He was a very scientific little boy—the son of a doctor—interested in metallurgy, geology, mining. He knew a great deal about the different mines in England, and he loved going on hikes in the North Country to visit them. He had a mystique, a tremendously strong myth world, that he carried with him from early childhood. Then I met him again when he was eighteen and I was twenty-one, and he showed me all the poems he had written—not at all the kind of thing he’s known for now. It was imitative, but brilliantly so; it sounded a bit like Hardy or Frost, or Edward Thomas.

INTERVIEWER

How did you work with Auden on your collaborations?

ISHERWOOD

He was constantly showing me his work, and we’d discuss it. Then one day—it was in the winter of 1934-35—he sent me a play called The Chase, and I made suggestions that would fill it out. There were parts that I could write and things that only he could write, and in this way we began to put together this enormous, loosely constructed thing called The Dog Beneath the Skin. It’s never been performed in its entirety; it’s too long. We were truly astonished at how well it was received at a London theater, so we thought, well, we must do this again. And we consciously thought of a subject, the study of a leader like Lawrence of Arabia but translated into terms of mountain climbing—The Ascent of F6. We wanted to contrast mountain climbing for climbing’s sake and mountain climbing used for political ends, just as Lawrence went into the desert first because he loved it and ended up being used politically. Auden was the composer, the poet, and my function was to write the prose and lay out general lines. Later, Auden took over some of the prose, but I didn’t write a line of poetry, apart from one scrap of doggerel. By the time we reached On the Frontier, Auden was writing more than I, although it was still definitely a collaboration. The first play we wrote more or less by correspondence, sending each other pages. But on the second and third play we worked together, in Portugal and elsewhere. Auden, who loves to be indoors, would work inside the house, and I’d be working out in the garden. He got through his stint—including some of his finest poetry—with amazing speed. We did very little polishing, and off it went to the publishers.

INTERVIEWER

Did you see him often, or correspond?

ISHERWOOD

Oh yes, we were very close friends, but the circumstances of our lives kept us apart. Very occasionally he came here and stayed with us, and sometimes we saw him in New York or England. He detested California, you know, it’s too hot or bright or something. He moved to Austria, where it rains a lot; he loved that. And England, too, of course.

INTERVIEWER

Do you show your work to others much? Do you ask advice on it?

ISHERWOOD

Yes, I’ve shown work to people on many occasions. Sometimes I’ve profited from it a lot. The good suggestions were usually about structure. And sometimes people have objected very strongly to something, and I’ve taken it out.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t find any difficulty in talking about what you’re working on?

ISHERWOOD

No, except that you’re opening such a can of beans, you have to talk for an hour to explain what you’re doing. But I’ve often found that simply talking about one’s problems ends in you yourself coming up with the answer.

INTERVIEWER

Have you any superstitions about writing?

ISHERWOOD

I do have a sense of auspicious days. I like to celebrate some significant day by starting a new piece of work.

INTERVIEWER

Are you superstitious, period?

ISHERWOOD

Jungians say there’s no such thing as an old wives’ tale: in other words, if people say it’s bad luck to walk under ladders, there must be a reason for it. I’m negatively superstitious—which means, of course, that I respect the superstition, I don’t disbelieve in it: I walk under ladders, find the number thirteen favorable, invariably refuse to send chain letters on because I feel there’s something wrong in submitting to the evil magic of a chain letter. One has to rise above it.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke earlier of sexual abstinence and the resulting storing up of energy: Is this a practice you’ve consciously tried in your writing?

ISHERWOOD

No, that’s seen more as a means toward spiritual concentration than artistic concentration; although some artists do say that during periods of intense creativity they find the sex drive has been . . . I hate the word sublimated . . . redirected. I’m quite open to the argument that it would work with anything. But in my case it was concerned with the period when I was trying to live a monastic life at the Vedanta Center in Los Angeles.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a moment when you knew that you would be a writer?

ISHERWOOD

I feel I always wanted to be a writer. My father, without, I think, realizing what he was doing, made me think of writing as play rather than work. He was always telling me stories, encouraging me, taking an interest in my toy theater, and so on. And it seems to me that writing has been a game that I have gone on playing ever since. I am inclined to think of writers who bore me as being “workers.”

INTERVIEWER

Both your parents wrote well, didn’t they? Your father’s letters in Kathleen and Frank are very observant.

ISHERWOOD

That’s partly because he was quite a good artist. I’ve never known an artist who couldn’t write better than average. Their eye for detail and power of describing people is remarkable. I see this in Don Bachardy and all my friends who are artists. They write letters that are full of understanding and observation. My father had that to a great extent. In one of his letters from South Africa during the Boer War there’s a beautiful passage about the deep blue light which is reflected from the roofs of corrugated iron out on the veldt, and how ridiculous it is to call corrugated iron ugly. He looked at a thing and asked himself, “What does it look like?” not “What is the popular preconception?” One of my earliest memories is that once, when I was trying to paint, imitating him, he asked me: “What color is that tree?” I said it was green, of course: Trees as a genus are green. “No it isn’t,” he said. And in that light, when I looked, the tree was blue.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a constant observer, consciously looking for things you can use as a writer?

ISHERWOOD

I think I’m a very unobservant person, one who goes straight to concepts about people and ignores evidence to the contrary and the bric-a-brac surrounding that person. Stephen Spender said an amusing thing about Yeats—that he went for days on end without noticing anything, but then, about once a month, he would look out of a window and suddenly be aware of a swan or something, and it gave him such a stunning shock that he’d write a marvelous poem about it. That’s more the kind of way I operate: suddenly something pierces the reverie and self-absorption that fill my days, and I see with a tremendous flash the extraordinariness of that person or object or situation.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say something about the process of turning a real person into a fictional character?

ISHERWOOD

It happens through the process of thinking of them in their eternal, magic, symbolic aspects: It’s rather the way you feel when you fall in love with somebody and that person ceases to be just another face in the crowd. The difference is that in art, almost by definition, everybody is quite extraordinary if only you can see them as such. When you’re writing a book, you ask yourself: What is it that so intrigues me about this person—be it good or bad, that’s neither here nor there, art knows nothing of such words. Having discovered what it is you really consider to be the essence of the interest you feel in this person, you then set about heightening it. The individuals themselves aren’t quite up to this vision you have of them. Therefore you start trying to create a fiction character that is quintessentially what you see as interesting in the individual, without all the contradictions that are inseparable from a human being, aspects that don’t seem exciting or marvelous or beautiful. The last thing you’re trying to do is get an overall picture of somebody, since then you’d end up with nothing.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing pleasurable?

ISHERWOOD

It’s almost beyond the question of pleasure, isn’t it? Is it pleasurable to work out at the gym? It is, and it isn’t, but you have the feeling while you’re doing it that it’s something on the plus side. You’re very absorbed in writing, and you don’t ask yourself if it’s pleasurable or distasteful. Making yourself write can be painful, and wonderful when you do. The will has asserted itself, and you feel good again.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to advise a young writer, what sort of pitfalls would you warn him against?

ISHERWOOD

Hard to say. It depends much more on your character than your talent. Some pursuits could be dangerous for a writer without much stamina. But I think, if you have enough drive and strength, there’s very little that’s going to hurt you. Many remarkable writers not only survive immense amounts of hack work, they gain know-how from it. Writers who’ve been in the newspaper business, for example—instead of moaning and regarding themselves as slaves and prostitutes, they’ve in fact learned how to write more concisely. George Borrow, who wrote the most mountainous works of sheer plodding involving an enormous output of energy, was still able to write Lavengro and The Romany Rye, which to me are two of the most fascinating books ever written.

INTERVIEWER

Well, do you think writers who settle down in California, in the entertainment industry, compromise themselves in some way, or is that a fiction?

ISHERWOOD

I’ll bet Shakespeare compromised himself a lot; anybody who’s in the entertainment industry does to some extent. But are you going to sink or swim? There’s a most awful daintiness in the idea that everything you write should be just so—perfection—and all the rest carefully destroyed so that it won’t hurt your image. Often this is a dangerous kind of vanity. Goodness knows, I’ve written lots of stuff that I hate, but there it is, flapping around in the vaults of various motion-picture studios; and sometimes I’ve done good work for the cinema. If you want the money, and you want to live that way, you’ve just got to take it. I suppose, under ideal circumstances, I would say, have some other profession and keep your writing for yourself. That amazing man Henry Yorke, who writes under the name of Henry Green, has found time during most of his adult life to run a big business, and yet every day he puts in a stint of work on one of his novels. You can survive anything if you’ve got the stamina.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your favorite novel about the entertainment industry?

ISHERWOOD

I’m very fond of Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel, The Last Tycoon. I never met him, but I don’t think Fitzgerald was too worried about “compromise”: He wrote a lot of stuff for magazines and so forth that wasn’t up to his standards.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever consciously change or adopt a way of life or accept friendships that you felt would help you as a writer?

ISHERWOOD

No. I didn’t, for example, go to Germany because I thought it was a marvelous untilled field to cultivate. I personally believe that there is a part of one’s subconscious will that directs one’s life, that there is a part of me that is carrying out long-range schemes. I believe that this part of my will also knows when I shall die, and how much time I’ve got and everything else. I believe it has schemes which often, in my ignorance, I frustrate—schemes which are not always necessarily for the best. But I’m quite willing to suppose that it was this part of my will that caused me to go to Germany, or to California. . . . I see certain places as symbols in one’s consciousness. I found the notion of the Far West infinitely romantic. I used to be thrilled by the expression l’extrème Orient. If you tell me that Bray Head is the westernmost point in Europe, I immediately experience a slight desire to go there. But no conscious voice said it would be a smart thing to go to Germany or California. It might be a good thing for a writer to go to prison or be sentenced to death and reprieved at the last moment, like Dostoyevsky; I daresay it did wonders for his writing, and maybe this unconscious director steered him along those paths. Who can tell?

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever been completely stuck on a book?

ISHERWOOD

Oh yes.

INTERVIEWER

And how’d you get unstuck?

ISHERWOOD

Patience. Persistence. Putting it away and then coming back to it. Never allowing myself to get frantic. Repeating to myself, “There’s no deadline; it’ll be finished when it’s finished.” Sometimes, I can get a helpful idea from the unconscious by irritating it—deliberately writing nonsense until it intervenes, as it were, saying, “All right, idiot, let me fix this.”

INTERVIEWER

Did you like the film of Cabaret?

ISHERWOOD

Oh, a bit . . .

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a work in progress?

ISHERWOOD

What I’m writing now is simply a reconstruction of some diaries which I failed to keep. I have a fairly continuous narrative of the years 1939-44. I not only kept a diary, I wrote fill-in passages to explain things that were missing. More or less at the time. Then again, from about 1955 on to the present day I kept a diary on and off, at least a couple of entries a month. But there’s a very bald patch in between from ‘45 to ‘53, and that I’m trying to fill out. I have this one thing to clue me in, which is that aside from trying to keep a journal, I keep a day-to-day diary in which I say things like who came to the house where we had supper, if we saw a movie or a play. It’s very convenient for remembering names and when things happened. And out of these diaries, I’m trying to reconstruct what happened all those years ago. In those days I wasn’t as careful as I am now. I’m horrified to find, as I look at these diaries of twenty-five years ago or more, that I don’t remember who the people were. “Bill and Tony were constantly in and out. We went to La Jolla”—or something. I haven’t the bluest idea who they were! That requires quite a lot of research—I spent some time at UCLA the other day looking up things. It’s a lot of fun, but whether it will amuse anyone else is another matter. I’m doing it entirely for myself. This diary writing is tremendously useful. I’ve quarried into it—the other diaries—for a lot of my books.

INTERVIEWER

Would you think of publishing what you’re working on now in your lifetime?

ISHERWOOD

No, it couldn’t be in my lifetime. In writing these diaries, I’ve got into the whole sex thing: I became interested in thinking why one does certain things, why one’s attracted to certain people—one’s type, as they used to say, one’s ideal. Is that really true? Does one really have a “type”? What do people represent as archetypes, so to speak? It’s been my experience, and I’m sure lots of people’s, there is an ideal person who you imagine is your, ah, dream; but if you examine your life, you seem to find that if in fact you did meet someone who resembled that person, you didn’t have any relationship with him at all, or only a very unsatisfactory one, and the really important relationships occurred with quite other people. So the question arises: Why is that? I’ve been going into all this, using for my text any actual relationships I had during this period. But I’ve got rather carried away by the subject, and I’ve gone back to earlier experiences to fill it out. It’s perhaps the kind of thing you can only do in your old age. Sometimes you find an encounter with someone who is so stunningly what you think you want that the whole encounter becomes purely symbolic—it doesn’t really mean anything at all. Like a restaurant: It’s good because it’s Chasen’s. You don’t really ask yourself if it’s good; you just say, “Wow . . . I got to eat at the Four Seasons,” or whatever it is. But it’s just about whatever happened to happen in those years. In general, I’ve been rather discreet otherwise in my diaries.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke somewhere of a project called the “Autobiography of My Books.”

ISHERWOOD

Yes. I even gave some lectures about it at Berkeley, about 1959.* I thought I would describe the principal subjects in my books and point out that every writer has certain subjects that they write about again and again, and that most people’s books are just variations on certain themes. I thought I’d like to write a book about this. And then I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough about my principal themes, which were my father and mother, and the home place, and one’s longing to get away from it, and what that’s represented by: the other place. So I started studying my parents’ letters and diaries, and I got into writing Kathleen and Frank. The other project was abandoned, but if anybody ever wanted to know where a lot of stuff in my books comes from, they would find the answers in Kathleen and Frank.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a book you would like to write but haven’t?

ISHERWOOD

I’m interested in writing something about now. Old age. I’ve never read anything except Gide’s The Chips Are Down, which seemed satisfactory, a marvelous book about old age.

INTERVIEWER

It isn’t a subject people like very much.

ISHERWOOD

No, exactly, it’s one of those subjects that people think are an absolute bore.

INTERVIEWER

You never seem too oppressed by what so many Europeans moan about here—vulgarity, crassness, all the rest of it.

ISHERWOOD

I think I’d been prepared for it. I was shocked, in 1939, by what I saw of the segregation in traveling across the United States. I could never understand that it applied to me, personally. I caused great distress once by sitting in the wrong section of a train. I was hot and tired and in a hurry and jumped into a coach and slowly became aware that the coach was for black people. And I thought, well, this is California now, we’re not segregated officially. But I soon saw that I was really causing great uneasiness; everyone wanted me to leave. I didn’t understand all these ramifications.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a special liking for the Southern Californian way of living?

ISHERWOOD

Well, there are certain things you have to get used to, like driving on the freeways, which some people find shattering, and a certain kind of ugliness, which is only ugliness in the eye of the beholder. There is enormous beauty here; the coastline is still magnificent. But to me it means an ideal place to work. It’s my home now. I’ve lived here half my life, much longer than anywhere else. I traveled about so much when I was young, I never had a home before. This place seems to fit me like a glove. And beyond that there’s a tremendous kind of vitality.

INTERVIEWER

You sometimes seem very defensive in your books about America. There’s the scene in A Single Man, for instance, in which George assails a woman who is vaunting the naturalness of Mexico above the United States . . .

ISHERWOOD

I used to hear a lot against America when I went back to England. People took such very superior attitudes. They don’t understand a bit what the feeling is here, what it’s all about. I feel it’s so easy to condemn this country; but they don’t understand that this is where the mistakes are being made—and made first, so that we’re going to get the answers first. I feel that very strongly. I feel it’s marvelous the way we talk about our failings. You know, there’s an odd quotation in one of Edward Upward’s novels: something like “We shall not perish, because we are not afraid to speak of our failings, and thus we shall learn to overcome our failings.” It’s a quotation from Stalin! Really! But it could be said here. We really do, in spite of our failings, in spite of everything, really air things here. Quite brutally. It’s a violent country, and this, at least historically, is one of the more violent states. It’s no place for people who want to sleep quietly in their beds.

 

* Elizabeth Rydal, the Katherine Mansfield-type novelist, who is the novel’s central character.

* Isherwood actually gave the Berkeley lectures in 1963. 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton