The Discipline Of DE is a short 16mm film directed by Gus Van Sant. It’s based on a story in “Exterminator!” by William Burroughs that at times reads like Buddhist noir:
DE is a way of doing. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.You can start right now tidying up your flat, moving furniture or books, washing dishes, making tea, sorting papers. Don’t fumble, jerk, grab an object. Drop cool possessive fingers onto it like a gentle old cop making a soft arrest.”
Van Sant discusses the early stages of making the film:
This was my first film outside of my school projects, made in 1977 or so, and was the occasion that I was able to first meet William S. Burroughs, whose writing I much admired and who lived at the time in New York City. I wanted to get in touch with him to ask his permission to film this small story, and found him listed in the New York telephone book. I was under the impression that if I visited him and asked his permission in person that I would have more of a chance. And that may have been true—he did give me an okay—but also I was able to ask a few questions about the ideas in the story.
One of the things he said during our visit, not in the film or story, was, “Of course, when anyone knocks something over, or trips over something or breaks anything, they are at that moment thinking of someone they don’t like.”
...every time I knocked something over or tripped over anything I stopped to think, and I was always thinking of someone or some¬thing that I didn’t like. This was illuminating. Time and again, when I fumbled and broke something, there it was, I was thinking about some unfortunate incident in my past where I had been misjudged, ridiculed, or caught red-handed by someone, or when I stubbed my toe, I realized that I was thinking of a meeting in the future with someone about something that I didn’t want any¬thing to do with. So, the answer was possibly to not do too much moving around when things appear in your mind that could lead to someone or something that you don’t like. I haven’t mastered this one, however.
“Exterminator!” was published in 1973. A couple of years after its publication, Burroughs came to Boulder, Colorado to conduct a series of readings and workshops for the Jack Kerouac School Of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. His concept of doing things easily fit in perfectly with the Dharma teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In an atmosphere dominated by Tibetan Buddhist iconography and terminology, Burroughs’ approach was refreshingly Western while still capturing the essence of Trungpa’s crazy wisdom, a Zen-like attitude, both rigorous and lighthearted.
JRR Tolkien seems like a character out of “The Hobbit” in this charming BBC documentary, In Their Own Words British Authors J.R.R. Tolkien, from March of 1968.
The interviews with Oxford students are fascinating in their wildly divergent views on Tolkien’s fantastic novels. A couple of them come off as humorless, pretentious twits who have clearly not yet been introduced to any kind of mind-altering substances.
An entertaining half hour spent with a man who initiated many of us into realms of magic, shifting our consciousness away from the mundane into the mystic.
You’d think that people who actually go to the effort of visiting libraries, taking books from them, and then reading said books, would be a little more enlightened as to the harm posed to society by banning books. Alas no, as yesterday the American Library Association published its list of the ten books library patrons tried to have banned last year, known as the “Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010”. I’m not familiar with a lot of work on this list, as I don’t tend to read “young adult”-type fiction, but there are some surprising choices on here:
1. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson Reasons: Homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley Reasons: Insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
4. Crank by Ellen Hopkins Reasons: Drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
6. Lush by Natasha Friend Reasons: Drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
7. What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones Reasons: Sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
8. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich Reasons: Drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint
9. Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology edited by Amy Sonnie Reasons: Homosexuality, sexually explicit
10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer Reasons: Religious viewpoint, violence
Brave New World? Are they serious?! A dystopian critique set in a future world where books are banned, and they want to ban the book? Then again maybe the pro-ban lobby are actually really progressive, as surely I am not the only who has though that Huxley’s future of mood controlling drugs and casual sex is actually kind of appealing. But I can think of much heavier dystopian work that would seem more suitable for banning. I guess it’s just the sex that’s offensive.
There were 348 reports of efforts to remove books from America’s shelves in 2010, down from 460 the previous year. But the ALA believes the majority of challenges go unreported, and called on Americans to “protect one of the most precious of our fundamental rights – the freedom to read”.
“While we firmly support the right of every reader to choose or reject a book for themselves or their families, those objecting to a particular book should not be given the power to restrict other readers’ right to access and read that book,” said Barbara Jones, director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom. “As members of a pluralistic and complex society, we must have free access to a diverse range of viewpoints on the human condition in order to foster critical thinking and understanding.”
After a vibrant life, Joe Bageant died yesterday following a four-month struggle with cancer. He was 64. Joe is survived by his wife, Barbara, his three children, Timothy, Patrick and Elizabeth, and thousands of friends and admirers. He is also survived by his work and ideas.”
Joe Bageant was an extraordinarily gifted writer and thinker. Author of Deer Hunting With Jesus and countless essays and editorials on politics and society, Joe was a champion of human rights and a fearless critic of our government’s mistreatment of its working class. His writing is imbued with compassion but also a caustic wit that laid bare the working class’s tendency to do what is in their own worst interests. Watching Joe tear into the Teabaggers was like watching an extremely large feral cat play with its food. His death comes at a time when his voice is needed more than ever. I’m not sure there’s anyone out there that can fill the void.
This is not an obituary. I’m not trying to give the reader an overview of Joe’s life in a few paragraphs. I am sharing a few of my memories of Joe as a friend and writer.
The last time I saw Joe Bageant was in February of 2009. He helped save my life. I was in the middle of an agonizing divorce, a divorce I didn’t want. I was struggling with the most profound despair I’d ever experienced, barely hanging on, trying to keep my business, my home and my marriage together. I could see the marriage part was doomed but I held on, pretending to the people who worked for me and my customers that everything was okay. It was a pathetic charade and one that was exhausting to maintain. Between bouts of drinking and staring at walls, I somehow managed to create a theater of normalcy…until I couldn’t anymore. While all my friends were telling me to do the responsible thing, to stick it out for the sake of maintaining control of my business and home, it was an unending nightmare trying to sustain a sense of order while suffering through an emotional apocalypse. Money, the house, the business didn’t mean jackshit to me compared to having someone I deeply loved leave me, and leave ugly, after 18 years of being together. I knew I’d die by drink or my own hand if the pain continued.
It was in the darkest night of my dark night of the soul that I received a phone call from an old friend that I hadn’t heard from in at least a decade. It was Joe Bageant. He had no idea what I’d been going through, but I am convinced that somewhere deep down Joe had heard my sobs and felt my desperation. I told him of my situation and he gave me the only advice that made any real difference. Joe said “Marc, it’s alright to run from your problems.” I repeat, he said “Marc, it’s alright to run from your problems.” He was the only one of my friends to say what I had been thinking and feeling but was too emotionally conflicted to do: get the fuck out of Dodge, and get out now! And Joe backed it up by offering me his beach hut in Belize as a sanctuary. I packed my car and drove to the coffeehouse I owned with my wife. She was behind the counter waiting on a customer. I walked up to her and gave her a long and heartfelt kiss. I said goodbye. I haven’t seen her since.
Joe Bageant wasn’t big on doing the “responsible” things in life. He was big on telling the truth, when he wasn’t making colorful shit up, and he was real big at trying to change the fucked-up world we live in. Joe was responsible in that that he kept gas in the truck and food on the table, but Joe never did anything that he didn’t want to do. He got through life by really and truly being himself. Joe had the Buddha nature. He instinctively knew that life was a richer experience if you didn’t try to control or organize it according to outmoded belief systems. If responsibility entailed compromising your values, your compassion and happiness, then Joe was the most irresponsible man on the planet.
I know Joe made his rep as a progressive redneck with a conscience, but that was only one dimension of a complex and tricky dude. When I first met him in Boulder, Colorado in the early 70s, Joe was living in a converted school bus with his wife Cindy and son Timothy (named after Dr. Leary). On the surface they looked like your stereotypical hippie family. But when they spoke in their sultry southern drawls the words that came out of their mouths weren’t littered with hippie cliches or new age jargon. The Bageant family weren’t Aquarian age Clampetts, they were totally unique and totally magic. Cindy was an oldschool southern gal with the most bodacious Afro I’ve ever seen on a white chick and Joe was some kind of madcap hillbilly visionary. Joe laid the southern thing on thick, mostly to humorous effect. He knew his chicken-fried diphthongs would spook the longhairs who were still re-living the last reel of Easy Rider in their heads. Joe played with people’s expectations, he was a real mindfucker. Like Neal Cassidy, Joe had a sense of playfulness and knew how to drive a bus.
Boulder in the 70s was becoming a mecca for poets thanks to the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School Of Disembodied Poetics. The streets and bars were crawling with bards and beatniks. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Creeley, Di Prima, Waldman and dozens of other writers were reading, writing and speechifying in bookstores, schoolrooms and coffeehouses. The Muses had gathered over Boulder like a radiant syntactical cloud, raining down vowels and consonants on tongues of invisible angels. It was impossible to be around the energy of the moment and not think poetic thoughts.
Bageant wasn’t a writer, or much of one at the time. He wasn’t part of Boulder’s literary scene. But, as I would soon discover, Joe was paying very close attention to what was going on and secretly he wanted in. Years later, in an interview with Energy Grid magazine, Joe described Boulder’s poetry vortex and writing in general:
Nobody was sitting me on their knee and telling me the secrets of writing and magicianship. But I was accepted in their company and at parties and got to watch them live their lives creatively and with passion. I came to the conclusion that this writing thing and the arts in general had as much to do with how you lived as anything else. It was clear to me that I should watch and learn from people like Ginsberg, who was the most famous poet on the planet for a reason.
As far as writing goes, I was influenced by all the usual suspects of my generation, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, William Styron, Genet, and especially all the Southern writers, Welty, Willie Morris… not to mention a lot of people who never got the respect they deserved, especially poets like Marc Campbell of Taos, New Mexico and Jack Collom of Boulder, Colorado. Their works really clued me in on the connection between words, your brain and your heart.
Joe mentions me in the above quote and I share it not to flatter myself but to give you some insight to Joe’s approach to the whole writing thing. I had no idea at the time that Joe gave a shit about my poetry or anybody’s. In some ways I think he may have actually been embarrassed by the notion of becoming a writer. It was too much of a “scene,” too bourgeois and narcissistic. I never saw him writing. I read him my poems and he would nod and smile and blurt out a “right on” now and then, but I had no idea that he was listening with the ears of a blossoming writer. When Joe eventually sprung his work on me it was jaw-droppingly good, fully formed, inventive and visionary. He worked the southern vernacular up into something that drifted on wings of song.
Poets are a competitive lot, lyrical gunslingers looking to lay waste to the latest hotshot wordsmith that pulls into town. I must admit that, along with just about every local poet in Boulder, Joe’s talent sent me racing to the typewriter to take up the gauntlet he had thrown down. Envy, jealousy and the competitive urge may lack virtue in and of themselves, but they can fuel great works. When poets say they only write for themselves, I respond “bullshit.” Go to any open poetry reading and watch the poets chomping at the bit to hit the lectern and spew their restless poesy. It makes the open mic night at a blues club look like the epitome of brotherly goodwill and graciousness. Joe had quietly been honing his craft in the shadows, but when he finally unleashed his writing it was one glorious monster.
On the one hand, Joe was a down-to-earth, unschooled, self-taught everyman who happened to have a brilliant analytical mind. On the other, he was a cosmic cowboy who had eaten his fair share of good LSD and knew that within the yin and yang of the material world lay dimensions of untold beauty and mystery. Instead of fracturing his point of view, Joe’s multiple and occasionally opposing characteristics played off of each other and deepened his perspective on all things, from the mundane to the magnificent. With the added element of a biting sense of humor and a healthy dose of cynicism, Bageant was son and brother to Lenny Bruce, Paul Krassner and Tim Leary. Eating peyote with Joe was like taking a fast ride down the highway of absolute reality while a hyperkinetic bluegrass band played the music of the spheres on a transistor radio made of human brain matter.
When I spent time with Joe in 2009 he was ill. He had problems with his liver (he had been a drinker in his life) and his energy level was somewhat diminished, but his mind was as quick and lucid as ever. He spoke of the many projects he was working on - his blog, a screenplay, memoirs, columns, essays, etc - and gave no hint that his days might be numbered. The word “cancer” was never spoken, so I assume he didn’t have it then or didn’t want to talk about it. I did detect in Joe a sense of urgency at the time. Upon reflection, it seemed as though he was trying to get as much done as swiftly as possible. He had passed the age of 60 and, along with his liver problems, I think he was very conscious of his own mortality. I was used to seeing Joe operating at a high level, but I was not used to seeing him in states of exhaustion. It’s usually spine-stiffening to see an old friend after years of no physical contact. Those are moments when you’re reminded that we’re not going to live forever and there are no exceptions. Not you, not me, not Joe.
Joe had chosen Belize as a retreat because he liked the small fishing village where he lived. It wasn’t a tourist area. It was dirt poor and Joe felt connected to the people living there. Hopkins Village was founded by Africans who had jumped from shipwrecked slave ships in the 1600s and forged out a life for themselves and defended it against the encroachment of European imperialists. These were Joe’s kind of people - independent and loving life despite hardship and adversity.
I had gone to Belize to cry on a friend’s shoulder, but Joe really wasn’t up for wallowing in pity. I mistook his coolness to my pain as being Buddhist detachment or his own self-absorption. As I said, I understand now that he intuitively knew his days on earth were limited and to waste it on the past, mine or his own, was to squander precious time. He had pulled me out the fire and that was enough. It was time to move on, brother. Losing your life always trumps losing your wife. He had saved my fucking life. What more did I want?
Any day spent with Joe was a spiritual adventure. He was always sparking on all cylinders, a speedfreak without the speed. Fortunately for all of us, Joe finished his memoir before he died. I have the feeling it was just the first volume of others to follow. I can’t wait to read it. Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir comes out on March 30th and you can pre-order it here. Buy it and be happy to get a chance to spend some time with an extraordinary soul.
I have no idea what Joe would have done had he lived another 20 years. But I like the future he imagined for himself:
I plan to have a cottage in someplace like Andalusia, or French Martinique; someplace VERY cheap that I can go and write and snipe at the Republic of terror. One man never beat a mob in its own turf. I’ll stroke my wife’s sweet snatch, pet my dogs and give heart to my children (every one of whom is a good lefty) in some dry place where my arthritic fingers will loosen up enough to learn to play flamenco guitar. I’m serious folks! There is not a person on this earth who can say I never did what I promised… eventually. And every reader here, every son and daughter of good yeoman liberty and decency, as it is defined by the suffering poor of this planet, is invited to come visit, eat tapas and drink wine at my table. Solidarity!”
I drank wine at Joe Bageant’s table and it was sweet and the taste lingers still.
From Joe Bageant’s Lafayette Park Blues:
America: When we first stepped onto this playground of the national soul together, I truly believed you were not a bully, that you were the protector of queers and thick-tongued immigrants and laboring spiritual hoboes like me. I have tossed down your dreams straight from the bottle with no chaser, then bought a round for the house, because this is the goddam land of the free where even a redneck boy from Virginia can dream the dreams of bards, call himself a writer then walk away from dark ancestral ghosts to actually become one.
I believed it all, America. And I still fall for it if I let my guard down, just like the abused wife who believes she will not be punched again for that thousand and first time. All the neighbors — whole nations — believed in you too, despite the muffled screams of the black slave and the Red Indian coming from within your own house. But now you are lurking on the neighbors’ porches smelling of the halls of Abu Gharib and gun grease and there are no cops to call because you ARE the cops, so they are going to break down the doors and cut your balls off.
I can’t sleep at nights and don’t you pretend that you are asleep. Talk to me! You are going to have to say you love your native son or this whole terrible ecstatic thing of ours is over. You have changed over the many years we have been writhing together in this little power struggle of yours and mine — the one between little guy liberty and big authority. Now you have become the police court judge of my days and I dare not even leave your house for a quart of milk or a look at the stars. It’s too late for counseling. You have broken my heart one too many times. Cracked one too many ribs.
Time is short. Dawn will bring nothing good, I promise you.
Speak to me like you used to.
Or it’s over.”
There’ll never be another like Joe…but that doesn’t mean we all can’t try. Power to the people and the poets!
Mark Dery writes in today’s New York Times of the continuing influence of Edward Gorey, author of Amphigorey and The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Dery is currently writing a biography of the gruesome author and illustrator, a book the linguistically exact cultural critic seems to have been born to write:
Gorey was born to be posthumous. His poisonously funny little picture books — deadpan accounts of murder, disaster and discreet depravity, narrated in a voice that affects the world-weary tone of British novelists like Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett — established him as the master of high-camp macabre.
Told in verse and illustrated in a style that crosses Surrealism with the Victorian true-crime gazette, Gorey stories are set in some unmistakably British place, in a time that is vaguely Victorian, Edwardian and Jazz Age all at once. Though Gorey was a 20th-century American, he conjured a world of gramophones and cars that start with cranks, of boater-hatted men in Eton collars knocking croquet balls across the lawn while sloe-eyed vamps in cloches look on, and sinister things sink, bubbling, into the reflecting pond. His titles are instructive: “The Fatal Lozenge,” “The Deadly Blotter,” “The Hapless Child,” “The Haunted Tea-Cosy.”
Born in Glasgow in 1925 and reborn in the land of Morpheus sometime in the 1950s, Alexander Trocchi was the beatest of the beat, a self-described “cosmonaut of inner space” who Allen Ginsberg called “a major figure in cosmopolitan new-consciousness fifties’ and sixties’ literature.” Trocchi was a junkie, poet, writer of porn and author of one of the landmark books about being a rebel, drifter and drug addict, Cain’s Book. He wrote it while living in New York and even though it’s billed as a novel, Cain’s Book is based on Trocchi’s own life story. Though banned in the United Kingdom as pornography, it wasn’t the sex that upset the status quo as much as it was Trocchi’s unabashedly anarchic spirit and overall fuck you attitude.
Trocchi’s belief was that a writer should be a pioneer, venturing into areas that ordinary people either were too sane or too afraid to go. His explorations included heroin. Like DeQuincey, Crowley, Baudelaire and Burroughs, Trocchi found a muse in drugs. He was relentless in his pursuit of the next high. And while he might be accused of wearing his junkie status as a badge of honor, he never romanticized the life of the addict. He also never apologized for who he was and what he did, which included turning Marianne Faithfull onto heroin and letting his wife Lyn prostitute herself on the streets of the Lower East Side.
Cain’s Book is the classic late-1950s account of heroin addiction. . . . An un-self-forgiving existentialism, rendered with writerly exactness and muscularity, set this novel apart from all others of the genre.” –– William S. Burroughs
Along with Naked Lunch and Hubert Selby’s Requiem For A Dream, Cain’s Book is a classic of dope-inspired writing. It was Trocchi’s last novel. He spent the rest of his life occasionally writing short stories, prose and poetry. He died of pneumonia in 1984.
I discovered Cain’s Book right around the time I was reading Burroughs, Bukowski and Kerouac. It was another big black splotch on my teenage Catholic soul. Literature was ruining me for the “straight” world but splendidly preparing for a life of sexual adventuring, drug experimentation and the pursuit of my own muses. Trocchi was an imperfect muse himself. But I have discovered that it is the troubled souls that stir up the most heat and though their light is often hidden in the murk of their disheveled lives when it does shine it does so more intensely.
Here’s a clip from the documentary Cain’s Film followed by a short video on Trocchi featuring William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen.
I started reading Christopher Isherwood in my late teens, when I became a “paying guest” to an elderly spinster, who lived in an old tenement in the west end of Glasgow. She lived in the top floor apartment, where I rented the large front room, with a view onto the oval-shaped park below. My landlady was in her late seventies, bird-like, translucent skin, who whistled and took snuff in large pinches, sniffed from the back of her hand. She had inherited the apartment from her sister, and the interior had remained unchanged since the 1930s. The hallway with its bell-chimes for Maid, Bedroom 1, Bedroom 2, Parlor, and Dining Room, all still worked. In the kitchen was a range, and a small scullery with its fold-down bed, where the servant would have slept. Coal fires were in all of the rooms except mine. Of course, there was the occasional modern appliance, a TV, a one-bar electric fire, and an electric cooker, which was still in its plastic wrapping, and not to be used “under any circumstances”. Food was cooked over something that looked like a bunsen burner (what my landlady called “a blackout cooker”), and chilled products were kept in a larder. As for hot water, well that was never available, as the boiler was kept under lock and key, and toilet paper was sellotaped, to ensure I bought my own. The front door was locked at eight o’clock and the storm door bolted at nine. After ten, she never answered the door.
At the time, I was reading Goodbye to Berlin, which as you can imagine very much suited my surroundings. Like Isherwood’s character, Herr Issyvoo, I was surrounded by “the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.” A mantel-clock, a heavy glass ashtray, a green baize card table, orphaned figurines of a shepherd boy and shepherd girl, tending to their flocks, a large wooden bed (one leg broken) made in the 1920s. But perhaps, most significantly, was the fact my landlady had worked in Berlin as a furrier for a department store during the 1930s, and she often told me tales of her time in Germany. “Oh those Hitler Youth,” she once said, “Such smart uniforms, but the terrible things they did.”
At times it all made me feel as if I was living in Ishwerwood’s world, as in the evenings I would hear the whistles out in the park below. But unlike Herr Issyvoo, these were not young men calling up to their girlfriends, but dog owners calling to their pets.
The son of landed gentry, Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood was born in 1904, at the ancestral seat of his family, Wybersley Hall, High Lane, England. His father was an army officer, who was killed during the First World War. His mother, Kathleen, had a fractious relationship with her son, and she later featured in his stories.
At school he met and became life-long friends with W. H. Auden and Edward Upward. He attended Cambridge University, but found he had no interest in his studies, and was sent down for writing a facetious answer to an exam question. It was while at university that he became part of the famous literary triumvirate with Auden and Stephen Spender, who were hailed by the Left as “intellectual heroes.”
Instead of studying, Isherwood wrote an anarchist fantasy with Upward, centered around the fictional Mortmere:
...a village inhabited by surreal characters modelled on their Cambridge friends and acquaintances. The rector, Casmir Welken, resembles a ‘diseased goat’ and breeds angels in the church belfry; his sidekick Ronald Gunball is a dipsomaniac and an unashamed vulgarian; Sergeant Claptree, assisted by Ensign Battersea, keeps the Skull and Trumpet Inn; the mannish Miss Belmare, domineering and well starched, is sister to the squire, and Gustave Shreeve is headmaster of Frisbald College for boys.
Though none of the stories were published at the time (and Upward destroyed most of them later on), it was the start of Isherwood’s writing career, and led on to his first novel All the Conspirators in 1928.
Stifled by England, Isherwood followed in his friend Auden’s footsteps and moved to Berlin. It proved an historic re-location, one that inspired the first of Isherwood’s important novels Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. Literature aside, Isherwood’s main reason for going to Berlin was “boys” - blonde, working-class youth.
Isherwood supported himself in Berlin by working as an English tutor, and he used this experience to form the basis for his Berlin stories, and the creation of his eponymous central character. “I am a camera,” Isherwood famously wrote at the start of Goodbye to Berlin, for he saw Herr Issyvoo as “unobtrusive, sexless,” someone who could only observe, and examine the lives of those around him. When later asked why he had not been more explicit about his character’s homosexuality, Isherwood said that if he had come out, then it would have been “a production,” something that would have “upset the apple cart” for the other characters. The poet Stephen Spender claimed Isherwood once claimed he couldn’t imagine how people behaved when he was not in the room.
During the 1930s, Auden and Isherwood wrote a series of plays together, The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier, which dealt with their own identities and the idea of masculinity as exemplified by a hero. They also traveled to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War, and published a diary of their exploits. It was this war that convinced Isherwood to become a pacifist.
Perhaps because of the horrors the pair had witnessed in the East, Auden and Isherwood traveled to America in 1939, just before the Second World War began. It was an event that led the two writers to be castigated as “cowards” and “deserters”, for leaving their country in its moment of need - as if Auden or Isherwood’s presence would in some way stop the advance of Germany. Auden stayed in New York, living in a house with the stripper and pulp writer, Gypsy Rose Lee, and novelist Carson McCullers; while Isherwood moved to the west and California, which he described as more “dreamy and strange”, more theatrical.
Here he reworked some of his Berlin stories, but he lacked the zest to keep him inspired. Like many other writers, Isherwood turned to Hollywood for financial security, but had the sense to realize he wasn’t “some great genius prostituting [himself]”:
“I always realized it was very good training, and it made you realize things that you often lose sight of, by getting so arty and literary, that is to say, the fundamentals of telling a story, and the very simple things of putting A before B, and B before C, and getting it all sorted out, and telling it in a direct visual way, and that is always you can learn by working for the movies, and it doesn’t matter what it is.
Auden thought it nice work if you can get it, and said “At least you sold dear what is most dear.” Isherwood scripted a Rage in Heaven (1941), starring Ingrid Bergman and Robert Montgomery and The Great Sinner (1949), starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Later, in the 1960s, he co-wrote the screenplay, with Terry Southern, for the classic film version of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1965), and then co-wrote, with Don Bachardy, a memorable take on Mary Shelley’s gothic horror, Frankenstein the True Story (1973), with James Mason, Michael Sarrazin,Jane Seymour and David McCallum.
During all this time, he continued to write novels, most notably Prater Violet, based on his first dealings with film-making and the rather brilliant, but under appreciated, Down There on a Visit. On a more personal level, in 1953, he met Don Bachardy, the man who became his life-long partner.
In the sixties, Isherwood achieved considerable success with his “devastating, unnerving, brilliant book” about middle-age, A Single Man. The novel’s central character George, is like Isherwood, and describes a day in his life, when he no longer fears annihilation but survival, and all the debilitating side affects old age will bring. Isherwood said the book was about:
“...middle age, because what I wanted to show was the incredible range of behavior in middle age, part of the time on eis quite tending towards senility, and other times one is rash that is way a way boyish, and apt to indulge in lots of embarrassing behavior, at the drop of hat.”
In the 1970s, Isherwood returned to the Berlin of his youth with his autobiographical memoir Christopher and His Kind, it was a crowning achievement to a literary career that had already delivered at least three or four of the twentieth century’s best novels.
Gore Vidal has said Isherwood is “the best prose writer in English,” which is perhaps true, as Isherwood’s writing is subtle, clever, and is always fresh, even after repeated readings.
This documentary A Single Man: Christopher Isherwood 1904-1986 wa smade not long after his death and composed from a selection of interviews from British TV from the 1950s-1970s.
For fans of Isherwood, the BBC has just completed a drama Christopher and his Kind, adapted form Isherwood’s book, starring Matt (Doctor Who) Smith in the title role, which will be broadcast later this year. Further information can be found here
The rest of ‘A Single Man: Christopher Isherwood 1904-1986’, after the jump…