cover image Christopher Isherwood Inside Out

Christopher Isherwood Inside Out

Katherine Bucknell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40 (848p) ISBN 978-0-374-11936-2

Bucknell (What You Will) brings scholarly acumen and bravura storytelling to her stunning biography of novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986). Bucknell notes that as a schoolboy growing up amid the conservative norms of early 1900s Britain, Isherwood “was afraid of his sexual feelings” toward other boys and viewed the punishment inflicted on Oscar Wilde for his “reckless defiance” as a cautionary tale. Widespread homophobia also shaped Isherwood’s adulthood; his autobiographical novels only obliquely referenced his sexuality, and after he moved to Hollywood in 1939, he started practicing Vedanta, drawn to the faith’s acceptance of gay individuals. Isherwood became more outspoken in his old age, writing explicitly about his sexuality in his 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind, and serving as a “father figure” to the burgeoning gay liberation movement. Bucknell’s background as a novelist shows in her elegant lyricism, as when she writes that the eyes of Isherwood’s longtime partner, Don Bachardy, “were hazel—clear green with brown flecks—changing in the light to reveal in quicksilver succession soulfulness, excitement, intrigue, defiance, hurt, laughter.” The sharp analysis sheds light on how Isherwood’s life influenced his work, pointing out, for instance, how the power plays between friends in the story “On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)” dramatized Isherwood’s “tortured relationship” with a German 17-year-old while living in Berlin in his 20s. This is a monumental achievement. (Aug.)