A Personal Memoir

By John Lehmann

Henry Holt. 150 pp. $16.95

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD: A Personal Memoir is a photo album of sorts, a slim, elegant assemblage of word pictures that juxtaposes present and past, with John Lehmann the camera recording Christopher Isherwood, the original camera. Lehmann adds little here that his three-volume autobiography or Isherwood's own work has not already revealed. Rather, a most generous and admiring friend, he reviews, clarifies, and sums up his relationship with Isherwood, who died in 1986. In the process he chronicles the literary history of a generation and acknowledges his own heartfelt indebtedness to his collaborator and friend.

To a young generation of British writers bracketed by two world wars, Isherwood flashed across the '30s horizon as a wunderkind, a precocious Cambridge drop-out who defied the British educational, political and sexual establishment -- the "Enemy" -- and struck out for Berlin, China, South America and, finally, California. Touted as the hope of the British novel, Isherwood and his escapades assumed mythic proportion, inflated by the reports and stories of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Lehmann himself. Already one senses the beginning of the legend in Lehmann's portrait of Isherwood at their first meeting. Lehmann recalls Isherwood's "unexpected smallness," striking because of the disproportionately large head, prominent nose, and short hair, with "a quiff coming over his forehead." "There was a twinkle in his eye, which he seemed . . . able to switch on and off like an actor. . . . It was impossible not to be drawn to him. I was attracted by the warmth of his nature . . . and {by his} exact feeling for the deeper moods of our generation." Auden, whom Lehmann quotes, dubbed Isherwood, "Our guest ambassador to the mad."

Since that first meeting in August 1932 until Isherwood's death, the two engaged in frequent communication, either by the exchange of letters and manuscripts or through visits. Thus Lehmann can knowingly track Isherwood through all of his travels, his quest for the German Boy, the American Boy, his sexual misadventures, his war obsession, his psychological and spiritual vicissitudes and, most important, his books, many of which Lehmann published through the Hogarth Press, where during the '30s he was managing editor. Though the two shared many enthusiasms, essentially they were opposites. Lehmann, the scholarly editor and poet, played the listener, the appreciative audience, while Isherwood, restless adventurer and teller of tales, struck various poses as he explored his experience in books that often blur the distinction between invention and fact. Responsive, discerning, wise, Lehmann provided a still center, a home base to which Isherwood could return.

When the artistic community of England censored Isherwood and Auden for their emigration to America just before World War II, Lehmann, though disappointed, was not judgmental, perhaps because he understood Isherwood's personal crisis: "I myself," Isherwood wrote Lehmann from America, "am in the most Goddamawful mess," and later, "John, I am so utterly sick of being a person . . . ." When Isherwood shocked his friends by his pacifism and conversion to Vedanta, Lehmann calmly concluded, "I respected him for his decision if not for his logic." Only a gentleman, scholar and devoted friend could have produced such a memoir.

Lehmann published The Memorial, perhaps the most neglected novel of the '30s, as well as The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. In his correspondence with Isherwood, Lehmann proffered counsel, sought guidance, mused, speculated, encouraged, chatted about friends and books. Isherwood likewise offered "profound and sympathetic advice" about Lehmann's own work, collaborated with him on New Writing, a magazine that published authors of the '30s, and candidly disclosed the state of his soul and of his work.

Most intriguing about this memoir -- and what other Isherwood studies only allude to -- is the glimpse of the unwritten Isherwood, the fiction that he talked and plotted and never wrote or, in some cases never published, the kind of work only a friend would know of, a friend with a shrewd ear, eager to surrender center stage to another always eager to seize it: "I encouraged him to tell me more of the great fantastic serial, of the utmost obscenity and ingenuity, which he had begun during our evenings together the year before; and once he had started there was no stopping him, episode after episode rolled out in the wildest flow of invention. . . I was staggered by the story-telling skill . . ." In the late '50s, Isherwood sent Lehmann "Afterwards," an explicit homosexual story, still unpublished, after the fashion of E.M. Forster's Maurice. And, of course, there are Isherwood and Edward Upward's Mortmere stories, now lost, and the American diaries, from which Isherwood culled material until his death. WHILE LEHMANN is expansive on the early and middle years, he is, unfortunately, spare in his coverage of the later period, from 1968 until Isherwood's death. This uneveness is the book's major flaw. Granted, Isherwood and Lehmann exchanged few letters in this period, chiefly owing to Isherwood's late aversion to letter writing; nonetheless, one wishes for more than an afterword, more than a few letters and diary entries to detail Isherwood in this final phase, with his success of Cabaret, his decision to write openly about his homosexuality and his long, happy life with artist Don Bachardy.

This flaw, however, inherent in the very nature of a personal memoir, is also its strength, for Lehmann writes only about his own involvement with Isherwood, his own perception of the man and his career. Additionally, the book is graced by several black-and-white photographs of Isherwood and friends and by Don Bachardy's drawings of Isherwood in the last months of his illness. So remarkable are Bachardy's four simple sketches, executed in such masterly fashion, that they almost fill in whatever gaps might exist about Isherwood's latter period.

Lehmann concludes with these words: "When I think of him now, I think first of the pleasure that I always felt when he came to see me or I visited him, his bubbling zany wit and his free-wheeling imaginative gift for turning any situtation that one discussed with him . . . into absurdity and fantasy. A friend in a million, a friend of the greatest rarity. I don't know what a life that has had its ups and downs would have been like without him." After reading Lehmann's memoir, one senses that this assessment was mutual. ::

Paul Piazza is chairman of the English Department at St. Albans School and author of "Christopher Isherwood: Myth and Anti-Myth."