Isherwood was a novelist with the inclinations of an autobiographer. There are always characters in his novels who love what he calls 'playacting', who charm and flirt and reinvent themselves whenever necessary, and as much as possible. They are such compelling and irreverent storytellers that they help us forget about truth-telling; they make everyone, including themselves, feel that it would be earnest and silly to start worrying again about honesty and good behaviour. But they keep coming up against more sincere, serious, passionate types who they are rather troubled by; or, as Isherwood sometimes intimates, who they are not troubled enough by. What makes him more of an experimental writer than he at first seems is that he treats this drama of the opportune and the principled, of the amused and the committed, very self-consciously - as a question of form. So autobiography is a problem in his novels, akin to a conscience. It tempers self-invention with other considerations; and the temptations in story-telling - what he called 'the difficulty of being frank without being indiscreet', the eagerness to tell things for effect - become dramas in themselves. The embarrassment of the narrators in his fiction interests him as much as their confidence or their fluency. What is wonderful about Isherwood is that he wants, if possible, to be delighted by himself.
LRB 16 November 2000 | PDF Download