The Chronicle Review

Isherwood the Multiculturalist

Michael Childers

Christopher Isherwood (left) and the painter Don Bachardy are the subject of the award-winning documentary “Chris & Don: A Love Story.”
January 10, 2010

In a March 2008 New Yorker article on novelists and historians, Jill Lepore suggests that "the novelist is the better historian … because he admits that he is partial, prejudiced, and ignorant, and because he has not forsaken passion." There is no better novelist-historian than the Anglo-American Christopher Isherwood, who wrote passionately and from a highly subjective point of view about the world around him.

Isherwood, who lived in Berlin in the early 1930s and in Southern California in the 1940s and after, is recognized as a sharp-eyed chronicler of his time and place. In Goodbye to Berlin, first published in the 1930s, he anticipated the severity of that volatile cultural moment. His autobiographical narrator is the "man on the street"—and the streets are foreboding. The war is coming. Isherwood knows it, but many in his milieu don't. Of his landlady, for example, the narrator says, "She will adapt herself to any new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about der Führer to the porter's wife." Such is the banality of politics.

Around 25 years later, Isherwood turned his attention to contemporary Los Angeles and American culture. In his 1964 masterpiece A Single Man, the protagonist, George, is an intelligent, heartbroken, somewhat cynical mouthpiece for Isherwood. In the new film adaptation, as portrayed by Colin Firth, George plays the same function for the first-time writer/director Tom Ford. The fashion designer has made the novel look beautiful, and some of the story's record of its time comes through as well.

Ford's film is complemented by an astonishing documentary from 2007. Filmmakers Tina Mascara and Guido Santi brought the story of Isherwood and his partner, the painter Don Bachar-dy, to life in their award-winning Chris & Don: A Love Story. These two films provide a bridge between George's time and our own, in terms of sexual politics and social reality, and between print and visual media. These films do for A Single Man what Bob Fosse's Cabaret did for Goodbye to Berlin—provide visual representation of a long-ago time and give viewers and readers points of reference for connecting the man, his work, and our times.

Isherwood's narrative style has been called documentary fiction. In A Single Man, which takes place during a single day, George lives a variation of the author's life. Isherwood was not at that time a single man, having been in a committed relationship with the much younger Bachardy for almost a decade. The novel can be seen as a "what if" proposition: What if something happened to Don; what if Isherwood didn't have a network of gay friends to support him; what if he didn't have a spiritual basis (Vedantic Hinduism) for living his life?

As with any adaptation, there will inevitably be debate about the fidelity of the film to the novel. That is a question for Tom Ford. For academics, there is a level of interest and relevance for both versions of the text, in an extended classroom scene. Indeed, the longest scene in Isherwood's short novel takes place on the campus of San Tomas State College, the fictional locale of Los Angeles State College (now California State University at Los Angeles).

Isherwood wrote A Single Man after having spent several terms teaching at various colleges in Southern California. At first he taught courses in the modern novel, but when he accepted a semester position at the University of California at Santa Barbara for the fall term of 1960, he was given a title for his lecture series—"A Writer and His World." He was thus free to talk about his best subject, himself, and the gestation and publication of his own work. Those lectures at Santa Barbara shed light on Isherwood's process as well as on his views on teaching. The lectures are collected in Isherwood on Writing, published by the University of Minnesota Press, which has reprinted many of Isherwood's works, including A Single Man.

Two reminiscences of Isherwood the teacher have been published. Dan Luckenbill, who recently retired from the research library at the University of California at Los Angeles, became friends with Isherwood after taking a writing class from him there in 1965. Luckenbill writes: "Isherwood did not lecture in the strict sense. … The range of topics was probably staggering for almost anyone attending, let alone those of us who were young students." In preparation for the course, Luckenbill read A Single Man, which had just been published. He noted that the cover drawing of the author was by "Bachardy," which sparked the alert student's curiosity (shades of George's curious protégé, Kenny). Luckenbill notes that he was "startled that I found Isherwood so attractive and was unable to fit his image with those of persons who shared his age."

Michael S. Harper, the distinguished poet and professor at Brown University, was in Isherwood's first class at Los Angeles State College in the fall of 1959. He describes Isherwood as "no traditional teacher. … He maneuvered his bushy eyebrows in expressive wit encouraging us to enter the give and take of the classroom." Harper was an outstanding student who was also black and heterosexual; his intense respect and admiration for his mentor provide an inside view of the kind of man Isherwood was in the classroom, a sort of celebrity version of George. Harper notes that Isherwood had a strong but varied impact on a wide range of students. They realized later that Isherwood was "the only one of our teachers at LA State who treated us … with no sense of condescension."

More than any other teaching experience, Isherwood drew on his year at LA State for his portrait of college life in A Single Man. San Tomas State College lies at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, giving it "something of the glamour of a college high on a plateau of the Andes, on the few days you can see them properly." George likes the neighborhood, "a tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties … How charming it is! … Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful. George would not care to live here because they all blast all day long their radios and television sets. But he would never find himself yelling at their children, because these people are not the Enemy. If they would ever accept George, they might even be allies." (This, surely, anticipates the kind of coalition-building that almost rejected the anti-same-sex-marriage Proposition 8 in California in the 2008 election.)

Multiethnic Los Angeles is visible on the campus. But George is almost too much of an idealist—"a man trying to sell a real diamond, for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real." George, like Isherwood, is appalled by the tyrannical majorities of the world, what Isherwood called "the Enemy." Among these enemies are George's straight-laced neighbors and their obnoxious children; local and national politicians; and even those at the college, which is "a clean modern factory, brick and glass and big windows, already three-quarters built … being finished in a hysterical hurry." Clearly, this is public higher education in California in the 1960s.

Inside the classroom, the modern student body has taken shape. The students in George's class represent Southern California's multiracial society, which the rest of the country barely recognized, much less understood. This demographic is one of the things that makes Isherwood's novel both rich with period detail and prescient. For George's classroom will become (over the subsequent 45 years) the predominant model of higher education in the United States: a student body made up of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

While George will have a special bond with Kenny after class and later that evening, in the classroom George's closest ally is Wally Bryant, his "little minority sister." Wally's gayness is a secret seemingly shared between them, perhaps through nothing more than a mutual, unspoken understanding.

As Englishmen, George and Isherwood are perhaps more apt to describe minority students by their appearances and to acknowledge their own limitations. George sees the Asians (including Lois Yamaguchi, Kenny's girlfriend) as "enigmatic" and is "intimidated" by the "hypersensitive" Estelle Oxford, one of his best students and a "Negro." Despite the fact that Isherwood's terminology may seem stereotypical to 21st-century readers, his depiction of minorities in the novel is, ultimately, progressive. Isherwood's treatment of the realities of a multicultural, multiethnic campus is similar to his depiction of George's homosexuality: It is not a problem to be solved but a matter of fact.

Unfortunately, the representation of the college scenes in Ford's adaptation misses an opportunity to portray Isherwood's multicultural Los Angeles. The campus community looks white and middle class—from the faculty in the lounge (which includes a cameo by Bachardy) to the students in the class. Lois Yamaguchi is now a blonde whose only purpose seems to be to show that students smoked in class. The rest of the class is similarly bland, and Wally has been replaced by a respectable-looking white gay couple. The film's campus atmosphere isn't that of a public college or the multicultural Los Angeles that Isherwood knew.

The novel's classroom scene centers on a discussion of Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. A student asks whether Huxley is an anti-Semite, because one of his characters says that "the stupidest phrase in the Bible is 'they hated me without a cause.'" Confronted with this question, George responds with a harangue about racial and ethnic understanding: "The Nazis were not right to hate the Jews. But their hating the Jews was not without cause. No one ever hates without a cause."

What is astonishing about this part of the novel is that Isherwood anticipates the discourse on diversity in higher education from the last 20 years. Rather than paper over the differences he sees in the classroom, Isherwood calls for acknowledgment and discussion of diversity. As to the issue of hating without a cause, George says: "A minority is only thought of as a minority when it constitutes some kind of a threat to the majority, real or imagined. And no threat is ever quite imaginary. … There always is a reason, no matter how wrong it is." George is talking about the Jews and blacks present in the classroom, but his subtext includes the gay minorities too. Isherwood's wishful thinking here is for real engagement instead of benign tolerance. "Sure, minorities are people—people, not angels. Sure, they're like us—but not exactly like us; that's the all-too-familiar state of liberal hysteria in which you begin to kid yourself you honestly cannot see any difference between a Negro and a Swede." George wants to get specific, wants to call out Estelle Oxford and Buddy Sorenson by name, but he dare not. "Maybe, if he did dare … everybody would embrace, and the kingdom of heaven would begin. … But then again, maybe it wouldn't."

A Single Man teaches an approach to diversity as an opportunity, not as a problem. George's homily avoids the piety of "teaching tolerance": "Let's face it, minorities are people who probably look and act and think differently from us and have faults we don't have." It is important to Isherwood that people acknowledge difference and the fears associated with it. To do otherwise would be folly and can lead to violence. "We all keep trying to believe that if we ignore something long enough it'll just vanish." Here, Isherwood cautions against the danger of "annihilation by blandness."

A Single Man is a valuable book to teach in many contexts: the modern novel, gay studies, Los Angeles and California literature. We have taught the novel on several occasions and find that students respond to the cantankerous George very enthusiastically. What is difficult for them to imagine, though, is the life of George and Jim as a couple. Students typically think of gay men's lives in the early 60s as filled with shame and loneliness.

Teaching the novel with the documentary Chris & Don solves that problem almost entirely. The extensive home movies featured in the film show the time and place vividly. It also shows the life the two men built together. The documentary portrays what a gay couple endured in midcentury America. The defiance of Isherwood and Bachardy, in contrast to the very private life of George and Jim, helps students see both how it was then and how much things have changed.

An unexpected aspect of the documentary, though, sheds further important light on A Single Man, especially for an audience of undergraduates. They see, in the film, Don drawing Chris during his death from cancer at the end of 1985 and in early 1986. What the documentary presents is Bachardy as a "single man," someone trying to continue his life after the death of his longtime companion. The role reversal is instructive and provides, perhaps, a much more faithful adaptation in that sense than Ford could ever have hoped to do.

One student in a literature class at the University of Southern California, for example, noted that the real relationship between Chris and Don helped him compare their life to George and Jim's life. He got "a better understanding of the period of the novel and of the deep sense of loss that George feels. And while George finds himself almost unable to continue living, the strength of Don Bachardy is felt and appreciated. The story of Chris and Don is one of strength, almost an impossibility, given what they were up against."

It seems to us that the purpose of teaching a text like A Single Man is to try to see how George's experience and worldview are historically accurate. Isherwood captured the truth, preserved it, and now we have a way to connect mid-20th-century life to 21st-century life. This diamond is worth so much more than a nickel, and, with the documentary, especially, the majority of students will recognize its value to their own lives.

James J. Berg is dean of social sciences and arts at the College of the Desert, and Chris Freeman is a lecturer at the University of Southern California. They are editors of "The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood" (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999) and "Love, West Hollywood: Reflections of Los Angeles" (Alyson, 2008).