Thursday, June 12, 2008

No Guru, No Disciple, Part One

Until last weekend, I'd assumed Christopher Isherwood had faded into history. At the local library, though, I saw an announcement for a panel discussion of the new film "Chris and Don: A Love Story" -- to be attended by Chris' partner of thirty-something years, Don Bachardy -- and I knew I couldn't miss it.

The event was an absolute lovefest. Chris was a brilliant writer, a generous teacher, a devoutly religious man. Sure, he picked up Don on a Santa Monica beach when the former was 48 and the latter was 18. Or was he 16? But theirs was a love story for the ages that just had to be put on film.

Chris just loved young men, filmmaker Guido Santi declared. He loved their "violent opinions." They reminded Chris of his youth. And filming couldn't have been easier. They had access to everything. Nothing was off-limits. What honesty everyone had shown!

What a pile of crap, I thought.

Many years ago I went to college to get a math degree. Between studying and working full time, I was burning the candle at both ends. To buy myself a little peace and quiet -- and to learn something that might have the slightest relevance to my life -- I signed up for a Gay Literature class. How hard could it be? I thought. Read a book, then discuss. Not exactly trying to reconstruct the proof of Fermat's second theorem.

Michael, one of my classmates, was a lead member of the clique that produced the school's gay quarterly. We weren't exactly friends -- he was a May Sarton to my John Rechy -- but one day he just casually let drop that he was going to interview Christopher Isherwood, in the way you casually mention your parents gave you a Firebird for your birthday. Being the world's biggest Isherwood fan, I went temporarily insane. I told Michael I'd do anything if I could tag along. I'd cook him dinner, I'd wash his socks, I'd type up the whole interview for him. Michael agreed to the bribe.

Bubbling with excitement, we drove out to Isherwood's house in a secluded part of Santa Monica Canyon. Mr. Isherwood, casually dressed and apparently alone, met us at the door and led us into the living room. We talked about everything under the sun, from his childhood to his writing to his adherence to Vedanta, a Hindu religion. After about an hour, I worked up the courage to ask a slightly more difficult question. About his personal life.

Now, even at this point I had issues with Isherwood. His work, while beautiful, was completely closeted. He was known as a gay writer, but his characters were sexless rather than gay. The female protagonists would bunk up with the Navy while the male lead sat in a cafe and stared out the window. I'll admit that most works of this period were similarly closeted but James Baldwin and Gore Vidal had the guts to push the boundaries a bit.

I thought it was a harmless topic. I'd had vast numbers of insignificant relationships and not a single long-term one, so I asked an old man about his. Did he think gay couples needed to follow the heterosexual model of monogamy? If so, did he think we were capable of it?

The pair shot me a horrified look, like I'd ejaculated bodily fluids onto the cashmere carpet. "Do you speak German, Chris?" Michael asked.

Mr. Isherwood said yes, and the pair started conversing in German. For two, three, four, five minutes. It's pretty clear you've done something wrong when people switch to a language you don't know. They were both clearly offended, but I thought their reaction had me beat. There are several thousand tactful ways of telling somebody they've overstepped the bounds of propriety. Talking about them in a foreign language isn't one.

They wrapped up their little conversation, bonding with a mutual distaste for my prying, and I wanted the floor to open up. I stayed quiet for the rest of the night. I'd brought along a biography of Isherwood, intending to ask him about some of it, but instead I just asked for his autograph. "You know I didn't write this, right?" he asked.

Oh great, I thought. I'm stupid now.


Lipstick Mystic said...

I feel for writers like Isherwood who felt bound by the conventions of the time. You're right. Sally Bowles runs around having affairs and abortions and fun while the guy just sort of looks out the window as you said. And this is a recurring theme in his work. Very cool that you got to meet him, and so uncool that they reacted so rudely when you asked a perfectly reasonable question. It would have been very interesting if he had actually responded to you.

John Rechy - I had forgotten about him. I remember reading The Vampires as a young teen and just loving the way he threw all these twisted characters onto a stage and allowed them to torture each other. I didn't resonate so much with his later stuff, although he's done some really interesting writing in different styles. Maybe he's too much of a chameleon, though, to get mainstream acceptance. Unlike that Gore Vidal who is such an attention seeking whore :)

Yet Another Steve said...

Hey, no fair. If you were such a mad Isherwood fan, you must have read "The World in the Evening." Written PRE-Rechy, it was a lot more openly gay than anything else out there that didn't have moony cowboys and Indians on the cover. I was so blown away by it that I wrote a fan letter to Isherwood, who replied with an invitation to call him, so I did and we talked (mostly he talked, which is more than I could have hoped for) for an hour, during which he was very open about everything in his life.

The German conversation is amazingly rude, though. Pity you didn't speak German too, what fun if you'd joined right in.

RomanHans said...

Stay tuned.

Martin Brant said...

Your opening here troubled me a little--older men getting involved with younger men. As an older man myself, I could never allow it to happen. I would constantly feel like I was robbing the young guy's youth. There's much to be said for maturity: comfortable perspectives, accomplishment, dreams; all of which can be shared and enjoyed by men of similar age.

The German scene was appalling. Such things don't enhance the brotherhood of the gay community.

Martin Brant
Author of Five Married Men