Denham Fouts, the real-life gay playboy who was (apparently) the inspiration for the slippery character Paul in Isherwood's novel.
What is it?
It’s a kind of novel by English-American writer Christopher Isherwood, first published in 1962.
John, can we at least pretend to be at least slightly literate? What do you mean by “a kind of novel”?
Well, it’s not really fictional, because it’s all based on Isherwood’s own experiences, and the narrator is called Christopher. Also, it’s not a “unified” novel, inasmuch as the book is divided into four sections, which take place at different times and are more or less autonomous.
So it’s creative non-fiction?
I guess that’s what we’d call it now.
Are you able to very briefly sketch out the four sections?
1. 1928: Christopher goes to Germany for the first time, as the guest of a strange quasi-relative, and falls in love with the country.
2. 1932: Christopher escapes from Nazi Germany with a sketchy friend, Waldemar, and they head off to a Greek island presided over by an eccentric gay Englishman.
3. 1938: In the tense days in and around the Munich conference, Christopher meets Waldemar in London, as Waldemar is still seeking to avoid Nazi Germany (and, more particularly, military service).
4. 1940 and later: Now established in LA, Christopher meets a beautiful and strange and perhaps amoral young man named Paul, and the two of them fall under the influence of a spiritual guru named Augustus Parr.
Lovely. So what do these various episodes have to do with one another?
Not a lot, but they all feature people who are a bit off the grid. Queer in one way or another, although some of them wouldn’t see themselves as “queer” in the way we use the word today. Eccentric, certainly. Isherwood writes beautifully about these people, without judgment. Some of them aren’t desperately likeable, particularly Paul. They’re all outsiders, to some degree. And outsiders are often made unlikeable by rejection.
Is that what the book’s about, then? Outsiders made unlikeable by rejection?
Let’s go with that, yeah. It’s a hard book to pin down.
One. I'm a bit of a fan of Isherwood. His writing is sublime, a pleasure to read. There is frequently a nasty aftertaste, though. These characters often seem lost, unpleasant, flippant, shallow—even the "enlightened" Augustus Parr. But Isherwood writes with a great sympathy for those on the fringes, and that's comforting to queer readers.