Ingrid Bergman "wasn't beautiful like Garbo, but she was radiantly appetizing...her presence was like breakfast on a sunny morning," Christopher Isherwood confessed to his diary in 1941 when he was a recent arrival in Hollywood, writing scripts for MGM. Nine pages later, he's not only describing the Marx Brothers jumping all over Somerset Maugham, "screaming like devils," but also watching Aldous Huxley and Charlie Chaplin singing old London music-hall songs on the Santa Monica Pier. No wonder the unchanging center of Isherwood's life, the Hindu Vedantist teacher Swami Prabhavananda, asked his worldly disciple to bring the Duke of Windsor to his Hollywood temple: Isherwood was the rare Hollywood Hindu who did justice to both the adjective and the noun.
When he left England on an ocean liner in January 1939 with his school friend and colleague W.H. Auden, Isherwood was a 34-year-old talking point who had written three plays with Auden, journeyed to China and just completed the Goodbye to Berlin stories that would inspire the play I Am a Camera! and the musical Cabaret. He sailed to America trailing a blast of recriminations from his friends, who refused to believe he had discovered himself a pacifist just as his country was going to war. If we believe it, it's only because we're privy to his relentlessly honest self-interrogations throughout his massive Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960 (HarperCollins; 1,048 pages; $40). Heroically edited by Katherine Bucknell, the book takes us through Isherwood's first 21 years in California in 901 pages (the glossary alone takes up an additional 93!). Profoundly sane, Isherwood traveled from Garbo to God and back again--by way of the gay underworld--without losing a sense of humor or proportion.
The very best pages here are without doubt the first 400, which Isherwood polished into a sharp-eyed narrative, and in which the shock of discovery between the kindly British ironist and California's odd circles of philosophers, quacks and movie stars was most electric. Isherwood's gift was for bringing a clear-eyed sympathy and an irreverent open-mindedness to even the most outlandish scenes. Almost every page, in Isherwood's best moments, is alive with immortal incident (Dylan Thomas pawing Shelley Winters at The Players restaurant, or a local hostess mistaking Stravinsky for "a comic on the Molly Goldberg show"); with penetrating observation (Garbo is "the woman whose life everyone wants to interfere with"); and with a hard-won wisdom of the heart ("It's much easier to turn hate into love than to turn fear into love").
Yet the singular strength of the book is that Isherwood brings this happy mix of earnestness and mischief to the realm where it is most essential and most rare: the search for God. When he determined to dedicate himself to the Swami, he made it plausible by remembering that he "hated anything which sounded like 'religion'" and "had always regarded Vedanta philosophy, or yoga, as the ultimate in mystery-mongering nonsense." Here is the perfect skeptic's guide to faith, in which even the most vaporous of concepts is rendered with a brilliant everyday lucidity ("The Ego...is like a man who will stand right in front of you at a horse race").