Who writes letters anymore? In the age of email and text messaging, of the 140-character tweet, of LOL and gr8, the well-crafted epistle may be the biggest casualty of the digital revolution. If Oscar Wilde had only sent smiley faces to Bosie, think how much poorer our understanding of his profound capacity for love would be. The same can be said of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, or Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Their letters to one another enrich our understanding of them and inspire us to be more expressive, more connected, and more organized in our own thoughts. There's a reason there is no letter-writing equivalent of the drunk phone call or the accidental email.
When Christopher Isherwood, as prolific a diarist as he was a novelist, met Don Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach in 1952, few of his friends expected the relationship to last. Isherwood was 48 and Bachardy just 18, and the age difference was compounded by their cultural and social milieus. Yet their relationship endured until Isherwood's death in 1986. A newly published anthology of their correspondence, The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, helps us understand why. The two men were great communicators, each acutely attuned to the other's needs and insecurities, and both able to compensate for the disparity in their years with a reciprocal worldliness that reveled in theater, art, and Hollywood. As the book's editor, Katherine Bucknell, notes in her thoughtful introduction, "From February 14, 1953, until January 4, 1986, the conversation between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy never stopped. When they were apart, they continued by letter, telegram, and telephone a dialogue of intimacy, depth, and urgent, tender concern."
What made it possible for the couple to communicate so freely, in part, were the whimsical characters each invented for the other. Like many of us, they had pet names -- Isherwood was Dobbin, a dependable workhorse; Bachardy was Kitty, a lively white cat -- but their animal guises operated as a distancing device, enabling them to address their relationship in the third person.
Isherwood, who had freely enjoyed his youth in the gay bars of Berlin, was wise enough not to deny his young lover the same opportunities. Their relationship was open and sometimes strained, but anchored always in the quasi-spiritual respect they had for their life together. The sense you get from the letters is that they never ran out of things to say to one another, and the letters are filled with observations from their social circles, penetrating reviews of the plays and movies they saw, and expressions of constancy and love.
In a letter dated February 15, 1965, Isherwood notes that the anniversary of their meeting has just passed: "The encounter of Kitty and Dobbin was and is such a miracle that I can think of it almost objectively," he writes. "The chances against were about the same as those of a flying saucer from another galaxy finding the earth. And where would Dobbin have been if they hadn't met -- and if Kitty hadn't loudly meowed to be taken indoors?" Bachardy responds from New York two days later, "Drub is the most important thing in Kitty's life and without the constant thought of Him, Kitty couldn't go on, wouldn't want to. But Dub is by Kitty's side always, that dear muzzle bending over him with those great dark wet eyes looking soulfully down at him."
If their pet language can become cloying at times, it's also a terrific leveler, reminding us that the most erudite men of letters can also be the silliest and most childlike. For Isherwood, who had grown up in the repressed Edwardian age, the transparency is particularly poignant. He famously opened his autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin with the line, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking," suggesting a neutrality and distance that may have suited him at a time when homosexuality still needed to be coded. What's so beautiful and alive in these letters is just how uncoded and free his life was with Bachardy.