'The Animals'

The cover of the book, "The Animals." (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy — one of L.A.'s most famous literary couples — met on a beach in 1952, when the former was 49 and the latter 18. From the beginning, they had a complex, passionate, non-monogamous relationship, unequal in age and status, and sometimes stormy. But they are remarkable for having sustained a partnership over three decades at a time when homosexuality was verboten: The two were still together when Isherwood died in 1986, and Bachardy has served as his literary executor and the keeper of his legacy ever since.

By the time they met, Isherwood was already well known as a novelist: His early stories about Germany in the last days of the Weimar Republic, collected in "Goodbye to Berlin," had just been used as the basis for the hit Broadway play "I Am a Camera" (and would subsequently inspire the stage musical and film "Cabaret"). Bachardy was an aspiring painter. Via Isherwood, he gained access to an elite circle of Californian and European writers and intellectuals, and he exploited these connections to the hilt, making a name for himself by drawing the likes of W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, Roman Polanski and Salvador Dalí.

Although the two lived together in California, they were often apart: While most of Isherwood's letters are postmarked from their Santa Monica home, Bachardy's often arrive from London and New York. A large cache of letters, mostly from the 1960s, survives. (After 1970, apparently, Isherwood got a telephone.) These are collected in "The Animals," edited by Katherine Bucknell with assistance from Bachardy himself.

The book's title refers to the sentimental pet names the couple used for each other: Bachardy was "Kitty" (a cat) and Isherwood was "Dobbin" (a horse). Over the course of time, these names are put through a series of increasingly baroque variations: Kitty becomes Puss, Snowpaws, Snowgaiters and Beautiful Sacred Fursaint; while Dobbin is Brumby, Old Drubrubbin, Adored Loverump and Worshipped Glossyhoof.

This sentimental horseplay can be charming, and it frequently functions as a coded expression of the love that dare not speak its name, at least not by airmail. (At one point Isherwood worries about one of Bachardy's missives being inspected by U.S. Customs: "How embarrassing if they read your letter, except that I really don't think the Animals' language is intelligible to humans!") At times the barely suppressed eroticism of the correspondence is obvious: "All Saddleplug's devotion to his darling Rider, and how he longs to feel the dig of those spurs and the delicious thrill of that velvet whip!" Isherwood writes, yearningly, in 1969.

There is also quite a bit of vicious gossip, especially from Bachardy. (Isherwood dished more to his diaries than he did to his dearest Fluffcat.) In May 1965, Bachardy writes of author Paul Bowles, "His face has become set in a superior-wry grimace of ironical despair, but I suspect the despair only exists to feed his cold, ruthless appetite [for it]." Of Vanessa Redgrave and her companion, the Italian actor Franco Nero, in 1969, he writes, "A colder pair is difficult to imagine. I think they're both pod-born replacements for real humans."

Many reviewers of Isherwood's "Diaries," published in three volumes between 1996 and 2012 (and also edited by Bucknell), noted that they are marred by misogyny and anti-Semitism, and there is, sadly, plenty more of that here, as when Isherwood idly tosses off a reference to "tainted Jewish blood." Isherwood's defenders have attributed these obsessions, which seemed only to grow more pronounced as he aged, to his upbringing among the notoriously snobby British upper middle classes of the early 20th century.

But "The Animals" shows that Bachardy, born in Los Angeles in 1934, was no slouch in the slur department either. As in Isherwood's case, Bachardy's cruelest remarks are reserved for women. Hannah Arendt is "a very serious-grand Jewish bitch of the Upper West Side,"while novelist Rosamond Lehmann is mocked for her weight: "she really is Hedda Gobbler." Audrey Hepburn in "Two for the Road" looks "more and more like the toughest, scrawniest bird that even the hungriest of primitive debased cats would reject as unappetizing."

At more than 500 pages, "The Animals" may be too long and unselective for the casual admirer: Even those fascinated by Isherwood and Bachardy's complex relationship are likely to be bored by the details of the couple's estimated tax declaration. Bucknell's introduction and footnotes are thorough and illuminating, but the book has one fairly serious organizational flaw: It's not always easy to tell who's writing, in part because of the ever-shifting nicknames and Kitty and Dobbin's habit of referring to themselves in the third person.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is that there is so little of the vivid, perceptive writing for which Isherwood is famous. "Honestly, this is literature!" he writes to Bachardy in 1958, in response to a long, detailed letter about a friend's father's death. "The things you put in!" Sadly, there's too much gossip and sentiment in "The Animals" and not enough literature.

To an extent, this makes sense: These are love letters, not prose poems, and Isherwood saved his full powers for his novels. But it feels like a cruel tease to come upon an occasional passage like the following, a description of the aftermath of the Bel Air wildfire disaster of November 1961:

"The fire burned on all through Wednesday; yesterday it was all over, though of course it can spring up again from embers, if there is another wind. Now it is beautiful not too hot weather. From our windows, you could see the bombers dumping borate on the hills to put the fire out. One of them was nearly licked up by a huge flame which swept up at it as it dove."

Kindley is a writer in Los Angeles.

The Animals
Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Edited by Katherine Bucknell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 528 pp., $30