BORN: 1904, Cheshire, England
DIED: 1986, Santa Monica, California
GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction
Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)
Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
The Condor and the Cows (1949)
A Single Man (1964)
Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood, Christopher, photograph. Hulton Archive / Getty Images.
Perhaps best known for his stories of Weimar, Germany, collected in The Berlin Stories (1946), which were later adapted for the play I Am a Camera (1951) and the stage musical and film Cabaret (1966 and 1972), Isherwood also made important headway in the portrayal of gay men both in his fiction and numerous volumes of memoirs. In addition, he had a lengthy career as a Hollywood screenwriter, and wrote and edited a number of books about his religious faith, Vedantism, aimed at western readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Cambridge and Auden. The son of a career military officer, Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood was born in High Lane, Cheshire, England, on August 26, 1904. He attended the Repton School from 1919 to 1922 and Cambridge University from 1924 to 1925. He left in 1925 without earning a degree, his undistinguished academic career ending when he gave mischievous and wrong answers to the questions on his final exams. His university year was significant because it was at Cambridge that he met Wystan Hugh Auden, with whom he later collaborated on several literary projects, and because it was there that he became a practicing homosexual, an orientation that played an important role in his personal and artistic life.
Auden, who quickly emerged as his generation’s greatest poet, cast Isherwood in the role of literary mentor and soon introduced him to a fellow oxford undergraduate, Stephen Spender. The trio formed the nucleus of the ‘‘Auden Gang,’’ young poets and novelists who dominated the English literary scene of the 1930s.
Isherwood worked for a year as the secretary to French violinist Andre Mangeot and as a private tutor in London. In his spare hours he worked on his first novel, All the Conspirators, published in 1928. The novel was poorly received.
Berlin Period. In the period following World War I, Germany became a democratic nation known as the Weimar Republic. Since Germany was viewed as a primary cause behind the war, the new Weimar Republic was held responsible for repaying many of the costs of war to other countries, also known as war reparations. This, along with massive unemployment and other economic problems, led to runaway inflation that crippled the fledgling country and bred discontent among Germans. The situation worsened in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression; in these dire circumstances, many German people gave their support to the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler, who promised to restore Germany to its former glory.
In 1929 Isherwood followed Auden to Germany and was attracted to life in the crumbling Weimar Republic and particularly to the sexual freedom that existed there. As he so succinctly put it in his 1976 book Christopher and His Kind 1929-1939, ‘‘Berlin meant Boys.’’ He soon established a liaison with Berthold ‘‘Bubi’’ Szczesny, a bisexual ex-boxer, that lasted until Szczesny was forced to leave the country. Among the young men he met subsequently was one from the working-class section of Berlin. He took a room with this man’s family for a time and so became familiar with day-to-day living among the urban proletariat.
At first his stay in Germany was financed through an allowance provided by his only wealthy relative, his uncle Henry Isherwood. His uncle was also homosexual and seemed happy to assist his nephew in the quest for companions. Eventually, however, Uncle Henry stopped funding his nephew, and Isherwood began earning money tutoring in English. In this way he met Berliners from the upper classes.
Isherwood became fluent in German and got acquainted, as did Auden, with the expressionist drama of Ernst Toller, Georg Kaiser, and Bertolt Brecht. This led the two British artists to collaborate on three expressionist plays: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937), and A Melodrama in Three Acts: On the Frontier (1938), of which the first two are considered more successful.
Meanwhile, Isherwood was working on two stories that would later become his most successful book, The Berlin Stories (1946). The book, comprised of the two short novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin presents an in-depth portrait of life in Germany’s capital as that republican center collapsed. The two novels set in Berlin are quite distinct, but in each Isherwood masters a unique voice, creates some of the most memorable characters in modern fiction, and movingly depicts a city in the process of internal decay. As explorations of the ways in which public and private concerns intersect, they are passionately engaged, haunted by the brooding specter of Nazism. Playwright John van Druten adapted The Berlin Stories for the stage in a play called I Am a Camera (1955), which was later adapted into the musical Cabaret (1967).
Relocation. Isherwood and Auden traveled to China in 1938 and 1939 and published the part travel diary, part war chronicle Journey to a War, which describes the Sino-Japanese War. That conflict erupted in August 1937 and was a grim foreshadowing of World War II.
When World War II broke out in Europe, Isherwood and Auden came to America. The move made them enemies to many Britons, who saw them as fleeing the country in the face of oncoming war. Indeed, even three years later, in Put Out More Flags, novelist Evelyn Waugh, christening them Parsnip and Pimpernell, commented, ‘‘What I don’t see is how these two can claim to be contemporary if they run away from the biggest event in contemporary history.’’
Isherwood was a conscientious objector during World War II and became a U.S. citizen in 1946. During World War II he wrote scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox film studios. He also worked for a year in a refugee center in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
In 1953, he fell in love with eighteen-year-old college student, Don Bachardy, who was to achieve independent success as a portrait artist. The relationship was to last the rest of Isherwood’s life. At the conclusion of his 1976 biography, Christopher and His Kind, he described Bachardy as ‘‘the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not what you pretend to be.’’ During the 1970s and 1980s Isherwood and Bachardy were active participants in the burgeoning American Gay Liberation movement, a movement that Isherwood’s work of the 1950s and 1960s had anticipated and inspired.
Hindu Spirituality. Isherwood became increasingly involved in the Vedantist religion, a branch of Hinduism focusing on the true nature of reality. He edited and wrote several volumes about the religion between 1945 and 1969. He explained the religion’s basic tenets as follows: ‘‘We have two selves—an apparent, outer self and an invisible, inner self. The apparent self claims to be an individual and as such, other than all other individuals.... The real self is unchanging and immortal.’’
Isherwood did not confine himself solely to religious writings, however. He authored such novels as Prater Violet (1945), The World in the Evening (1954), and A Single Man (1964), the novel in which he most successfully combines the themes that preoccupied him during the second half of his career: religion and homosexuality. A Meeting by the River (1967), his last novel, deals with his religion. He also wrote the travel book The Condor and the Cows (1949), which provides a memorable summation of his attitude toward travel.
In addition to his novels and travel writing, Isherwood also published autobiographical volumes and the collection of stories, articles, and poems titled Exhumations (1966). He also wrote film scripts and taught at California State Univeristy, Los Angeles, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
During the 1970s and 1980s Isherwood concentrated on writing nonfiction, including Kathleen and Erank (1971), a biography of his parents, and Christopher and His Kind (1976), a memoir of the years in Berlin that inspired The Berlin Stories. He also continued to write about his religious experiences, as in My Guru and His Disciple (1980).
Isherwood lived and worked in Southern California until his death from cancer on January 4, 1986.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Isherwood's famous contemporaries include:
W. H. Auden (1907-1973): An English poet known for his mastery of tone, form, and content, his poetry touched on such subjects as love, citizenship, morality, and nature.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Widely considered to be the most influential composer of twentieth-century music. A quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian, Stravinsky was named by Time magazine as one of the one hundred most influential people of the twentieth century.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967): An American writer and poet best known for her wisecracks, caustic wit, and sharp eye for twentieth-century urban problems.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963): An English author best known for his dystopian novels, he also published a wide range of essays, short stories, poetry, travel writings, and scripts.
Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986): An Indian public speaker and author who focused most often on such topics as enacting positive change, meditation, and human relationships.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Christopher Isherwood was a pioneer of gay literature. Here are some authors who have tread similar ground:
Tales of the City (1978), a collection of fiction by Armistead Maupin. This work is actually the first in a series of novels that started out as serialized stories in the San Francisco Chronicle. The stories paint a vivid description of San Francisco life in the 1970s and 1980s, often with a comedic touch.
Giovanni's Room (1956), a novel by James Baldwin. Controversial upon its initial release for its explicit homosexual content, this novel by African American novelist Baldwin examines a single night in the life of a white American contemplating his lover's death.
Father of Frankenstein (1995), a novel by Christopher Bram. Made into the award-winning film Gods and Monsters, this poignant novel tells the story of Frankenstein director James Whale and his life as a closeted homosexual in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Works in Literary Context
Most of Isherwood’s fiction was based upon diaries, and it is consequently imbued with what David Thomas describes as ‘‘the verite of actual events with an acute sense of specific place and time.’’ Some key themes that run through Isherwood’s work, not surprisingly, tend to center on his sexuality. His autobiographical works attempt to explain the personal myths he created for himself and the artistic, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual values that those works embody. His commitment to gay liberation, then, appears in both his nonfiction and fiction works.
Homosexuality and Alienation. Christopher Isherwood was one of the first authors to treat homosexuality in a nonsensationalist vein. The impact of Isherwood’s homosexuality on his writing is pervasive and incalculable, felt both directly and indirectly. His interest lay in certain psychological predicaments and in recurring character types and themes. He was also fascinated by the antiheroic hero, rebellion against middle-class respectability, and ‘‘The Lost’’ (his code name for the alienated and the excluded). All are related to his awareness of himself as a homosexual. Even when represented as suppressed or disguised for legal or artistic reasons, homosexuality is a felt presence in Isherwood’s novels. It is a crucial component of the myth of the outsider that he developed so painstakingly. It is a symbol not merely of alienation and isolation, but also of individuality.
In his early works, Isherwood presents homosexuality unapologetically. He domesticates aspects of gay life that other writers sensationalized, and he reveals considerable insight into the dynamics of gay relationships. His first novel, All the Conspirators, indicts the repression of homosexual feelings, a motif that will recur throughout his career. His second novel, The Memorial (1932), portrays a homosexual’s grief at the loss of his best friend in World War I. The Berlin Stories depicts a wide range of homosexual characters, from Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, whose secret fantasies revolve around English schoolboy adventure stories, to Peter Wilkinson and Otto Nowak, who share a spoiled homosexual idyll on Reugen Island. In this work the unhappiness that plagues the gay characters is attributed not to their homosexuality but to their infection with the soul sickness that denies life and distorts reality, an infection they share with everyone else in the doomed city. In the early works, homosexual characters are juxtaposed with heterosexual ones to reveal beneath their apparent polarities a shared reality of a deadened spirit.
Sexual Minorities as a Political Force. Isher-wood’s American novels, beginning with The World in the Evening, focus more directly on the political aspects of being homosexual in a homophobic society. In these novels, Isherwood anticipates the concerns of the nascent gay liberation movement, as he presents homosexuals as a legitimate minority in a sea of minorities that constitute Western democracies. By conceiving of homosexuals as an aggrieved minority, Isherwood both softens the social and religious stigma linked to them and encourages solidarity among their ranks. He also implies the possibility of a political backlash to injustice by forming alliances with other disadvantaged minorities. The dilemma faced by the homosexual characters in Isherwood’s later novels is crystallized in their apparently irreconcilable needs to assert their individuality and to feel a sense of community.
The Need for Community. In Isherwood’s A Single Man, the need for community is also an issue. The novel more fully develops the context of gay oppression and places it within a still larger context of spiritual transcendence. A Single Man regards the assertions of individual uniqueness and minority consciousness as necessary worldly and political goals, but it finally subsumes them in the Vedantic idea of the universal consciousness.
Works in Critical Context
Isherwood’s problematic status in modern literature comes from a history of sharply divided critical opinion best summarized by author G. K. Hall: ‘‘Christopher Isherwood has always been a problem for the critics. An obviously talented writer, he has refused to exploit his artistry for either commercial success or literary status. ... Isherwood was adjudged a ‘promising writer’—a designation that he has not been able to outrun even to this day.’’ As if to underscore this point, author Gore Vidal has called Isherwood ‘‘the best prose writer in English.’’
Journey to a War. Isherwood’s nonfiction writings earned ambivalent reviews. Reviews of Journey to a War tended to be essentially positive, but Mildred Boie of The Atlantic took issue because the book was not ‘‘original and profound.’’ Another critic accused Isherwood and Auden of being tourists at a war, a curious criticism given Isherwood and Auden’s great sympathy for the suffering around them. In his 1939 The Nation review, Lincoln Kirsten offered possibly the most accurate summation of what Isherwood and Auden achieved when he called the book ‘‘perhaps the most intense record of China at war yet written in English.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Compare Christopher Isherwood’s treatment of homosexuality in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s to its treatment in the movie adaptation of his work, Cabaret. How do the treatments differ? How are they the same?
2. In Journey to a War, how does Isherwood go about reporting and analyzing what he sees in China? Is he simply a ‘‘tourist’’ as some critics suggested?
3. Bob Wood, the main character in The World in the Evening, fantasizes about marching ‘‘down the street with a banner saying, ‘We’re queer because we’re queer because we’re queer.’’’ Why would this have been a virtual impossibility in the 1940s, the time in which the novel was set? Using your library and the Internet, find out what restrictions, legal and social, were placed on homosexuals at the time.
4. Using your library and the Internet, research the early gay civil rights movement—particularly the Mattachine Society and the Stonewall Riots. Write a short essay summarizing your findings.
Finney, Brian. Christopher Isherwood: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Mizejewski, Linda. Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectatorship, and the Makings of Sally Bowles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Piazza, Paul. Christopher Isherwood: Myth and Anti-Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
Wade, Stephen. Christopher Isherwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Boorman, John. ‘‘Stranger in Paradise.’’ American Film 12.1 (1986): 53-57.
Wilson, Colin. ‘‘An Integrity Born of Hope: Notes on Christopher Isherwood.’’ Twentieth Century Literature (October, 1976): 312-331.