Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was a British-born American writer who worked in many genres, including fiction, drama, film, travel, and autobiography. He was especially esteemed for his stories about Berlin in the early 1930s.
The son of a career military officer, Christopher 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. 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 which played an important role in his personal and artistic life.
Leaving the university without a degree, 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, which was published as All the Conspirators in 1928.
Scenes of a Crumbling Germany
In 1929 he went to Germany to visit Auden, who was living there, and was attracted to life in the crumbling Weimar Republic, and particularly to the sexual freedom that existed. As he so succinctly put it in his 1976 book Christopher and His Kind 1929-1939, "Berlin meant Boys." He was not long in establishing a liaison with Berthold "Bubi" Szczesny, a bisexual ex-boxer, which 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 boy'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 his remittances, and Isherwood paid his way by tutoring in English; in this way he met Berliners from the upper classes.
All this provided background for his most successful work, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), Sally Bowles (1937), and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), all collected under the title The Berlin Stories in 1945. In these novellas and short stories he presented an in-depth portrait of life in Germany's capital as the republican center collapsed, the Communists tried desperately to stem the rightist tide, and the Nazis came to power.
He began in "A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)" with an almost offhand observation about Fráulein Hippi, a student whom the narrator is tutoring in English: "Like everyone else in Berlin, she refers continually to the political situation, but only briefly, with a conventional melancholy…. It is quite unreal to her." In "Sally Bowles," he mentioned the closing of two major banks and noted: "One alarmist headline stood out boldly, barred with blood-red ink: 'Everything Collapses'."
In "The Nowaks," about a working class family, he described their neighborhood in this way: "The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was … a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills…." The political pressures are seen increasing in "The Landauers," about a well-to-do Jewish family: "One night in October 1930, about a month after the Elections, there was a big row on the Leipzigerstrasse. Gangs of Nazi toughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews. They … smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops." Finally, in "A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-33)," the narrator observes: "Schleicher has resigned. Hitler has formed a cabinet…. Nobody thinks it can last until the spring."
The Berlin stories were picked up by playwright John van Druten, who was struck by a sentence in "A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)": "I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking." He wrote the play I Am a Camera, centering on Sally Bowles, of whom Alan Wilde wrote: "Sally's charm is her naíveté, … her total capacity for self-deception and self-contradiction, … her ability to accommodate herself to each new situation…." I Am a Camera in turn became the musical Cabaret (1967), with book by Joe Masteroff and lyrics by Fred Ebb, which was produced both on stage and in film.
Isherwood of course became fluent in German and got acquainted, as did Auden, with the expressionist drama of such important figures as 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 generally considered the more successful.
Move to the United States
Isherwood and Auden travelled to China in 1938 and in 1939 worked together on Journey to a War. In that same year, the year World War II began, both came to America, a move which made them anathema to many Britons. 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."
During World War II Isherwood wrote scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox film studios; worked for a year in a refugee center in Haverford, Pennsylvania; and became a resident student of the Vedanta Society of Southern California and co-editor of the group's magazine Vedanta and the West.
He became increasingly involved in the Vedantist religion, editing the volumes Vedanta for the Western World in 1945 and Vedanta for Modern Man in 1951 and writing An Approach to Vedanta in 1963, Ramakrishna and His Disciples in 1965, and Essentials of Vedanta in 1969. He explained its basic tenets in the 1963 work 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), A Single Man (1964), and A Meeting by the River (1967), which he dramatized in 1972. He also wrote the travel book The Condor and the Cows (1949), autobiographical volumes, and the collection of stories, articles, and poems titled Exhumations (1966). Additionally, he taught at Los Angeles State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of California at Los Angeles and wrote film scripts.
Isherwood's status in modern literature was best summarized by 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. It is still a clicheé of Isherwood criticism to say that he never fulfilled his early promise….In any case, five decades of Isherwood criticism present a history of sharply divided opinion."
Isherwood, who became an American citizen in 1946, lived and worked in southern California until his death from cancer January 4, 1986.
Further Reading on Christopher Isherwood
Much personal information is in his autobiographical Christopher and His Kind (1976). In G. K. Hall's Christopher Isherwood: A Reference Guide (1979) the reader will find a comprehensive listing of all works by and about the subject.
Additional Biography Sources
Finney, Brian, Christopher Isherwood: a critical biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Fryer, Jonathan, Isherwood, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978, 1977.
Fryer, Jonathan, Isherwood: a biography of Christopher Isherwood, London: New English Library, 1977.
Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and his kind, 1929-1939, London: Eyre Methuen, 1977; New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1976.
Isherwood, Christopher, My guru and his disciple, New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1981.
King, Francis Henry, Christopher Isherwood, Harlow Eng.: Published for the British Council by Longman Group, 1976.
Lehmann, John, Christopher Isherwood: a personal memoir, New York: H. Holt, 1988, 1987.