am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive,
recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving
at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono
washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to
be developed, carefully printed, fixed."
Isherwood, who died
in 1986, "developed" from the sundry pieces
of his autobiography some of the finest fiction
of the century, synthesizing wonders out of the
mundane—and turning Sally, a tawdry nightclub
act, into an enduring character with a life of her
In 1928, at the
age of twenty-three and not long after dropping
out of Cambridge University, Isherwood published
his first novel, All the Conspirators.
The book, about a minor domestic drama, was poorly
received by most critics, barely sold three hundred
copies and quickly went out of print. Languishing
in London while at work on a second novel, Isherwood
took up an invitation for a quick visit with a distant
relative living in the German city of Bremen. The
relative, a British vice‑consul named Basil
Fry, had hoped to show the brash young man the proper
ways of the adult world; Fry, of course, was an
insufferable prig for the whole of the ten‑day
trip. But the short stay signaled the beginning
of Isherwood's love affair with Germany—and
its ample stock of handsome young men, as he was,
incidentally, thoroughly queer. He instantly resolved
to learn German: "While riding on buses, I
recited irregular verbs," he remembers in his
novel Down There on a Visit, recently
reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press.
"To me they were like those incantations in
The Arabian Nights which will make
you master of a paradise of pleasures."
for more travel, was certain of his calling as a
novelist, having abandoned not only Cambridge—he
feared an inevitable appointment as a school headmaster
on graduation—but an attempt at medical school
as well. Furthermore, he was suffocating under the
weight of English history and tradition. He belonged
to a clan of landed country gentry who traced their
ancestors back hundreds of years (one infamous forebear
signed Charles I's death warrant), and he wanted
out from what he called his family's—and England's—"cult
of the past." Cousin Fry's damnation of Berlin
as a city "doomed more surely than Sodom ever
was" only provided further encouragement and
direction for Isherwood. And with his friend W.
H. Auden's later dispatches from Berlin, which indicated
how completely right Fry had been, the decision
was glaringly obvious.
In 1929, Isherwood
settled into the city that would be the basis for
his literary fame, putting the finishing touches
on his second novel (The Memorial,
about an English family in the aftermath of World
War I) while surviving as a freelance English teacher—though
he did receive healthy remittances often enough
from an uncle back in Britain. He rented a room
in a flat next door to the Magnus Hirschfeld Sexology
Institute, now celebrated by scholars of early gay
history. Its founding namesake, Dr. Hirschfeld,
was himself a "practicing homosexual"
who pleaded extensively (and unsuccessfully) before
the Reichstag to legalize queer sex between consenting
adults. A bravely public figure, he was beaten up
routinely; the Nazis derided him as a paragon of
degeneracy. Hirschfeld's circle of friends, which
included Isherwood, attracted a variety of other
sexologists, anarchists, communists, libertarians
and exotic combinations thereof.
four‑year spell in Berlin, he changed residences
several times, dictated as much by the ups and downs
of his financial situation as his desire to have
contact with more than just his initial network
of friends. He fell in love with a working‑class
youth named Heinz, but still led a fairly promiscuous
sexual existence, exploring all that the nightlife
had to offer. In the daytime, he met a variety of
intriguing people through his English lessons and
other dealings. He took assiduous notes on each
personality in his varied life, planning to assemble
them together in a sweeping epic to be titled The
Lost, somehow managing, he later reminisced,
a "plot‑structure which would plausibly
contain the mob of characters I wanted to introduce
to my readers." He found himself inadequate
to the task, spilling out "an absurd jumble
of subplots and coincidences which defeated me whenever
I tried to straighten it out on paper." The
Lost never materialized.
clung to the idea of an epic because Berlin in those
days—wracked with poverty, with fascists and
leftists clashing in the streets—was undergoing
a truly epic, often painfully literal, civil war.
Yet contriving a grand plot, he discovered, downplayed
his ability for characterization, which was, he
decided, more important.
To Auden, according
to their mutual friend Stephen Spender, Isherwood
"held no opinions whatever about anything.
He was wholly and simply interested in people."
Which is not to say he lacked political conviction—on
the contrary, he was firmly anti‑fascist—but
he had a disarming way of dealing with people that
got around their prejudices. Many of the subjects
of his literary portraits—a wealthy and doomed
Jewish merchant family; a continental con man with
a taste for S & M; a working‑class German
family that included an eager young Nazi; a closeted
homosexual government official and hapless spy;
a struggling nightclub singer with more ambition
than talent—did not have much reason to associate
with one another. But Isherwood was welcomed warmly
into their confidences, not by subterfuge or pretense,
but by simply being willing to listen and record.
But by May 1933,
Isherwood's empathy would do him no good. It was
time to flee. Already paid several "routine"
visits by the authorities, as a foreigner, leftist
and homosexual, he was triply suspect. He went with
Heinz to a Greek island rented by an aristocrat
from the Hirschfeld circle. (Hirschfeld himself,
in exile in the south of France, died a year later;
Nazis burned his books in front of the Berlin Opera
House and angry mobs eventually ransacked what was
left of the Institute.) Isherwood and Heinz's several
months on the island, on which the small colony
lived in tents and huts without plumbing, were marked
mainly by heavy drinking and orgies with the local
fishermen. Exhausted and feeling unproductive, they
soon left, embarking on a seven‑year odyssey
around Europe. This wandering period would prove
pivotal in Isherwood's career, as his careful notes
crystallized into the two Berlin books that made
his reputation, Mr. Norris Changes Trains
(1934) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939).
With these books,
Isherwood arrived as a leading light in literature,
toasted by the likes of E. M. Forster and Virginia
Woolf. He and his friend Auden were the talk of
literary London—no matter that they hardly
were ever actually there. Yet, already Isherwood
was undergoing experiences that would lead him to
alienate himself from the cultural elite. With fitful
stays in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Paris and Portugal,
he knocked all around Europe with Heinz, who was
an illegal German alien seeking to evade the draft.
This made Isherwood wary of borders and skeptical
of nationalist pride whipped up in the winds of
A few years later,
when the Gestapo finally caught up with Heinz and
sent him to the army—luckily, considering
the fate of other German homosexuals—Isherwood
came to a perennially unpopular conviction that
lasted the rest of his life: pacifism. He could
never fight against an army that included Heinz.
He reasoned that going to war, no matter the circumstances,
The wandering period
came to an end as war finally swept through Europe
at the end of the decade. To the dismay of his London
friends, he settled into Los Angeles to work for
Hollywood. His friends gasped not only because he
was apparently going the tragic way of Faulkner
and Fitzgerald (that is, wasting his talent on the
movies) but he had, in their eyes, abandoned England
in its darkest hour. Both Isherwood and Auden (who
installed himself in New York, and who had been
as much of a nomad as Isherwood) were pilloried
in the British press for "not staying on"—as
if they'd been there in the first place. They were
even ridiculed for all time in Evelyn Waugh's Put
Out More Flags as the cowardly writers
Parsnip and Pimpernell.
wasn't helped either by his conversion in Los Angeles
to the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, joining a circle
of mystics that included fellow English writer‑expatriates
Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, the latter a charismatic
scribe on religion and mysticism at whom the literati
back in London scoffed mercilessly. While British
poet Louis MacNeice (who had also been abroad before
the war) was writing verses about Hitler's V‑2's
raining down on London, Isherwood was publishing
an account of a Vedanta meditation seminar run by
Heard in Los Angeles. Among the fervent cries of
patriotism, he was ridiculed. Even his ally Auden
deemed his new beliefs "mumbo‑jumbo."
But, for Isherwood,
Vedanta was the best thing that could have happened
to him. He had written to John Lehmann, his longtime
friend and editor in London, "I am so utterly
sick of being a person—Christopher Isherwood,
or Isherwood, or even Chris. Aren't you too? Don't
you feel, more and more, that all your achievements,
all your sexual triumphs, are just like cheques,
which represent money, but have no real value? Aren't
you sick to death of your face in the glass, and
your business‑voice, and your love‑voice,
and your signature on documents? I know I am."
Such was his reaction to fame, and Vedanta thought,
which trains the adherent to get around the ego
as a means to discover inner "reality,"
seemed like Isherwood's ticket to a fuller and more
Lehmann was sympathetic
and tended to defend Isherwood against his worst
critics in London, but he never understood Isherwood's
attraction to the philosophy—nor did he dare
broach the subject in his letters. As for Isherwood,
he went on to quietly write one of his best novels,
Prater Violet (1945), about his experience
working on a film in London.
On his first trip
back to England after the war, the distance that
had grown between him and the literati became painfully
evident at a party given by Lehmann for the fast‑rising
Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, both of whom
had become Isherwood's close friends in America.
In his memoir Palimpsest (1995), Vidal
dozen people at one end of the room. Much chatter.
Then Christopher asked, "Morgan [Forster],
did you get the copy of Prater Violet
I sent you?" Even my transatlantic heart sank.
This could only be trouble. Forster went on chatting
to [novelist] William Plomer and seemed not to have
heard. Christopher swallowed more gin. "Morgan!"
The voice had gone up an octave. The room was quiet.
Forster's eyes twinkled in Christopher's direction.
"Did you get that copy of Prater Violet
I sent you? I know there's a lot of difficulty mailing
things across the... " "Yes, Christopher."
Morgan's twinkle never ceased. "I got it."
Then he turned back and continued his conversation
with Plomer, leaving Christopher garroted in plain
Isherwood was eventually
forgiven for his supposed "anti-patriotic"
indiscretions and remained a critically praised
writer until his death. But the damage to his career
was done. However, he didn't seem to care. Besides,
with the staging of the play (and later film) I
Am a Camera in 1951, he benefited from
a new wave of interest in Goodbye to Berlin
(especially in America, where it had never really
quite taken off), and again with the film version
of the musical Cabaret in 1972. In
addition to his novels, the nascent Beat Generation
(particularly Allen Ginsberg) appreciated his parallel
life as a collaborator with his guru, Swami Prabhavananda,
on three "translations" of sacred Sanskrit
texts—including the Bhagavad‑Gita.
(He actually didn't know a word of Sanskrit, but
Prabhavananda wanted his literal translations rendered
with Isherwood's poetic touch.) He became something
of a cult figure in the gay culture of the '70s.
And now the University of Minnesota Press, sensing
another renewal in Isherwood demand, has reissued
The Memorial, Down There on a Visit,
The World in the Evening and A
Meeting in the River, all of which had
been allowed to fall out of print.
Down There on
a Visit is perhaps Isherwood's most unjustly
neglected work; his old friend Stephen Spender even
ventured that it was his best. The University of
Minnesota is understandably trying to hawk Down
There as a "sequel" in a trilogy
that would begin with Mr. Norris Changes Trains
and Goodbye to Berlin. But it is not a sequel,
exactly. For starters, it is not about Berlin, though
Berliners Isherwood knew pop up in other locations.
It covers periods both before and after the Berlin
spell, and, more important, it was finished more
than twenty years after he completed the last of
the Berlin stories, with oceans of psychological
distance between the young Isherwood and the old.
The charting of that very distance, though, from
that first trip to Bremen in 1928 to settling in
Southern California, does make Down There On
a Visit valuable in understanding the
changes in his life—and the world—in
very human, almost completely apolitical terms.
It's the final book to come from the remains of
his abandoned epic, The Lost, the
common ancestor of the Berlin books as well.
also highlights the author's self‑effacing
quality; though most of his novels are thoroughly
autobiographical, they aren't really about
Isherwood. They are tightly controlled meditations—the
term is especially accurate for Isherwood—on
other people, his surrounding environment, the nuances
of society and what makes individuals tick. And
for all his glamorous and bohemian associations,
he never comes off as a literary "bad boy"—never
caring to tediously brood upon the existential significance
of his celebrity or flaunt his sexual exploits,
which he correctly believed would create a barrier
between readers and his characters.
And Isherwood, both
in his religion and his fiction, was all about overcoming
barriers, about getting, as he once wrote, "face
to face, at last, with the 'real' individual."