He Was a Camera 
Novelist Christopher Isherwood was many things—all of which happened to be controversial
By Joe Knowles

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 1999


If today's connoisseurs of culture remember Christopher Isherwood at all, they most likely dimly associate his name with the character of Sally Bowles, that indefatigable aspiring starlet who steals the show in two successful films the novelist didn't have much to do with, I Am a Camera and Cabaret. It seems difficult to fathom now, but the first Sally Bowles, in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Isherwood's masterful constellation of stories about the German capital in the final, desperate days before Hitler, once had readers putting the future of the novel as we know it into his hands. The following trio of sentences on the first page of that book were, for a while, as famous as Sally herself:

"I 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 own.

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."

Isherwood, itching 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.

During Isherwood's 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.

Perhaps Isherwood 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 war.

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, was unconscionable.

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.

Isherwood's reputation 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 satisfying life.

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 ruefully remembers:

A 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 view.

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.

Down There 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."