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Christopher Isherwood (1906-1986) - Byname of Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood

 

Anglo-American novelist and playwright, best known for his stories about Berlin in the early 1930s. Christopher Isherwood's novels were based largely on his own life. Many of his famous literary friends appeared in his books under different names, including W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Virginia Woolf.

"I am a camera with its shuter 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." (from Goodbye to Berlin, 1939)

Christopher Isherwood was born in Disley, Chesire, the son of an army officer, who was killed in World War I. The family had lived in the neighboring village of Marple since the sixteenth century, when, as successful farmers, they were able to buy 'The Hall' – an Elizabethan mansion – standing in a big waterlogged park. In his childhood Isherwood travelled around with his father's regiment.

Isherwood was sent in 1914 to St. Edmund's preparatory school, where he made friends with the future poet, W.H. Auden. Later he wrote in Lions and Shadows (1938): "I had arrived at my public school thoroughly sick of masters and mistresses, having been emotionally messed about by them at my preparatory school, where the war years had given full licence to every sort of dishonest cant about loyalty, selfishness, patriotism, playing the game and dishonouring the dead." Isherwood studied at Repton School and in 1925 at Corpus Christi Cambridge, without taking a degree. After Cambridge he worked for a time as a secretary to André Mangeot, a French violinist, and earned also his living as a private tutor. From 1930 to 1933 he taught English in Germany. Isherwood's first novel, All the Conspirators, came out in 1928. It was followed by The Memorial (1934), both exploring the English middle-class world in the 1920s.

"The audience took the fights dead seriously, shouting encouragements to the fighters, and even quarreling and betting amongst themselves or the results. Yet nearly all of them had been in the tent as long as I had, and stayed after I had left. The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody and anything." (from Good-bye to Berlin, 1939)

In the 1930 Isherwood wrote three prose-verse plays in collaboration with his old school friend W.H. Auden. Prolonged visits to Germany between 1929 and 1933 provided Isherwood with the material for his best-known fictional work, popularly entitled The Berlin Stories, but in actuality a pair of loosely structured novels: Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). The depiction of the glittering and grotesque metropolis of Germany, its cafés, night-people, and vices, was based on his observations in the decadent Weimar Republic in pre-Hitler years. When the narrator, William Bradshaw, first meets Arthur Norris in Mr Norris Changes Trains, he notes that his eyes were "the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules. Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything excepts his own thoughts..." Other characters include Sally Bowles, the embodiment of carefree individualism. Goodbye to Berlin is considered among the most significant political novels of the 20th century. Later the stories inspired the world famous musical Cabaret.

Along with writers such as Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender, Isherwood was under the surveillance of the Security Service (MI5), mainly due to his associate, Gerald Hamilton, whom he portrayed in his semi-autobiographical novel Mr Norris Changes Trains. An adventurer by nature, Hamilton became involved in radical activities in Germany, was imprisoned and expelled from Italy, and associated with the Comintern propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg. Isherwood regarded him as "a most incredible old crook". Partly to escape his everyday routines, Isherwood started in 1938 with Auden a journey to China, and recorded in Journey to a War (1939) his experiences in the country ravaged by civil war and a Japanese invasion. With Auden he emigrated to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1946.

Isherwood settled in 1939 in southern California, where worked as a teacher and wrote for Hollywood films. On the eve of the World War II, he turned into pacifism. During the war years in 1941-42 he worked at a Quaker hostel in Pennsylvania with refugees from Europe. In 1943 he became a follower of Swami Prabhavananda, founder of the Vedãnta Society of Southern California, producing several works on Indian Vedãnta in the following decades. When a number of European exiles in California, such as Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, did not appreciate American tastes and culture, Isherwood felt affection for the diversity of Los Angeles, its spiritualism, and the worship of youth. As Terry Southern began working with his friend Isherwood on the screenplay for MGM movie The Loved One (1965), he wanted Lenny Bruce to appear as the drunken "Dear Abby" columnist Guru Brahmin. The film was based on Evelyn Waugh's novel, in which the author parodied the extremes of American funeral and mourning customs and fascination for Indian mysticism.

Isherwood's later books include Prater Violet (1945), a story of filmmakers in prewar London. The World in the Evening (1954) was a study of a young writer who attempts to understand the failure of his two marriages and his homosexual needs. "I was wearing my usual crazy costume, the symbol of my protest against this life I was leading: a white tuxedo jacket, with a crimson bow tie and carnation to match my moiré cummerbund. Elizabeth, if she could have seen me, would have said, "Darling, what on earth are you supposed to be? No – don't tell me. Let me guess...""

A Single Man (1965) presented a single day in the life of George, a lonely, middle-aged homosexual man, whose partner has died in a car accident. Isherwood observes his character as if he were in an aquarium: "He crosses the front room, which he calls his study, and comes down the staircase. The stairs turn a corner; they are narrow and steep. You can touch both handrails with your elbows, and you have to bend your head, even if, like George, you are only five eight. This is a tightly planned little house. He often feels protected by its smallness; there is hardly room enough here to feel lonely..." In the retrospective autobiography, set in the 1930s, Christopher and His Kind (1977), Isherwood examined his complex relationship with Auden – his friend had died a few years before the book was published. Kathleen and Frank (1971) was a double portrait of his parents, as seen through his mother's and father's letters.

With his guru Swami Prabhavananda Isherwood translated from the Sanskrit The Bhagavad-Gita and The Yoga Aphorism of Patanjali. Later he wrote a biography of Ramakrishna and his disciples (1965). My Guru and His Disciple (1980) broke from the strictly chronological format to create a spiritual autobiography wherein the values of Vedanta Hinduism counter his life as a Hollywood scriptwriter. From 1959 to 1962 Isherwood was a guest professor at Los Angeles State College and the University of California at Santa Barbara, teaching courses in creative writing. In 1965-66 he taught at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Isherwood was one of the first internationally known figures to admit that he was homosexual. From 1953 until his death, Isherwood lived with his partner, the portrait artist Don Bachardy, who had also other lovers; he called Isherwood "Dobbin." "And again and again I have to remind myself that the whole art of life is to lean on people, to involve oneself with them quite fearlessly and yet – when the props are kicked away – remain leaning, as ot were, on empty air," Isherwood wrote in his diary. In 1975 he won the Brandeis Medal for Fiction. With his explicitly autobiographical works Isherwood become in the 1970s a leading spokesman for gay rights, but in his Diaries:Volume Two 1960-1969 (2010) he kept a relatively reticent line about sex. Isherwood died in Santa Monica, on January 4, 1986.

For further reading: Isherwood: A Life Revealed by Peter Parker (2004); Conversations With Christopher Isherwood, ed. by James J. Berg, et al. (2001); Christopher Isherwood by S. Wade (1991); Christopher Isherwood: Last Drawings by D. Bachardy (1990); Isherwood's Fiction by L.M. Schwerdt (1989); Christopher Isherwood by J. Lehmann (1987); Christopher Isherwood by C.J. Summers (1980); Christopher Isherwood by B. Finney (1979); Christopher Isherwood: A Reference Guide by R.W. Funk (1979); The Auden Generation by S.Hynes (1979); Interview with Christopher Isherwood by H.H. Broun (1977); Biography of Christopher Isherwood by J.A. Fryer (1977); The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol 5: 1936-1941 (1977); Christopher Isherwood by F. King (1976); Christopher Isherwood by C.G. Heilbrun (1970)

Selected works:

  • All the Conspirators, 1928
  • Intimate Journals / Charles Baudelaire, 1930 (translator)
  • The Memorial, 1932
  • The Dance of Death, 1933 (with W.H. Auden)
  • Mr Norris Changes Trains, 1935 (US title: The Last of Mr Norris)
  • The Ascent of F6, 1936 (with W.H. Auden)
    - TV film 1938, scr. W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, cast: Dennis Arundell, Peter Ashmore, Reginald Brooke, William Devlin etc.
  • Sally Bowles, 1937
  • A Penne for the Poor, 1937 (translator, a novel by Bertolt Brecht)
  • Lions and Shadows, 1938
  • Journey to a War, 1939 (with W.H. Auden)
  • Goodbye to Berlin, 1939
    - Cabaret (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1976)
    - Bob Fosse's film Cabaret (1972), starring Liza Minnelli, was based on this book, which on turn inspired Fred Ebb-John Kanders' Broadway musical from John van Druten's play I am a Camera, filmed in 1955. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles was in her first singing role. She won a Best Actress Oscar, British Academy of Film and Television Arts award, and Golden Globe for Best Actress. However, John Simon in the New Leader (March 20, 1972) was not happy with her performance: "The film's irredeemable disaster is its Sally Bowles: changing her into an American was bad enough; into Liza Minnelli, catastrophe... Plain, ludicrously rather than pathetically plain is what Miss Minnelli is. That turnipy nose overhanging a forward-gaping mouth and hastily retreating chin, that bulbous cranium with eyes as big (and as inexpressive) as saucers." TV movie 1999, book: Joe Masteroff, play by John Van Druten, dir. Sam Mendes, starring Jane Horrocks, Alan Cumming and Sara Kestelman.
  • Rage in Heaven, 1941 (screenplay, with Robert Thoeren, Edward Chodorov/uncredited, based on a novel by James Hilton)
    - Prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. W.S. Van Dyke, Robert B. Sinclair/uncredited, Richard Thorpe/uncredited, starring Robert Montgomery, Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Lucile Watson, Oskar Homolka.
  • The Song of God: Bhagavad Gita, 1944 (translator, with Swami Prabhavananda)
  • Vedanta for the Western World, 1944 (ed.)
  • Prater Violet, 1945
    - Praterin orvokki (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1983)
  • Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, 1947 (translator, with Swami Prabhavananda)
  • The Condor and the Cows, 1949
  • The Great Sinner, 1949 (film script, with Ladislav Fodor; story based loosely on Dostoyevsky's novel The Gambler)
    - Prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. by Robert Siodmark, starring Gregory Peck, Walter Huston, Ava Gardner, Melvyn Douglas, Ethel Barrymore.
  • Vedanta for Modern World, 1951 (ed.)
  • How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, 1953 (translator, with Swami Prabhavananda)
  • The World in the Evening, 1954
  • Diane, 1956 (screenplay, based on the story by John Erskine)
    - Prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. David Miller, starring Lana Turner, Pedro Armendáriz, Roger Moore, Marisa Pavan
  • Great English Short Stories, 1957 (ed.)
  • Down There on a Visit, 1962
  • An Approach to Vedanta, 1963
  • A Single Man, 1964
    - Film 2009, prod. Artina Films, Depth of Field, Fade to Black Productions, scr. Tom Ford, David Scearce, dir. Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Matthew Goode
  • Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 1965
  • The Loved One, 1965 (film script with Terry Southern, based on Evelyn Waugh's book)
    - Prod. Filmways Pictures, dir. by Tony Richardson, starring Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer, Rod Steiger, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn.
  • Exhumations, 1966
  • A Meeting by the River, 1967
  • Essentials of Vedanta, 1969
  • The Sailor from Gibraltar, 1967(screenplay, with Don Magner, Tony Richardson, based on the novel by Marguerite Duras)
    - Prod. Woodfall Film Productions, dir. Tony Richardsons, starring Jeanne Moreau, Ian Bannen, Vanessa Redgrave, Orson Welles.
  • Kathleen and Frank, 1971
  • Frankenstein: The True Story, 1973 (with Don Bachardy)
  • Christopher and His Kind, 1977
  • My Guru and His Disciple, 1980
  • People Ought to Know, 1982 (with S. Mangeot)
  • The Wishing Tree, 1987
  • Where Joy Resides: An Isherwood Reader, 1989
  • Diaries: Volume One, 1939–1960, 1996 (edited by Katherine Bucknell)
  • Lost Years: A Memoir 1945–1951, 2000 (edited by Katherine Brucknell)
  • Isherwood on Writing: The Lectures in California, 2007 (edited by James J. Berg, foreword by Claude Summers)
  • The Sixties: Diaries, 1960-1969, 2010 (vol. 2; edited by Katherine Bucknell)
  • Liberation: Diaries: 1970-1983, 2012 (vol. 3; edited and introduced by Katherine Bucknell, preface by Edmund White)


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