Writers You Should Know – Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood- Writers You Should Know at ReadersWritersJournal.comChristopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was one of the most prominent English writers of his generation. Works of fiction include: All the Conspirators, The Memorial, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and Goodbye to Berlin, on which the stage play I am a Camera and the musical Cabaret was based, He was also a respected writer on Hinduism, as well as works of nonfiction and biography.As a young man, he embraced his homosexuality, a choice that would take him to Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, known for sexual freedom and, indeed, the debauchery of a dying system on the verge of entering the Nazi period. From this experience came many of his novels, most notably Berlin Stories.

Isherwood and Bachardy by Hockney

David Hockney painted Isherwood and Bachardy in 1968

At the outbreak of World War 2, Isherwood moved to the United States, where he befriended young writers like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Some have compared Capote’s Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, the main character in Berlin Stories and wondered if Capote borrowed some of Sally Bowles to create Holly Golightly.

Isherwood became a devout hindu and follower of Swami Prabhavananda. He wrote about his conversion and his funny and touching relationship with his swami in “My Guru and His Disciple” in 1980. Later in life, Isherwood settled in Southern California with his longtime partner, Don Bachardy.

Christopher Isherwood

“I’ll bet Shakespeare compromised himself a lot; anybody who’s in the entertainment industry does to some extent.” (The Paris Review interview, 1973)

Isherwood died at age 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California from prostate cancer. His body was donated to the UCLA Medical School.

Isherwood had a profound effect on literature of the late 20th century as well as on the gay rights movement, mysticism, and the popular concept of masculinity.  Isherwood’s male characters, who he called, collectively, “The Truly Strong Man,” were nothing like the traditional heroes of other American writers.  They opened the door to male role models who were sensitive, sexually ambiguous, and self-aware.

Recommended Works

berlin stories First published in the 1930s, The Berlin Stories contains two astonishing related novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, which are recognized today as classics of modern fiction. Isherwood magnificently captures 1931 Berlin: charming, with its avenues and cafés; marvelously grotesque, with its nightlife and dreamers; dangerous, with its vice and intrigue; powerful and seedy, with its mobs and millionaires—this is the period when Hitler was beginning his move to power. The Berlin Stories is inhabited by a wealth of characters: the unforgettable Sally Bowles, whose misadventures in the demimonde were popularized on the American stage and screen by Julie Harris in I Am A Camera and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret; Mr. Norris, the improbable old debauchee mysteriously caught between the Nazis and the Communists; plump Fräulein Schroeder, who thinks an operation to reduce the scale of her Büste might relieve her heart palpitations; and the distinguished and doomed Jewish family, the Landauers.
 Prater Violet concerns the filming of an unashamedly romantic and commercial musical about old Vienna. It is a stinging satirical novel about the film industry, trifling studio feuds, and the fatuous movie Prater Violet, which, ironically, counterpoints the tragic events on the world stage as Hitler’s lengthening shadow falls over the real Vienna of the thirties. At its center are vivid portraits of the mocking genius Friedrich Bergmann, the imperious, dazzlingly witty Austrian director, and his disciple, a genial young screenwriter-the fictionalized Christopher Isherwood. When it first appeared in 1945, Prater Violet caused a fury of critical speculation and acclaim.

a single man by christopher isherwood

When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life; the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself. Anthony Burgess called it “A testimony to Isherwood’s undiminished brilliance as a novelist.
christopher and his kind by christopher isherwood

Christopher and His Kind is an intriguing slice of autobiography. It covers ten years in the writer’s life-from 1929, when Isherwood left England to spend a week in Berlin and decided to stay there indefinitely, to the beginning of 1939, when he arrived in New York to start a life in the States.
The book revealingly contrasts fact with fiction-the real people Isherwood met in Germany with the portraits of them in his two Berlin novels, who then appeared again, fictionalized to an even greater degree, in I Am a Camera and Cabaret.  But one does not need to be familiar with his body of work to appreciate the powerful and compelling story he tells here. Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, after Hitler came to power. For the next four years, he wandered around Europe-through Greece, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France-with a German boy named Heinz.
The characters in the book include W.H. Auden, Stephen Sper, and E.M. Forster as well as the literary circles of Somerset Maugham and Virginia Woolf. Chronicling German refugees and the British colony in Portugal, the Group Theatre company, Christopher and His Kind is an engrossing and powerfully rendered portrait of a decade in the life of a major writer.


chris and don a love story A single man Cabaret, Based on the Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood


Further Reading on Christopher Isherwood, Mid-century literature, Weimar literature and LGBT literature of the 20th Century:

Christopher Isherwood Returns to Berlin – Huffington Post

Cabaret Berlin – Exploring the Entertainment of the Weimar Era

Middlebrow Queer – Christopher Isherwood in America

Eminent Outlaws – Gay Writers Who Changed America

BBC: Berlin Through the Eyes of Christopher Isherwood

Scene from Cabaret, 1970, starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Gray and Michael York with choreography by Bob Fosse

Trailer for A Single Man, 2009, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore and directed by Tom Ford


3 thoughts on “Writers You Should Know – Christopher Isherwood

  1. Pingback: A Word Or Two From Christopher Isherwood - As Told To Studs Terkel - 1977 - Past Daily Weekend Gallimaufry - Past Daily

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