Christopher Isherwood 1904–-1986
(Full name Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) English short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, translator, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Isherwood's short fiction career through 1994.
Isherwood is best known for his stories of Berlin, collected in The Berlin Stories (1946), which includes the short fiction collection Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and the novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935). These stories underscore the decadence of Berlin during the years before World War II as well as the tyranny of the Nazi regime. The Berlin Stories enjoyed widespread and enduring popularity: the book was adapted into a successful play, I Am a Camera (1951); an award-winning musical, Cabaret (1966); and a popular film version of Cabaret (1972).
Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904, in High Lane, Cheshire, England. In 1924 he attended Cambridge for a year, and briefly attended the University of London as a medical student in the late 1920s. Although born and raised in England, it was his years spent in Germany and California that most shaped Isherwood and his writing. From 1930 to 1933, he lived in Berlin, gathering the material that would eventually become the definitive portrait of pre-Hitler Germany. While there he fell in love with a young German man named Heinz. Their time together ended when Heinz was arrested and sentenced to prison, and then to service in the German Army, for his homosexual activities. Heinz's conscription contributed to Isherwood's later pacifism. In 1939 Isherwood immigrated to the United States. A conscientious objector during World War II, he became an American citizen in 1946. He worked as a writer in Hollywood and became active with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, a religious organization. Isherwood died of cancer on January 4, 1986, in Santa Monica, California.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Goodbye to Berlin is regarded as Isherwood's most popular work. The stories address Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s and the decadence of Berlin in the years before World War II. The collection is framed by a couple of diary entries recorded a year apart, the first of which introduces the narrator, Isherwood. It was with Goodbye to Berlin that Isherwood established the matter-of-fact style indicative of his work. By blending fact and fiction, he sought to achieve a naive, honest style. The phrase “I am a camera” often appears in his work, indicating his belief that a narrator should serve the role of a simple recording device. The novella Sally Bowles (1937) features the character of Sally, a vain, outrageous Englishwoman working as a dancer in a Berlin cabaret. She has remained one of Isherwood's most enduring and compelling characters. Sally becomes ambiguously involved with Isherwood, but abruptly disappears at the end of the novella. “On Ruegen Island” chronicles the curious relationship between Isherwood, his friend Peter, and a youth named Otto while vacationing in a Baltic resort during the summer of 1931. In “The Nowaks” Isherwood and Otto live together in the slums of Berlin, and Isherwood becomes a regular at the gay bars of Berlin. His friendship with Bernhard, a young Jewish businessman, is explored in “The Landauers.” This story portrays the growing Nazi cruelty to the Jewish population in the early 1930s; by the end of the story, Bernhard is killed mysteriously, presumable by the Nazis.
Much of the critical discussion regarding Goodbye to Berlin centers on Isherwood's use of the first-person narrator. Commentators note that the author's detachment from the characters he encounters mirrors the spiritual blight that affected Berlin in the years during World War II, a malaise that paved the way for Hitler's growing power. In this way, some critics have perceived Goodbye to Berlin as a significant political work. Critics have noted the autobiographical aspects in the book, particularly the homoerotic relationships in the stories. In fact, sexuality in Isherwood's fiction is a rich area of interest for commentators, as they trace Isherwood's treatment of homosexuality in the stories and how it reflects his own experiences and relationships. Although some reviewers deemed the stories as flat, Goodbye to Berlin has remained Isherwood's most popular work, and has been successfully adapted to stage and film.
Sally Bowles 1937
Goodbye to Berlin 1939
The Berlin Stories 1946
The Berlin of Sally Bowles 1975
The Mortmere Stories [with Edward Upward] 1994
All the Conspirators (novel) 1928
The Memorial: Portrait of a Family (novel) 1932
Mr. Norris Changes Trains (novel) 1935; published in the United States as The Last of Mr. Norris, 1935
Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (autobiography) 1938
Prater Violet (novel) 1945
The World in the Evening (novel) 1954
Down There on a Visit (novel) 1962
A Single Man (novel) 1964
A Meeting by the River (novel) 1967
Kathleen and Frank (autobiography) 1971
Christopher and His King, 1929-1939 (autobiography) 1976
People One Ought to Know [with Sylvain Mangeot] (verse) 1982
The Wishing Tree: Christopher Isherwood on Mystical Religion (nonfiction) 1987
Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader (essays, novels, autobiography) 1991
Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960 (diaries) 1997
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SOURCE: O'Brien, Kate. “Fiction.” Spectator (3 March 1939): 364.
[In the following excerpt, O'Brien praises Isherwood's detached narrative style in Goodbye to Berlin.]
Mr. Isherwood has brought to something like perfection the laconic and unemotional selectiveness of the camera. He swings his lens and refrains from running commentary. That is to say, if there is a joke in what he catches it is in it—it is not spoken “off”; if there is an emotion, the film takes its shadow and the camera-man finds nothing of his own to say. For this relief much thanks. It is a beautiful, quick way of record, and the care and passion which lie behind its present state of accomplishment deserve the highest praise.
I do not think that criticism nowadays is sufficiently generous to the pains and virtues of technique. We are forever praising the blundering “masterpieces” of would-be writers who, having, let us concede, something or other to say, do not appreciate that that condition is the common lot—but that the saying again of these oft-said things is the real issue—at which the business of being a writer begins. Reviewers of fiction must know very well that until a writer's manner is immediately recognisable it is senseless to give excited tongue after his matter. We do not mistake a Picasso woman for a Matisse, or a Utrillo landscape for a John Nash—and that is why these people...
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SOURCE: A review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Times Literary Supplement (4 March 1939): 133.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a mixed assessment of Goodbye to Berlin.]
Four of the six sketches or diary fragments that make up this “roughly continuous narrative” have already appeared in print, one of them in book form. As the narrative now stands it has an uneven quality and leaves a mixed impression. The best of it is very good—clever, honest, anxious, ribald, sometimes pungent, touched with the perplexity and the striving for sympathy, if not with sympathy itself, that together seems to enclose Mr. Isherwood's characteristic mood of seriousness. In that mood Mr. Isherwood is plainly determined to describe at first hand only and is as plainly on guard against ready-made feelings. He puts himself in the witness-box and takes what he might possibly call the novelist's oath: he swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Berlin before Hitler, about its night life, about its slums, cafés, lakeside villas, about the backboneless dreamers and the Nazi toughs among the young. And in reading you feel that, up to a point, he is in fact telling the truth not merely as he sees it but also as you yourself and most other people might see it.
This air of inflexible integrity is not unattractive. At the same time,...
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SOURCE: Garnett, David. “Books in General.” New Statesman and Nation XVII, no. 420 (11 March 1939): 362.
[In the following positive review, Garnett considers the short fiction in Goodbye to Berlin as a series of character portraits.]
William Blake's parable in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is called A Memorable Fancy. It begins with an angel coming to him and exclaiming: “O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity. …” But the angel had picked the wrong man, for after they had contemplated the abyss together, Blake turned the tables by saying: “Now that we have seen my eternal lot, shall I show you yours?” and, to the angel's discomfiture, revealed a spectacle of chained baboons which first coupled with, and then devoured, each other. “So the angel said: ‘Thy phantasy has imposed on me, and thou oughtest to be ashamed.’ I answered: ‘We impose on one another. …’” The parable is as true of creative artists as of philosophers, for the distinguishing mark of original writers and painters, the mark of imaginative greatness, is to be able to impose a personal vision. The angel was indignant with Blake because he could not help recognising himself and his companion angels in the form of the disgusting baboons, and he was forced to admit to himself: “This is the...
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SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “Leaves from under the Lindens.” New York Herald Tribune Books (12 March 1939): 10.
[In the following review, Kazin views Goodbye to Berlin as an accurate portrayal of Berlin in the years before World War II.]
There are cities lost in history, like Sodom, Jerusalem and Confederate Richmond, which were once capitals of some national spirit and whose grandeur has been so mixed with time that they remain mysterious even when the legends they sprouted have grown dull. Today there are cities, somehow always capital spirits incased in the monuments of office, that are far to the present. They have become a new Sargasso Sea, choked with hopes and portents and anxious rumors, and no one knows better than their own citizens, eagerly clutching any foreign newspaper, how many phantoms trouble the voyager and how easy it is to see many-headed monsters rising out of the sea.
More than Rome, Berlin has become the very emblem of all lost cities. For it is not only the great kitchen of the Fascist brew, but has always been the world's most artificial capital. It has never had the homeliness of Madrid, the overflowing traditionalism of Rome: it has never imparted what one feels in Paris, the sense of living in the very center and squarely on the top of a definite cultural world. Berlin was created by blueprints, and its skeleton structure still shows through the ribs of...
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SOURCE: Davenport, Basil. “Atmosphere of Decay.” Saturday Review XIX, no. 25 (15 April 1939): 14.
[In the following review of Goodbye to Berlin, Davenport contends that “Mr. Isherwood combines an uncanny accuracy of observation and ability to convey his impressions with a universal sympathy almost unknown in English literature.”]
The first section of this book is called “A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)”; the last is “A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3).” Between lie four narrative pieces, tranches de vie with hardly enough plot for the name “short story,” but with too much depth to be called sketches, although that is the word Mr. Isherwood himself uses for them in his brief and modest preface, in which he tells us that the pieces in this book, as well as his previous novel, The Last of Mr Norris, were originally planned as part of a huge episodic novel of pre-Hitler Berlin. That was to have been called “The Lost”; but the author says he found that title too grandiose for this book.
It is nevertheless an illuminating title to bear in mind as one reads Goodbye to Berlin. Here one sees, set down with a perfection of observation which makes analysis unnecessary, the psychological atmosphere which made Hitlerism possible; the author's fellow-lodgers are of the expropriated, drifting petty bourgeoisie held by a state of mind hardly positive enough...
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SOURCE: Green, G. F. Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Twentieth Century CXXVI, no. 750 (August 1939): 238-40.
[In the following mixed review of Goodbye to Berlin, Green deems Isherwood a promising author.]
If the spirit of this age is faithlessness, or an unstable grasp of demi-faiths, Christopher Isherwood is then a sign of the times. In writing, lack of faith tends to rapportage, as Cocteau puts it, ‘a mere aping of the original,’ since it is the writer's outlook, or particular faith, that forces out his plot from the ‘stream of mere phenomena.’ Some of the best young writers today, imitators chiefly of Hemingway, who used a structure of rapportage through which to build his plots, amount to little, since they lack this necessary drive of an idea, a theme, a faith, through which to bring their skeletons to life. Their work is botched in its conception. Christopher Isherwood is better than these writers; his work trembles on the brink of meaning, as if this force were there, but undefined, not yet developed enough to create from his potentialities, power. So that we see tantalising mature talents, and a promise; the best maybe we have. This knowledge perhaps made him wisely abandon the ‘huge, episodic novel,’ The Lost, leaving instead these diaries and sketches. For that is what Goodbye to Berlin is, and very good too. His work...
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SOURCE: Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Queen's Quarterly XLVI, no. 2 (summer 1939): 244-45.
[In the following review, the reviewer provides a favorable assessment of Goodbye to Berlin.]
In Goodbye to Berlin Christopher Isherwood continues his account of the Berlin of pre-Hitler days, begun in Mr. Norris Changes Trains. One section of the book, Sally Bowles, has already been published as a separate volume. Goodbye to Berlin deals with that period of the author's life when he was earning his livelihood as a tutor in the German capital. Poverty and inclination led him to live in the cheapest boarding houses and mingle almost exclusively with the poorer classes. The people whom he knew are well described; the author's range is wide and his analyses of character suggestive and often acute. The tone of the book is objective and impersonal throughout. One would wish, perhaps, to know more about the author himself, but he remains in the background. “‘Christopher Isherwood’ is a convenient ventriloquist's dummy, nothing more.”
Isherwood has, fortunately, avoided the danger of appearing wise after the event; there are occasional descriptions of Jew-beatings and clashes between Nazis and Communists, but little to suggest that either Isherwood or his Berlin friends were aware, in 1932, of the fact that Germany was nearing the...
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SOURCE: Naipaul, V. S. “The Writer.” New Statesman 71, no. 1827 (18 March 1966): 381-82.
[In the following review of Exhumations, Naipaul offers a mixed reaction to Isherwood's detached narrative style.]
Isherwood says that this annotated compilation—of stories, reviews and magazine pieces done over nearly 40 years—is ‘chiefly for those who feel some interest, never mind how slight, in my writings and, hence, in me.’ The circumstances are special, but the plea is unnecessary. Isherwood has always been one of those writers, like Maugham and Hemingway, who have invited an interest in what we might call their professional personalities.
The writer, in spite of all that has been said about society's indifference to him, is a glamour-figure. As prophet, as journal-keeper or letter-writer, as traveller and observer, deviser of tales or magician with words, he has always been felt to be above society; he is the last free man. The exploitation of this glamour through the figure of the writer-narrator, however tough, however cynical, is a device of romance. Much depends, though, on the ‘writing’ personality the reader is invited to assume. Hemingway and Ashenden are possible: they both flatter the reader. Mann's Aschenbach wouldn't do: away from his work he is nothing. Christopher Isherwood, the writer-narrator, the camera-eye, is much easier. In his company we feel we get...
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SOURCE: “Tourist and Camera.” Times Literary Supplement (7 April 1966): 296.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic derides Isherwood as a writer who has never reached his literary potential.]
The reviewer is warned from the start. Writing of himself as a reviewer (about thirty-five reviews in three years for The Listener), Christopher Isherwood remarks: “I dare say I was no more or less dogmatic, spiteful, irresponsible and smart alecky than my colleagues or the run of people who do the job today.” That, you would think, spikes the critical guns before they can fire on this collection of stories, articles, and verses, which Mr. Isherwood himself in a reviewer mood suggests will be of most interest to those already aware of his work and of him (“I cannot pretend that it is a self-sufficient, self-explanatory artwork”).
Yet there are times when a reviewer must reject the role assigned to him in advance, however accurate it may be, and tightly control his dogmatic inclinations, his spite and irresponsibility, his urge to be smart alecky, in order to save an author from himself. Perhaps of all the English writers of his generation, Mr. Isherwood brings out this spirit: he is so obviously a great talent too often tied down like Gulliver in Lilliput by mere pygmy concerns. To be more explicit, there are times when this fine writer, gifted with one of the most lucid...
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SOURCE: Thomas, David P. “Goodbye to Berlin: Refocusing Isherwood's Camera.” Contemporary Literature 13, no. 1 (winter 1972): 44-52.
[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the narrators in Isherwood's work.]
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.
The second paragraph of Goodbye to Berlin (1930)1 has become almost the obligatory starting point for discussions of Christopher Isherwood's fiction. Richard Mayne asserts that it “very closely describes the role which Isherwood plays as the narrator of his novels. Here, he is a self-effacing onlooker, making no judgments, forming no attachments, withholding imaginative sympathy, ultimately not involved,”2 while G. H. Bantock, quoting the same passage, complains of “the lack of a sense of personal reaction, except insofar as the mere angle at which the camera is held can imply a comment.”3 Introducing an interview with Isherwood, George Wickes noted that in Goodbye to Berlin the author “perfected his technique of observing through a dispassionate narrator bearing his own name”4—again referring to the “camera.”
These examples can be...
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SOURCE: Blades, Joe. “The Evolution of Cabaret.” Literature/Film Quarterly 1, no. 3 (July 1973): 226-38.
[In the following essay, Blades chronicles the adaptation of The Berlin Stories to the stage and cinema.]
From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made up my mind that I would one day write about the people I'd met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course provided raw material for all my Berlin stories.1
—Christopher Isherwood, July 1954
Mr. Isherwood's painstaking efforts as a diarist were not wasted. His original concept was to turn his experiences into a “huge tightly constructed melodramatic novel.”2 Instead, his memoirs reached print as a loosely interrelated series of short stories bolstered by incisive character portraits.
In 1935 the author published Mr. Norris Changes Trains (American title: The Last of Mr. Norris), an account of smuggling and espionage in Berlin, basing his depictions of Arthur Norris and others on real-life prototypes. Isherwood's journalistic flair, combined with his poet's eye, provided lasting portraits of Berlin just prior to the start of the Third Reich. One of the...
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SOURCE: Cunningham, Valentine. “Cabaret.” New Statesman 90, no. 2318 (22 August 1975): 229-30.
[In the following review, Cunningham explores the emphasis on the character of Sally Bowles, which is reflected in the edition of Isherwood's stories entitled The Berlin of Sally Bowles.]
‘I wonder,’ she was fond of remarking, ‘what they'd say if they knew that we two old tramps were going to be the most marvellous novelist and the greatest actress in the world.’
Thus Sally Bowles to Chris Isherwood, in one of their frequent conversations about ‘wealth, fame, huge contracts for Sally, record-breaking sales for the novels I should one day write’. Sally's confidence was, of course, right: and though Frl. Schroeder may sneer in Isherwood's new Introduction (‘The Berlin of Sally Bowles? Of Sally Bowles? Is she out of her mind? Just who does she think she is?’) the world of Mr Norris [Mr. Norris Changes Trains] and Goodbye to Berlin is now—after the play, the musical and the movie, after Julie Harris, Dorothy Tutin and Liza with a zee—ineluctably, if regrettably, The Berlin of Sally Bowles.
It's apt to an extent, this dual fame, especially given the pair's likenesses. Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood (alias William Bradshaw of Mr Norris, alias Christopher Isherwood...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Peter. “‘Camp’ and Politics in Isherwood's Berlin Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 5, no. 1 (February 1976): 117-30.
[In the following essay, Thomas traces Isherwood's utilization of Camp motifs in his work.]
The agonizing of the “Auden generation” over their support for leftish causes called forth a good deal of suspicion at the time, and George Orwell's description of the typical English bourgeois intellectual of the Thirties crystallizes this feeling:
It is the same pattern all the time; public school, university, a few trips abroad, then London. Hunger, hardship, solitude, exile, war, prison, persecution, manual labour—hardly even words.1
While Christopher Isherwood's life in Berlin appeared to remove at least some of these disabilities, the confessional tone of his writings could also be seen, from the hostile viewpoint, to express a kind of political exhibitionism. Sympathy for the oppressed was one thing; wringing one's hands and proclaiming personal inadequacy was another. Cynicism about peripatetic liberals was also undoubtedly fired by the evident homosexual nature of some of their work. Orwell again, in his contempt for “nancy poets,” typified this reaction—with its suggestion that the class-rebellion of such writers contained elements of thrill-seeking. This is quite apart...
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SOURCE: Lodge, David. Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. Washington Post Book World XXII, no. 12 (22 March 1992): 7.
[In the following essay, Lodge reflects on the enduring popularity of the character of Sally Bowles.]
Character is arguably the most important single component of the novel. Other forms (such as epic) and other media (such as film) can tell a story just as well, but nothing can equal the great tradition of the European novel in the richness, variety and psychological depth of its portrayal of human nature. Yet character is probably the most difficult aspect of the art of fiction to discuss in technical terms.
Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles, originally the subject of one of the lightly fictionalized stories and sketches that make up Goodbye to Berlin, is a character who has enjoyed a remarkably long life in the public imagination, thanks to the successful adaptation of the text as a stage play and film (I Am a Camera), then as a stage and film musical (Cabaret). At first glance, it's hard to understand why she should have achieved this almost mythical status. She is not particularly beautiful, not particularly intelligent, and not particularly gifted as an artiste. She is vain and feckless. But she retains an endearing air of innocence and vulnerability in spite of it all, and there is something irresistibly comic about...
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Burgess, Anthony. “Candid Camera.” Spectator (18 February 1966): 201.
Mixed review of Exhumations.
Haynes, Douglas. “Christopher Isherwood's Revision of The Berlin Stories.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 73, no. 2 (April-June 1979): 262-65.
Chronicles the revisions to The Berlin Stories.
Rahv, Philip. “A Variety of Fiction.” Partisan Review VI, no. 3 (spring 1939): 106-13.
Brief favorable review of Goodbye to Berlin.
Reiner, Max. “Queer People.” The Canadian Forum XIX, no. 219 (April 1939): 29.
Positive assessment of Goodbye to Berlin.
Additional coverage of Isherwood's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 117; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 35, 97; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 9, 11, 14, 44; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 195; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1986; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; International Dictionary of Theatre: Playwrights; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century...
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