Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In January, 1934, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood faced the embarrassing questions of the British customs officials at Harwich, attempting to get Christopher’s German lover, Heinz, into England. The officials found Christopher’s letter of directions “the sort of letter a man might well write to his sweetheart.” Entry was refused; Heinz was shipped back to the Continent. Auden analyzed the situation at a glance. The officials had taken sadistic pleasure in parting the two lovers because “he’s one of us.”

The phrase “one of us” echoes through early twentieth century fiction. Marlow recognized Jim as “one of us” in Lord Jim (1900). Brett Ashley calls Count Mippipopolous “one of us” in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Ronny Heaslop is “one of us” in A Passage to India (1925). The most obvious examples occur in The Great Gatsby (1925). Whether the referent was the British in the Far East, the war-wounded, or the very rich, “us” is always a select minority, a secret society.

In Christopher and His Kind, the secret society is the world of intellectual homosexuals, all well-educated and very British. Isherwood’s “others” are the established British society, whom he is continually trying to outrage without ever becoming completely socially unacceptable. Unlike Oscar Wilde, his lovers were never upper-class Englishmen. If this autobiography had covered the 1920’s, which was ego-centered and apolitical, Isherwoods’ conflict between “us” and the “others” would not have been remarkable. But in the political 1930’s, his attitudes seem frequently childish, often petulant, and always theatrical. Writing in 1975, Isherwood sees the Christopher of his youth through ironic glasses. If the reader becomes irritated with the childishness, he comes to realize that the writer has allowed him to be irritated. To what extent Isherwood is conscious of his achievment is difficult to determine. The petulance of the young man has not altogether disappeared in the older writer. Perhaps he still wishes to shock by his public exposé of prominent homosexuals, whose penchant was known privately but not to be found in literary histories.

The difficulties of reading the book are compounded by the point of view. The “I” narrator is Isherwood in the 1970’s. He writes about “Christopher” in the 1930’s as if he were a separate character, an earlier ego whom he finds both amusing and sometimes silly. He is amused, for example, with Christopher’s inability to live his homosexual life openly, even though Christopher thinks of it as being very open while he is in Berlin. When Isherwood is unable to remember exact details, he relies heavily on the fiction that Christopher wrote during the 1930’s, fiction highly biographical yet never quite the truth. Christopher and His Kind is filtered through an old man’s memory of what he did and what he wrote as a young man, which was loosely based on what actually happened in London and Berlin. The final result is not history. It is as much a fiction as the young Christopher’s novels, only more complex.

This is not to say that the book is worthless to the literary historian and critic. Not all of Isherwood’s diaries were lost, and he had access to the unpublished materials of the Auden estate, as well as the succinct letters and diaries of his mother, Kathleen Isherwood. The autobiography is filled with insider’s information on E. M. Forster, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden. Isherwood read Forster’s homosexual novel, Maurice, in manuscript and discussed it with the older writer, who was his idol; there is a good deal of information on Isherwood’s collaborations with Auden. How they worked together and who wrote which parts of which plays is answered. Whether the answers are final cannot be determined, but Isherwood’s account is as close to the truth as we shall have until the Auden estate authorizes a biography.

The book also contains valuable information on Isherwood’s early writing: All the Conspirators (1928), The Memorial (1932), The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), Lions and Shadows (1938), Goodbye to Berlin (1939), and Prater Violet (1945). The real-life counterparts for the main fictional characters are mostly named, and Isherwood reveals the changes and deletions that he worked on his raw material. Not infrequently he reveals that homosexuality was left out of the fiction but was central in the prototype relationship. For example, the narrator of Goodbye to Berlin “nearly gives himself away,” says Isherwood, when he describes the physical beauty of Otto Nowak. Ironically, by the time this set of Berlin stories had metamorphosed through the stage play, I Am a Camera, to the movie musical, Cabaret, the homosexuality had been put back without much public comment.

Goodbye to Berlin illustrates the basic difficulty in reading Christopher and His Kind: it is like looking at the author in a room of mirrors in which his image is multiplied to infinity. Which is the real Christopher? Isherwood at seventy looks back on Christopher at thirty who has created a fictional narrator, “Christopher Isherwood,” for his novel. Moreover, the older writer is also remembering John Van Druten’s stage version, as well as the movie made of the play which was different from the play. He also has seen the later musical stage version, Cabaret, which in turn was changed in the movie version. Not even Isherwood is capable now of saying exactly what the original experience was like: “I wish I could...

(The entire section is 2332 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, October 2, 1976, p. 195.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, December 9, 1976, p. 10.

New York Times Book Review. November 28, 1976, p. 31.

New Yorker. LII, December 27, 1976, p. 68.

Village Voice. XXI, December 6, 1976, p. 96.