Christopher Isherwood, a minor novelist, was a member of that group of English writers who first began to attract attention in the years following World War I. A close friend of W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, Isherwood shared with both men a devotion to leftwing politics and homosexuality. Growing up in a world which taught them prewar values, they were too young to participate actively in the war which destroyed those values. A sense of being unprepared both by training and experience for postwar Europe shaped the lives and work of all these men; Isherwood’s work, which is always autobiographical in approach, is perhaps as good a guide as we have to the kinds of influences to which these writers responded.
Isherwood is best known for his stories which evoke vividly the decadent world of Weimar, Germany, that climate in which Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power. His strongly drawn characters of Sally Bowles and others of that world are etched in the American consciousness through the powerful performances of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the movie Cabaret. Yet this material is only a small part of Isherwood’s important work, a point which Brian Finney makes clear in this skillfully written literary biography.
Finney’s approach is straightforward; illuminating discussions of Isherwood’s works are interspersed with chapters of biography. Finney has been aided in his efforts by the direct cooperation of Isherwood, who now lives in Los Angeles with Don Bachardy, his lover for the last three decades. One benefit of this alliance between writer and scholar is a marked candor in Finney’s accounts of Isherwood’s homosexual orientation and life-style. Finney pulls no punches; he explores the possible origins of Isherwood’s sexual preference and describes openly and without apology the series of lovers Isherwood has known. Isherwood is a militant homosexual; one of his regrets, according to Finney, is that his earlier work is not as open as his later writings about this aspect of his personality.
In fact, one of the interesting problems faced by Finney in writing this book derives from Isherwood’s candor. One must surmise that openness about Isherwood’s homosexuality is almost a requirement for anyone writing about him who would want the man’s help in such an endeavor. Yet there are those whose lives are connected with Isherwood’s who are still alive and do not want such exposure. With Auden, Finney has no problem; Auden’s homosexuality was a subject of public knowledge before his death. As a result, Finney can state openly that Isherwood and Auden were once lovers. In the case of Spender, however, Finney is more circumspect, stating only that at one point Isherwood spent some time with one of Spender’s old boyfriends. The reader is left, as in days of less candor, reading between the lines, trying to understand the significance of asides about men sharing a private language and experience. One wonders, finally, whether candor in such matters is really an improvement.
In any case, Isherwood’s life took him through the (seemingly usual in such cases) boyhood world of absent father and domineering mother, the English Public School with its floggings, and the university with its cliques and coteries of bright, imaginative young men. Isherwood left Cambridge without a degree; his early journeys to Berlin, it turns out, were to find a world in which homosexuality was more accepted and beautiful young men were more accessible at the many “boy-bars” the city provided. His later career found him emigrating to America with Auden and taking up residence in California, where he became a devotee of Eastern religion and pacifism. There he has lived since the late 1930’s, continuing to write novels while sustaining himself financially through work on film scripts. His most recent works include Kathleen and Frank, a biography of his parents, and Christopher and His Kind, an autobiography of the Berlin years, both of which have attained strong critical acceptance.
Finney’s aim in this work is to put Isherwood’s writings in their biographical context; to a large extent he succeeds. His only failing has to do with the amount of material he must condense into the relatively narrow scope of what is, in these days of the massive biographies, really a very short book. Too often his biographical accounts amount to little more than a catalog of names, dates, and places; we are given little sense of the ethos, little feeling for setting, for the mood and tone of the places and people Isherwood has known.
In a real sense, Isherwood’s homosexuality dominates the work. This is understandable, in the light of his present militancy on the subject, yet it raises problems. Isherwood is important, important enough to receive this kind of treatment, primarily because he is a writer. Part of Finney’s agenda in this work is to attract for Isherwood’s later work the kind of attention lavished on his Berlin writings. Yet Finney himself often questions whether the more open emphasis on Isherwood’s homosexuality in his later books is a strength or a weakness. It may well be that his underplaying it in the Berlin stories and other early writings allows a more fully human response to the world to emerge, a perspective with a wider appeal than the more narrowly focused concerns of the later work. Surely the homosexual stance is as valid and real a way of being in the world as any other; yet the homosexual world is such that it creates its own language and style of living among its members. To stress that side of its writers’ experiences may well limit their ability to convey a whole vision of human life, as well as limit the range of their appeal to the larger world which contains people of all sexual persuasions. It is probable that the works by Isherwood which will endure will be precisely those in which the author’s sexual preference is not the central issue, but which instead are concerned with the more common human experiences which unite us all.
Be that as it may, Finney has written a helpful and concise guide to Isherwood, one that, within its limits, is a model of one way of writing literary criticism. While it may not widen the range of Isherwood’s readership, it will satisfy those who wish to know more about the world of literary England in the 1930’s and after. It will serve to clarify the details of Auden’s early career. It will also stand as the definitive account of the life and literary career of a man who has been a minor but important part of the literary life of our age.