Christopher Isherwood

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

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...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)