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.