Monday, May 14, 2018


Wiktor Gorka: Cabaret (1972)

My initially tepid interest in Christopher Isherwood started off as a by-product of a far more serious Auden obsession. Isherwood was a close friend (indeed occasional lover) and collaborator of Auden's, who also wrote a lot about him, therefore - I needed to collect all of his books.

Howard Coster: Auden & Isherwood (1937)

That is, in a nutshell, pretty much how a bibliophile's mind works. You start off collecting one thing, but then you have to start a series of sub-collections to flesh out the context of your object of desire (whatever it may be: poetry, military history, the 1001 Nights ...).

The result, twenty or thirty years later, is a living space stuffed to the gills with books and pictures and boxfiles of papers. Freud had a name for it, I'm afraid: the anal-retentive personality. Speaks for itself, really. But it does make for interesting times when you actually get around to reading some of the results of this fixation.

In this particular case, I've just finished reading through Isherwood's immense diary, published in four volumes between 1996 and 2012, in an edition scrupulously edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell.

Of course, the picture above reveals just why Isherwood is really famous: because his Berlin stories inspired John Van Druten's play "I am a Camera," which, in its turn, morphed into the smash-hit Broadway musical turned multiple Oscar-winning film Cabaret. In other words, he's most celebrated for two things he didn't write himself, and didn't even particularly approve of (though he was happy to cash the cheques they earned him).

Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

A rather more accurate portrait of Isherwood was provided by Tom Ford's 2009 film A Single Man. This is at least as autobiographical as the Berlin stories - which is to say, not very - but succeeds in giving an impression (at least) of where he ended up: a gay man stuck in a repressed, heterosexual world which he will never be allowed to fit into. (You'll notice that I had to go pretty far afield to find a version of the film poster which didn't imply that it concerned some kind of 'straight' romance between Colin Firth and Julianne Moore).

Tom Ford, dir. A Single Man (2009)

There were a number of ways in which Isherwood was outrageous, of course. Not just the homosexuality, which he grew increasingly outspoken about as he grew older (and the threat of imprisonment receded); there was also his alleged 'cowardice' in 1939, when he and Auden chose to go and settle in America rather than staying to face the music in beleaguered Britain. Vast amounts of ink were spilt at the time condemning - and justifying - this decision. Auden subsequently explained it by saying that he did it precisely to avoid writing any more poems like "September 1, 1939" or "Spain 1937" - anthemic calls to action of a kind which he subsequently regarded as dishonest and untruthful.

Isherwood, by contrast, was no stranger to running away. He'd had himself sent down from Cambridge when he felt he was at risk of acclimatising to its stuffy attitudes by composing the answers to his exams as concealed limericks. He'd subsequently left for Berlin, Greece, and a series of other refuges from the upper-class English background he feared being swallowed up by. California was intended as just one more bolthole, but it was there he got religion and found love (in that order), and where, therefore, he settled for what turned out to be the rest of his life.

Here are the various volumes of his diary, as edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell. They're all enjoyable. The posthumously published memoir Lost Years, in which Isherwood tried to reconstruct a particularly interesting part of his life, shortly after his relocation to America, is in many ways the best. It's extremely frank about (in particular) his sex life - the other volumes were more or less censored since he seems to have meant them for eventual publication.

  1. Isherwood, Christopher. Diaries. Volume One: 1939-1960. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 1996. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2011.

  2. Isherwood, Christopher. Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945–1951. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 2000. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2001.

  3. Isherwood, Christopher. The Sixties: Diaries Volume Two, 1960-1969. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Foreword by Christopher Hitchens. 2010. Harper Perennial. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.

  4. Isherwood, Christopher. Liberation: Diaries Volume Three, 1970-1983. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Preface by Edmund White. 2012. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2013.

Basically, Isherwood appears to have met everyone who was there to be met during this immense space of time, from the 1940's to the 1980's. He was banned from Charlie Chaplin's house after his host alleged that he'd pissed on his couch whilst in his cups (Isherwood maintained otherwise, but given he was drunk at the time, it's hard to see how he'd know).

Who else? Stravinsky, Charles Laughton, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, David Hockney, to name just a few, as well as an endless line of eminent Hollywood actors and actresses, walked in and out of his life. The true theme of these diaries is marriage, though: his very complicated longterm relationship with the artist Don Bachardy. This began a little like one of the seduction scenes in A Single Man. Don was the gawky younger brother of one of Isherwood's casual conquests from the beach. He grew up into an immensely talented draftsman, portraitist and painter - each stage painstakingly documented here - as well as a valued collaborator on all of Isherwood's later work as scriptwriter for stage and screen.

Bachardy, in fact, turned out to be something of a phenomenon - so gifted in his own right that the initial push he got from being Isherwood's partner eventually became more of a liability. Their marriage was very volatile - with arguments, infidelities, breaks, non-exclusive arrangements at various points - but, finally, durable. It's not easy to warm to the earlier Herr Issyvoo of the Berlin stories, but Don Bachardy's older partner Dobbin is a far more likeable and protean creature.

One can see how Isherwood's obsession with documenting and recording his own life baffled many readers at the time, who saw it as an increasingly boring quest - especially after his apparent surrender to Lala Land after those fascinating chronicles of Germany and China in the turbulent thirties. Now, though, I think it can be seen as something hugely rewarding: an honest record of a way of life which will retain its interest not just as an historical vignette, but as a comfort to those whose own lives may seem (at times) as chaotic as his.

And, while he may have seen his greatest success in character portrayal as the "Christopher" of the Berlin novels and later memoirs, one would have to add that the Don Bachardy of the Diaries turns out, in the end, to be far more beguiling. How many completely believable portrayals of true love can you think of? Not many, that's for sure. The Isherwood-Bachardy partnership is certainly a strong contender for inclusion among them, though.

Don Bachardy: Isherwood (1937)

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood


  1. Isherwood, Christopher. All the Conspirators. 1928. Foreword by the Author. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

  2. Isherwood, Christopher. The Memorial: Portrait of a Family. 1932. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1952.

  3. Isherwood, Christopher. Mr. Norris Changes Trains. 1935. Auckland: Penguin NZ, 1944.

  4. Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. 1939. Penguin Books 504. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1945.

  5. Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin of Sally Bowles: Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin. 1935 & 1939. London: Book Club Associates / The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1975.

  6. Isherwood, Christopher. Prater Violet. 1945. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  7. Isherwood, Christopher. The World in the Evening. 1954. Penguin Book 2399. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

  8. Isherwood, Christopher. Down There on a Visit. 1959. A Bard Book. New York: Avo Books, 1978.

  9. Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  10. Isherwood, Christopher. A Meeting by the River. 1967. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1982.

  11. Autobiography:

  12. Isherwood, Christopher. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties. 1938. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1979.

  13. Isherwood, Christopher. Kathleen and Frank. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971.

  14. Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939. 1976. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1978.

  15. Isherwood, Christopher. My Guru and His Disciple. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd., 1980.

  16. Biography:

  17. Isherwood, Christopher. Ramakrishna and His Disciples. 1965. A Touchstone Book. New York: Simon and Schuster, n.d.

  18. Travel:

  19. Isherwood, Christopher. The Condor and the Cows. Illustrated from photos by William Caskey. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1949.

  20. Miscellaneous:

  21. Isherwood, Christopher. Exhumations: Stories / Articles / Verses. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  22. Edited:

  23. Isherwood, Christopher, ed. Vedanta for the Western World. 1948. Unwin Books. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1963.

  24. Letters:

  25. Bucknell, Katherine, ed. The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

  26. Secondary:

  27. Parker, Peter. Isherwood: A Life. 2004. Picador. London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2005.


Richard said...

Hi Jack. I haven't read his diary. He also wrote a travel book I had for sale at one stage (I looked through it). But re collecting all the Isherwoods I understand the impulse. I have lots of books for various, but perhaps not so damagingly Freudian reasons*, I am addicted to acquiring books. And at one stage I got a whole lot of Irvine Welsh's and Will Self's books as I liked the covers (e.g. the Penguins of Self's 'Great Apes' and 'My Idea of Fun'. I also like sometimes sometimes to get other paper backs for the covers. Also a couple of Susan Hills. None of these have I read! I also add to those I have just because I have them which is a point Alberto Manguel in his 'The Library at Night' (which I read ironically twice or more when it was a library book) makes about what to collect (doing a Benjamin as in 'Illuminations' on setting up a library). And there are others. And I hate missing out series. Not just literary books. I had one missing of an encyclopedia of animals and insects that had one missing (I did and I do use that) but I also want to get volume 3 of the collected of Anthony Powell's series but I haven't read him...I would like to I sampled some and it was good. I get excited when I have a book that is being talked about: Leunig the cartoonist and 'philosopher' mentioned a book he had read about the history of the night on a YouTube interview and I stopped the video. I KNEW I had that book! Or was it a false memory? I searched and searched, it was of no importance to anyone but me! I gave up. But I went back, and back. It was where it was supposed to be. Then I resumed the video. Leunig couldn't recall the title either ('At Day's Close - A History of Nighttime.'). My brother had just visited from Australia and mentioned seeing Leunig and I had become more and more interested. I also want vol 2 of Schopehauer's famous book. Ever since reading Russell's book about Philosophy (history of) I was interested in reading Schopenhauer...But to Isherwood. I have read 'Good-bye to Berlin', 'Mr Norris Changes Trains' (I don't possess that) and I have one other book. Also somewhere I have the travel, history book he wrote. But I only now realise that 'I Am A Camera' is a separate book. The confusion was because he uses that phrase in 'Good-bye...'. I very much liked that book and 'Mr Norris...'. But I would not have used 'Good-bye...' to concentrate on "Sally". The book is far more than anything much about Cabaret. It is about his loves and friends, but it is also a picture or pre-war Germany. He is like a camera as there is a certain distance he keeps, which isn't bad. But for me the climactic and very powerful part of that book is nothing to do with caberats or the nightlife. It is his moving account of his visit to a T.B. hospital with a young friend, his dancing with a clearly very lonely and dying girl, the false but brave jollity of his friend (who was probably bi-sexual but is very keen on young women) and it all leads up to them leaving the hospital. It is very moving, great writing I feel. I also think that of Mr Norris. I write from books and I got a lot from both but particularly when he visits the Landauers and that meeting. But in the end in the chapt. Berlin diary he has lines like this: 'Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold;...' But the Landauers, working class German's are as fascinating as the characters he meets in other places, his students, the flatmates, the mostly quite unlively uncabaret night clubs, and so on.

Richard said...

But they provide a contrast. Sally is portrayed brilliantly. How much is 'real' or not is irrelevant. So for those who haven't read any Isherwood those are indeed worth a whirl, and they are not long books. 'Mr Norris Changes Trains' is a pearler. It is different. The 'Mr Norris' one forgives, he is another of those larger than life characters, a likable rogue. I'm not sure if I saw Cabaret. Is that the movie Minelli took the role as Streisand was ill or something? I think I saw it. I saw the Dudley Moore movie with her in it...

I haven't for my sins read any of the plays of Auden and Isherwood. But I want to. Of course Auden was a great poet. He went through those stages.

But there is always a quirk with a collector or "amasser" or bibliophile. I had a friend who collected cameras. He had at one stage several thousand dollars worth. He was schizophrenic (a NZ championship Chess player I had known since about 1960). He told me he never used them. He just had to have them. Ironically he had an MA in Psychology. I feel you and I are still not quite at that extreme though Jack!

*Pathetically, at one stage, it was myself giving myself presents of all these strange and interesting books. I especially loved getting them in paper bags. I could then open them up slowly. They were my presents to myself. A sad case. But the madness is harmless they say. (Except it impinges on the do re mi).

Dr Jack Ross said...

Well, that's why I borrowed the title "A Gentle Madness" for my bibliography blog, Richard. Giving yourself presents of strange and interesting books unfortunately translates pretty easily to ordering copies of them online, and then receiving them at unpredictable intervals in the post.

Completing my catalogue has been a help, though. At least now I have a way of checking whether or not I have a copy of a particular book already. For a while I had its position logged as well, but that changed so often that I had to give up on updating that part of the site.

I am a Camera is a play, by John Van Druten, based fairly loosely on the two Isherwood books. I don't know if it's available as a separate book, but it may well be. It was the basis of the Cabaret film, but of course that had the advantage of being shot on location in Germany, and has many more characters, scenes, etc.

"Sally Bowles" was mostly based on a friend of Isherwood's called Jean Ross. I don't think Steisand was ever seriously considered for the part. Liza Minelli's performance is superb and (I would have thought) definitive, though Isherwood for one saw her as quite a different type from the original "Sally."

Richard said...

Yes I knew that "Gentle Madness"...I see it's a general term and a book. I think I saw it somewhere. I like books about books and so on so I would like to read it.

I should also catalogue as I do misplace books and sometimes buy a book I already own. But not that one on Nighttime which caught my eye.

The logging of the real position of a book I thought about a lot in the 90s when I used to get disorientated at the Auckland University library. Also this problem that a returned book might not go to the right shelf and not be checked in properly. Not being checked in or these days checked out accidentally happens but I can usually find the book. But it was in the 90s that I thought that a 3 dimensional view could be generated of where books were. Each book, even copies to have a unique code. And anyone including librarians (or a bibliophile in his or her large library!) could find even the ones misplaced etc.

So I go by place and alphabetical order. But I lack a catalogue (and a location thing). All systems are fallible of course.

I didn't know that 'I Am A Camera' was a play. I just cant recall the Liza Minelli thing but I am pretty sure I saw it. There was something, some movie or musical, in which Minelli replaced Streisand.

Yes. I am still addicted. What I have paid for books would probably solve many of my fiscal strictures at present. (I suspect I might even be rich!) It doesn't help when such a 'fine madness' in my case is in bed with 'a strange aversion to paid and regular work'! Such is life....

Richard said...

Gentle madness of course I meant...