Christopher Isherwood: Wikis


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Christopher Isherwood

Born Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood
8 February 1904(1904-02-08)
Wyberslegh Hall, High Lane, Cheshire in North West England
Died 4 January 1986 (aged 81)
Santa Monica, California, USA
Occupation Novelist
Nationality English, American

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood (August 26, 1904 – January 4, 1986) was an English[1] novelist.


Early life and work

Born at Wyberslegh Hall, High Lane, Cheshire in North West England, Isherwood spent his childhood in various towns where his father, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army, was stationed. After his father was killed in the First World War, he settled with his mother in London and at Wyberslegh.

Isherwood attended preparatory school St. Edmund's, Surrey, where he first met W. H. Auden. At Repton School he met his lifelong friend Edward Upward, with whom he wrote the extravagant "Mortmere" stories, only one of which was published during his lifetime (a few others appeared after his death, and others were summarised in his Lions and Shadows). He deliberately failed his tripos and left Corpus Christi College, Cambridge without a degree in 1925. For the next few years he lived with violinist André Mangeot, working as secretary to Mangeot's string quartet and studying medicine; during this time he wrote a book of nonsense poems, People One Ought to Know (published 1982), with illustrations by Mangeot's eleven-year-old son, Sylvain.

In 1925 he was reintroduced to W. H. Auden, and became Auden's literary mentor and partner in an intermittent, casual liaison, as Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comment and approval. Through Auden, Isherwood met Stephen Spender, with whom he later spent much time in Germany. His first novel, All the Conspirators, appeared in 1928; it is an anti-heroic story, written in a pastiche of many modernist novelists, about a young man who is defeated by his mother. In 1928-29 Isherwood studied medicine at King's College London, but gave it up after six months to join Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.

Rejecting his upper-middle-class background and attracted to males, he remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. There, he "fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love."[2] Isherwood commented on the Berlin sex underground, and his own participation in it, in a note to the American publisher of John Henry Mackay's Der Puppenjunge (The Hustler), "a classic boy-love novel set in the contemporary milieu of boy prostitutes in Berlin." "It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century," wrote Isherwood, "which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic."[3]

In 1931 he met Jean Ross, the inspiration for his fictional character Sally Bowles; he also met Gerald Hamilton, the inspiration for the fictional Mr. Norris. In September 1931 the poet William Plomer introduced him to E. M. Forster; they became close and Forster served as a mentor to the young writer. Isherwood's second novel, The Memorial (1932), was another of his stories of conflict between mother and son, based closely on his own family history. During one of his returns to London he worked with the director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend, an experience that became the basis of his novel Prater Violet (1945). He worked as a private tutor in Berlin and elsewhere while writing the novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and a series of short stories collected under the title Goodbye to Berlin (1939). These provided the inspiration for the play I Am a Camera, the subsequent musical Cabaret and the film of the same name. A memorial plaque to Isherwood has been erected on the house in Schöneberg, Berlin, where he lived.

During these years he moved around Europe, living in Copenhagen, Sintra and elsewhere, and collaborated on three plays with Auden, The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1939). Isherwood wrote a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of his childhood and youth, Lions and Shadows (1938), using the title of an abandoned novel. Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938 to gather material for their book on the Sino-Japanese War called Journey to a War (1939).

Life in the U.S.

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W. H. Auden (right), photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

Having visited New York on their way back to the UK, Auden and Isherwood decided to emigrate to the United States in January 1939. (The timing of this move, coming just months before Britain was engulfed in the Second World War, placed them under a cloud in the eyes of those later engaged in the total war against global fascism.) After a few months with Auden in New York, Isherwood settled in Hollywood, California.

He met Gerald Heard, the mystic-historian who founded his own monastery at Trabuco Canyon that was eventually gifted to the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Through Heard, who was the first to discover Swami Prabhavananda and Vedanta, Isherwood joined an extraordinary band of mystic explorers that included Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell[citation needed], Chris Wood (Heard's lifelong friend), John Yale and J. Krishnamurti. He embraced Vedanta, and, together with Swami Prabhavananda, he produced several Hindu scriptural translations, Vedanta essays, the biography Ramakrishna and His Disciples, novels, plays and screenplays, all imbued with the themes and character of Vedanta and the Upanishadic quest.

Through Huxley, Isherwood befriended the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the fantasy writer Ray Bradbury led to a favorable review of The Martian Chronicles, which boosted Bradbury's career and helped to form a friendship between the two men.

Bachardy at nineteen (?), photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

Isherwood became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1946; he immediately became liable for military service, but having already done volunteer work in 1941-42, at a Quaker hostel for European refugees in Pennsylvania, he had no difficulty establishing himself as a conscientious objector. He began living with the photographer William (Bill) Caskey. In 1947 the two traveled to South America; Isherwood wrote the prose and Caskey provided the photographs for a 1949 book about their journey, The Condor and the Cows.

On Valentine's Day 1953, at the age of 48, he met teen-aged Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. Although one can find Bachardy's age at the time variously reported, in the biographical film Chris & Don: A Love Story, Bachardy himself recalls that, "at the time I was, probably, 16." Despite the age difference, this meeting began a partnership that, though interrupted by affairs and separations, continued until the end of Isherwood's life.[4] During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished (and Bachardy typed) the novel he had been working on for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a course on modern English literature at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early '60s.

The more than 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised eyebrows at the time, with Bachardy (as he recalled) "regarded as a sort of child prostitute",[5] but the two became a well-known and well-established couple in Southern Californian society, with many Hollywood friends.

Down There on a Visit, a novel published in 1962, comprises four related stories that overlap the period covered in his Berlin stories. In the opinion of many reviewers, Isherwood's finest achievement was his 1964 novel A Single Man, that depicts one day in the life of George, a middle-aged, gay Englishman who is a professor at a Los Angeles university. During 1964 Isherwood collaborated with American writer Terry Southern on the screenplay for the Tony Richardson film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh's caustic satire on the American funeral industry.

Isherwood and Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood's life. Bachardy became a successful draughtsman with an independent reputation, and his portraits of the dying Isherwood became well-known after Isherwood's death. At the age of 81, Isherwood died in 1986 in Santa Monica, California from prostate cancer. Their lifelong relationship is chronicled in the film Chris & Don: A Love Story.

Work on Vedanta and the West

Vedanta and the West was the official publication of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. It offered essays by many of the leading intellectuals of the time and had contributions from Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts, J. Krishnamurti, W. Somerset Maugham, and many others.

Isherwood was Managing Editor from 1943 until 1945. Together with Huxley and Heard, he was on the Editorial Advisory Board from 1951 until 1962.

The following are articles published in Vedanta and the West written by Isherwood:

  • Vivekananda and Sarah Bernhardt - 1943
  • On Translating the Gita - 1944
  • Hypothesis and Belief - 1944
  • The Gita and War - 1944
  • What is Vedanta? - 1944
  • Ramakrishna and Vivekananda - 1945
  • The Problem of the Religious Novel - 1946
  • Religion Without Prayers - 1946
  • Foreword to a Man of God - 1950
  • An Introduction - 1951
  • What Vedanta Means to Me - 1951
  • Who Is Ramakrishna? - 1957
  • Ramakrishna and the Future - 1958
  • The Home of Ramakrishna - 1958
  • Ramakrishna: A First Chapter - 1959
  • The Birth of Ramakrishna - 1959
  • The Boyhood of Ramakrishna - 1959
  • How Ramakrishna Came to Dakshineswar - 1959
  • Early Days at Dakshineswar - 1959
  • The Vision of Kali - 1960
  • The Marriage of Ramakrishna - 1960
  • The Coming of the Bhariravi - 1960
  • Some Visitors to Dakshineswar - 1960
  • Tota Puri - 1960
  • The Writer and Vedanta - 1961
  • Mathur - 1961
  • Sarada and Chandra - 1962
  • Keshab Sen - 1962
  • The Coming of the Disciples - 1962
  • Introduction to Vivekananda - 1962
  • Naren - 1963
  • The Training of Naren - 1963
  • An Approach to Vedanta - 1963
  • The Young Monks - 1963
  • Some Great Devotees - 1963
  • The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna - 1963
  • The Last Year - 1964
  • The Story Continues - 1964
  • Letters of Swami Vivekananda - 1968
  • Essentials of Vedanta - 1969

List of works


  • Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals (1930; rev. edn. 1947)
  • The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita (with Swami Prabhavananda, 1944)
  • Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (with Swami Prabhavananda, 1947)
  • How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (with Swami Prabhavananda, 1953)


  1. ^ Isherwood on writing, By Christopher Isherwood, James J. Berg (2007), Introduction, page 19
  2. ^ "Hello to Berlin, boys and books", The Telegraph; Filed: 18/05/2004. [1]
  3. ^ Hubert Kennedy, Mackay, John Henry in
  4. ^ Peter Parker, Isherwood, 2004.
  5. ^ "The First Couple: Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood," by Armistead Maupin, The Village Voice, Volume 30, Number 16, 2 July 1985. [2]

Further reading

  • Christopher Isherwood, The Lost Years 1945-1951 pp. 78
  • J. J. Berg & C. Freeman (eds.) Conversations with Christopher Isherwood (2001)
  • Brian Finney, Christopher Isherwood: A Critical Biography (1979)
  • Jonathan Fryer, Isherwood: A Biography (1977; rev. edn., Eye of the Camera, 1993)
  • The Isherwood century: essays on the life and work of Christopher Isherwood, ed. by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman (2000)
  • Norman Page, Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years (2000)
  • Peter Parker, Isherwood: A Life (2004)
  • Lee Prosser, Isherwood, Bowles, Vedanta, Wicca, and Me (2001) ISBN 0-595-20284-5
  • Lee Prosser, Night Tigers (2002) ISBN 0-595-21739-7

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Christopher, like many other writers, was shockingly ignorant of the objective world, except where it touched his own experience. When he had to hide his ignorance beneath a veneer, he simply consulted someone who could supply him with the information he needed.

Christopher Isherwood (1904-08-26 - 1986-01-04) was a British-American writer.


  • I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.
    • "Berlin Diary" (1930) from Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
  • If I fear anything, I fear the atmosphere of the war, the power which it gives to all the things I hate — the newspapers, the politicians, the puritans, the scoutmasters, the middle-aged merciless spinsters. I fear the way I might behave, if I were exposed to this atmosphere. I shrink from the duty of opposition. I am afraid I should be reduced to a chattering enraged monkey, screaming back hate at their hate.
    • Diary entry, 20 January 1940, from The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood, vol I: 1939 - 1960, ed. Katherine Bucknell [ISBN 0-06-11800-9], p.84
  • Horror is always aware of its cause; terror never is. That is precisely what makes terror terrifying.
    • Great English Short Stories [selected and introduced by Isherwood] (1957) [Laurel TM 674623], p. 267
  • California is a tragic country — like Palestine, like every Promised Land. Its short history is a fever-chart of migrations — the land rush, the gold rush, the oil rush, the movie rush, the Okie fruit-picking rush, the wartime rush to the aircraft factories — followed, in each instance, by counter-migrations of the disappointed and unsuccessful, moving sorrowfully homeward.
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 159
  • The paternalist is a sentimentalist at heart, and the sentimentalist is always potentially cruel.
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 160
  • To live sanely in Los Angeles (or, I suppose, in any other large American city) you have to cultivate the art of staying awake. You must learn to resist (firmly but not tensely) the unceasing hypnotic suggestions of the radio, the billboards, the movies and the newspapers; those demon voices which are forever whispering in your ear what you should desire, what you should fear, what you should wear and eat and drink and enjoy, what you should think and do and be. They have planned a life for you – from the cradle to the grave and beyond – which it would be easy, fatally easy, to accept. The least wandering of the attention, the least relaxation of your awareness, and already the eyelids begin to droop, the eyes grow vacant, the body starts to move in obedience to the hypnotist’s command. Wake up, wake up – before you sign that seven-year contract, buy that house you don’t really want, marry that girl you secretly despise. Don’t reach for the whisky, that won’t help you. You’ve got to think, to discriminate, to exercise your own free will and judgment. And you must do this, I repeat, without tension, quite rationally and calmly. For if you give way to fury against the hypnotists, if you smash the radio and tear the newspapers to shreds, you will only rush to the other extreme and fossilize into defiant eccentricity.
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 161
  • An afternoon drive from Los Angeles will take you up into the high mountains, where eagles circle above the forests and the cold blue lakes, or out over the Mojave Desert, with its weird vegetation and immense vistas. Not very far away are Death Valley, and Yosemite, and Sequoia Forest with its giant trees which were growing long before the Parthenon was built; they are the oldest living things in the world. One should visit such places often, and be conscious, in the midst of the city, of their surrounding presence. For this is the real nature of California and the secret of its fascination; this untamed, undomesticated, aloof, prehistoric landscape which relentlessly reminds the traveller of his human condition and the circumstances of his tenure upon the earth. "You are perfectly welcome," it tells him, "during your short visit. Everything is at your disposal. Only, I must warn you, if things go wrong, don't blame me. I accept no responsibility. I am not part of your neurosis. Don't cry to me for safety. There is no home here. There is no security in your mansions or your fortresses, your family vaults or your banks or your double beds. Understand this fact, and you will be free. Accept it, and you will be happy."
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 162
  • I often feel that worse than the most fiendish Nazis were those Germans who went along with the persecution of the Jews not because they really disliked them but because it was the thing.
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, [ISBN 0-14-00-453-0], p.226, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • I'll bet Shakespeare compromised himself a lot; anybody who's in the entertainment industry does to some extent.
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, p. 237, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • I'm horrified to find, as I look at these diaries of twenty-five years ago or more, that I don't remember who the people were. "Bill and Tony were constantly in and out. We went to La Jolla" — or something. I haven't the bluest idea who they were!
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, p. 239, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • I feel it's so easy to condemn this country [the United States]; but they don't understand that this is where the mistakes are being made — and made first, so that we're going to get the answers first.
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, p. 242, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • It seems to me that the real clue to your sex orientation lies in your romantic feelings rather than in your sexual feelings. If you are really gay, you are able to fall in love with a man, not just enjoy having sex with him.
    • Quoted in "Christopher Isherwood Interview" with Winston Leyland (1973), from Conversations with Christopher Isherwood, ed. James J. Berg and Chris Freeman (2001) [ISBN 1-57806-408-2], p. 106
  • At one campus where I was lecturing, I asked a friend, "How many of my colleagues know I'm gay?" He answered, "All of them." I wasn't surprised. But, just the same, it was kind of spooky, because not one of them had ever given me the faintest sign that he or she knew. If I had spoken about it myself, most of them would have felt it was in bad taste.
    • Quoted in "Christopher Isherwood Interview" with Winston Leyland (1973), from Conversations with Christopher Isherwood, ed. James J. Berg and Chris Freeman (2001), p. 108
  • The Nazis hated culture itself, because it is essentially international and therefore subversive of nationalism. What they called Nazi culture was a local, perverted, nationalistic cult, by which a few major artists and many minor ones were honored for their Germanness, not their talent.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976) [ISBN 374-52036-4/0870], p. 65
  • Christopher, like many other writers, was shockingly ignorant of the objective world, except where it touched his own experience. When he had to hide his ignorance beneath a veneer, he simply consulted someone who could supply him with the information he needed.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 192 (In this memoir, Isherwood refers to himself in the third person.)
  • I doubt if one ever accepts a belief until one urgently needs it.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 306
  • As a homosexual, he [Christopher] had been wavering between embarrassment and defiance. He became embarrassed when he felt that he was making a selfish demand for his individual rights at a time when only group action mattered. He became defiant when he made the treatment of the homosexual a test by which every political party and government must be judged. His challenge to each one of them was: "All right, we've heard your liberty speech. Does that include us or doesn't it?"

    The Soviet Union had passed this test with honors when it recognized the private sexual rights of the individual, in 1917. But, in 1934, Stalin's government had withdrawn this recognition and made all homosexual acts punishable by heavy prison sentences. It had agreed with the Nazis in denouncing homosexuality as a form of treason to the state. The only difference was that the Nazis called it "sexual Bolshevism" and the Communists "Fascist perversion."

    Christopher — like many of his friends, homosexual and heterosexual — had done his best to minimize the Soviet betrayal of its own principles. After all, he had said to himself, anti-homosexual laws exist in most capitalist countries, including England and the United States. Yes — but if Communists claim that their system is juster than capitalism, doesn't that make their injustice to homosexuals less excusable and their hypocrisy even viler? He now realized that he must dissociate himself from the Communists, even as a fellow traveler. He might, in certain situations, accept them as allies but he could never regard them as comrades. He must never again give way to embarrassment, never deny the rights of his tribe, never apologize for its existence, never think of sacrificing himself masochistically on the altar of that false god of the totalitarians, the Greatest Good of the Greatest Number — whose priests are alone empowered to decide what "good" is.

    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), pp. 334-335
  • Suppose, Christopher now said to himself, I have a Nazi Army at my mercy. I can blow it up by pressing a button. The men in that Army are notorious for torturing and murdering civilians — all except for one of them, Heinz. Will I press the button? No — wait: Suppose I know that Heinz himself, out of cowardice or moral infection, has become as bad as they are and takes part in all their crimes? Will I press that button, even so? Christopher's answer, given without the slightest hesitation, was: Of course not.

    That was a purely emotional reaction. But it helped Christopher think his way through to the next proposition. Suppose that Army goes into action and has just one casualty, Heinz himself. Will I press the button now and destroy his fellow criminals? No emotional reaction this time, but a clear answer, not to be evaded: Once I have refused to press that button because of Heinz, I can never press it. Because every man in that Army could be someone's Heinz and I have no right to play favorites. Thus Christopher was forced to recognize himself as a pacifist — although by an argument which he could only admit to with the greatest reluctance.

    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 335
  • I must honor those who fight of their own free will, he said to himself. And I must try to imitate their courage by following my path as a pacifist, wherever it takes me.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 336
  • [T]he images which remained in the memory are not in themselves terrible or rigorous: they are of boot-lockers, wooden desks, lists on boards, name-tags in clothes — yes, the name pre-eminently; the name which in a sense makes you nameless, less individual rather than more so: Bradshaw-Isherwood, C.W. in its place on some alphabetical list; the cold daily, hourly reminder that you are not the unique, the loved, the household’s darling, but just one among many. I suppose that this loss of identity is really much of the painfulness which lies at the bottom of what is called Homesickness; it is not Home that one cries for but one’s home-self.
    • Quoted in Peter Parker, Isherwood: A Life (2004), pp. 40-41
    • This reminiscence is from the first draft of the biographical study Isherwood did of his parents (Huntington CI 1082: 81). The version published in Kathleen and Frank (1971), chapter 15, p. 285 differs slightly.

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