This Day In Writing History
On August 26th, 1904, the famous British novelist, poet, and playwright Christopher Isherwood was born. He was born in High Lane, Cheshire, in North West England. His father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, and moved the family often, to wherever he was stationed. He was killed in action during World War 1. Afterward, Christopher Isherwood and his mother lived in London and Wyberslegh.
Isherwood attended St. Edmund's prep school in Surrey, where he met W.H. Auden, a future poet, playwright, and essayist who would later become Isherwood's protege and close friend. After St. Edmund's, Isherwood attended Repton School, where he met writer Edward Upward, who would become a lifelong friend. Isherwood and Upward collaborated on a short story collection, The Mortmere Stories. Although famous in literary circles, only one of the stories would be published during Isherwood's lifetime. The whole collection of stories was published posthumously in 1994.
Christopher Isherwood entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but deliberately failed his exams and left the college without a degree in 1925. He took a job as secretary for violinist André Mangeot and his string quartet, living with Mangeot and his family for the next three years. In his spare time, Isherwood studied medicine and wrote a book of nonsensical poetry called People One Ought To Know, which was illustrated by Mangeot's 11-year-old son, Sylvain.
Later in 1925, Isherwood was reunited with W.H. Auden. He became Auden's literary mentor and occasional lover. Auden introduced him to writer Sir Stephen Spender, whom he would later spend time with in Berlin. Isherwood's first novel, All The Conspirators, was published in 1928. It was about a young man, Philip, who longs to escape the office where he works, but is torn between pleasing his oppressive, domineering mother and living out his dream of becoming an artist. Philip's only ally is his sister, Joan.
Around the time his first novel was published, Isherwood studied medicine at King's College, London, but dropped out in six months to join W.H. Auden in Berlin. Having rejected his upper class roots and being openly gay at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon in his native England, Isherwood came to love Berlin, which, before the rise of Hitler and Nazism, was known as one of Europe's most cultured and open-minded cities. He took advantage of the sexual freedom in Berlin and indulged in his passion for handsome young men. He met one, Heinz, who became his first great love.
Isherwood's second novel, The Memorial, was published in 1932. It was another tale of conflict between mother and son, based on Isherwood's family history. While writing his third novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), Isherwood worked as a tutor. As Hitler came to power in Germany, Isherwood left Berlin and traveled around Europe, living in cities such as Sintra, Portugal, and Copenhagen, Denmark. Around this time, he collaborated on three plays with W.H. Auden: The Dog Beneath The Skin (1935), The Ascent Of F6 (1936), and On The Frontier (1939).
In 1939, Isherwood published one of his masterpieces, a collection of short stories and novellas called The Berlin Stories. Inspired by Isherwood's time living in Berlin and his experiences with its sexual underground, the book's stories would be adapted as a play called I Am A Camera and a popular, Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Cabaret, which would be made into a feature film in 1972 starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. The city of Berlin would erect a plaque in Isherwood's memory on the house in Schoneberg, Berlin, where he had lived.
After visiting New York City on their way back to England, Isherwood and Auden decided to emigrate to the United States in 1939. This decision, made just months before England declared war on Germany, officially beginning World War 2, was seen as a kind of betrayal by the patriotic crowd in England. Isherwood stayed in New York with Auden for a few months, then moved to Hollywood, California.
In Hollywood, he met mystic and historian Gerald Heard, who introduced him to Swami Prabhavananda and his Vedantic brand of Hindu spirituality and philosophy. Isherwood joined a group of mystic explorers that included writer Aldous Huxley and philosopher Bertrand Russell. He embraced Vedanta and, working with the Swami, translated Hindu scriptures, wrote Vedanta essays, and the biography Ramakrishna and His Disciples. He also wrote Vedanta themed novels and plays.
In 1946, Isherwood became a naturalized American citizen. This made him eligible for the draft, however, he had already established himself as a conscientious objector. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s, Isherwood spent most of his time with his Vedanta writings. On Valentine's Day, 1953, while spending time on the beach with friends, the 48-year-old Isherwood was introduced to an 18-year-old aspiring artist named Don Bachardy. Despite a 30-year age difference and being interrupted by affairs and separations, Bachardy and Isherwood would remain partners until Isherwood's death.
During the early months of their relationship, (which would be chronicled in the acclaimed 2008 documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story) Isherwood finally completed The World In The Evening (1954), a novel he'd been working on for a few years. Bachardy typed up the manuscript. When he wasn't writing, Isherwood taught creative writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
In 1962, Isherwood's novel Down There On A Visit was published. A sort-of sequel to The Berlin Stories, the novel is narrated by a hedonistic writer who proves himself to be a man of extremes. He relentlessly pursues physical pleasures, but interrupts his binges of debauchery to engage in meditation and take up disciplines such as learning a foreign language. He meets a famous male prostitute and the two men decide to take up a spiritual life dedicated to self-denial and meditation.
Two years later, in 1964, Isherwood published what is considered by many to be his finest novel, A Single Man. Told in a stream-of-consciousness narrative, the novel takes place during one day in the life of George, a middle-aged gay Englishman and professor living in Los Angeles, as he struggles to cope with the sudden death of his lover Jim in a car accident. The novel's frank and honest treatment of homosexuality and gay relationships proved to be a shocker in 1964, but it was Isherwood's dazzling prose that made the novel a masterpiece. Isherwood's fellow British writer Anthony Burgess declared it "a testimony to Isherwood's undiminished brilliance as a novelist."
For the rest of his life, Christopher Isherwood lived with his partner Don Bachardy in Santa Monica, California. He died of prostate cancer in 1986 at the age of 81, after which, Bachardy's portraits (he had become a successful draughtsman and painter) of his dying partner became famous.
Quote Of The Day
"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 Isherwood
Today's video features a clip from the 1972 movie musical Cabaret, based on The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, with Joel Grey singing Willkommen - my favorite number! Enjoy!