Today in Literary History – August 26, 1904 – novelist Christopher Isherwood is born

Christopher Isherwood, the novelist and playwright, was born on August 26, 1904, just outside Manchester, England.

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He is best known for two novellas he wrote while living in Berlin in the 1930s — Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). They were published together as Berlin Stories in 1945.

The two books recreate the life that Isherwood encountered in Weimer era Berlin where the raucous and decadent nightlife with its openly gay cabarets jostled against the rise of Hitler and Nazism between 1930 and 1933.

In 1951 The Berlin Stories became The basis for a successful play, I Am a Camera, which was turned into a film in 1955.

In 1966 it became the basis for the musical Cabaret, which ran on Broadway for three years. It in turn was filmed as the ground-breaking movie of the same name in 1972, starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.

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Isherwood grew up in a prosperous family, but spent much of his youth in boarding schools. His father died in the First World War, and he found his mother to be overly controlling and anxious for him to find a respectable middle class career.

Instead, Isherwood was determined to be a writer. In the 1920s he and the poets W.H. Auden, with whom he had been at school, and Stephen Spender formed a tight knit friendship and supported each other’s writing.

Each of them was ambitious and serious in their work. All three were also gay, which reinforced their bond and lifelong friendship.

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W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Isherwood in the 1920s

After being expelled from Cambridge, Isherwood moved to Berlin, where Auden and Spender were also living. In 1938 Isherwood and Auden travelled to China to write a book about the Chinese civil war.

On the way back, they travelled by train across the United States and were struck by the sense of personal freedom they felt there.

As Hitler’s power grew in Germany Auden and Isherwood decided to resettle in the United States. Some people criticized their decision, including Evelyn Waugh who parodied them in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags as “two despicable poets, Parsnip and Pimpernel” who flee to America to avoid the Second World War.

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Auden, Isherwood, and Spender in the 1930s.

Isherwood settled in Los Angeles, where he found work writing movie scripts and continued to publish novels. In 1946 he became an American citizen.

In Los Angeles Isherwood became fascinated with Hinduism. Through Aldous Huxley, who was also a devotee, he became a disciple of the Ramakrishna monk, Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.

Prabhavananda became Isherwood’s guru and Isherwood became deeply involved in teaching and studying Vedantic practices throughout his life.

When Isherwood was 48 he met and fell in love with 18 year old Don Bachardy. Despite the 30 year age gap they remained together until Isherwood’s death in 1986 at the age of 81, although Bachardy’s numerous affairs were a serious cause of tension in the relationship.

A volume of Isherwood and Bachardy’s love letters, The Animals, was published in 2014.

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“Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968) by David Hockney

Toward the end of his life Isherwood gave up fiction for autobiography, dissecting his family and childhood in Kathleen and Frank in 1971, his Berlin years and his homosexuality in Christopher and His Kind in 1976, and his devotion to Hinduism in 1980’s My Guru and His Disciple.

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