Peter Parker, Isherwood (Picador, 914 pages, about $40, 2004)
Living in Berlin part of each year, I tend to think of Christopher Isherwood as a neighbour. Of the various addresses at which he lived in the late-1920s and early-1930s, the most famous one is 17 Nollendorf Str., which is just a couple of blocks from the bar on Fugger Strasse where I hang out. I imagine Isherwood as a nodding acquaintance, someone I know to say hello to when I run into him on the streets or in a local gay bar. A familiar cowlick of streaked-blond hair flops across his forehead, he flashes an ingratiating, enigmatic smile, and sometimes, at a raucous moment in the bar we exchange the amused glance of two writers noting a potential bit of material, or simply the always surprising variety of existence. As the poet Jack Spicer once said of his relationship with his predecessor Garcia Lorca, it’s “a casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me…”
Nollendorf 17, which I frequently pass on walks through the neighbourhood, is the five-storey apartment building where a burnished plaque outside records that the English author, Christopher Isherwood (1904-86), lived in the city for about 4 years, and wrote about it in Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which provided the basis for the successful play, I Am A Camera, and the prize-winning stage musical and 1970s movie, Cabaret.
More importantly, the window on the top floor where Isherwood was a lodger is the spot from which he looked out, in the memorable opening lines of Goodbye to Berlin, and saw “the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.”
Some three-quarters of a century later, Nollendorf Street isn’t much different from the scene Isherwood gazed upon. The foliage of the linden trees is perhaps denser, making the street strangely dark even in summer. The cellar-shops still exist, though one or two of them have been spruced up with a rainbow flag and now sell condoms, leatherwear, and DVD porn. The scroll-work and heraldic devices on the plaster frontages are there; however, the building at no. 17 received a bright coat of peach-coloured paint a couple of years ago. But the resemblance between then and now is sufficient that the cool, understated voice with which Isherwood announced himself to the literary world would not be out of place today. It’s the voice that declared:
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite, and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
Inside the top floor apartment, where the furniture of “a bankrupt middle class” is “unnecessarily solid, abnormally heavy and dangerously sharp,” Isherwood introduces us to his first two great inventions, the landlady Fraulein Schroeder (her real name was Thurau), and the narrator, “Christopher Isherwood,” or “Herr Issyvoo,” as she pronounces it when she rattles on about her lodgers from long-ago better days. “You see, Herr Issyvoo, in those days I could afford to be very particular about the sort of people who came to live here. I could pick and choose. I only took them really well connected and well educated—proper gentlefolk (like yourself, Herr Issyvoo).” But now, in the impending economic and political doom of the German 1930s, “Frl. Schroeder has not even got a room of her own. She has to sleep in the living-room behind a screen on a small sofa with broken springs… She has to do all the housework herself and it takes up most of her day.” But, as she says, “’You get used to it. You can get used to anything. Why, I remember the time when I’d sooner cut off my right hand than empty this chamber… And now,’ says Frl. Schroeder, suiting the action to the word, ‘my goodness! It’s no more than pouring out a cup of tea!’”
Goodbye to Berlin consists of four novella-like character sketches sandwiched between two segments of “Berlin Diaries,” the first from the slightly ominous autumn of 1930, the second from the decidedly darker winter of 1932-33, when Hitler came to power, and Isherwood bid his farewell to the city. Isherwood was a lifelong diarist, and he constantly mined, reworked and “reconstructed” the diaries as motherlode source material for his books. (Two volumes of the diaries have now been published, and a third is promised, but they mainly prove that Isherwood’s diaries aren’t his works of literature.) Goodbye to Berlin is presented as the salvage of a failed, large novel Isherwood was trying to write, and the sense of it as wreckage is part of its power. Its fragmentary structure seems to anticipate the devastation about to be wreaked upon the city. It is filled with the careful observations and conversations recorded by the slightly coy narrator, as he shrewdly dodges the falling bits of cornice and crashing lives around him. The book is not overtly political, but its shaded portrait of the rise of Nazism is the most powerful writing on the subject of any of Isherwood’s contemporaries. The book is a masterpiece, that is, it shows us something heretofore unknown about life at a particular historical moment, and is told in an unprecedented way that gives us a different idea of what a story can be.
Isherwood wrote two masterpieces. The second is a gay, California-based novel, A Single Man (1964), written a quarter-century after Goodbye to Berlin. As well, there are three or four other quite good books, including the novella Prater Violet (1945), about the movie industry (for which Isherwood did endless, numbing work), a follow-up to the Berlin stories, Down There on a Visit (1962), and a retrospective memoir about Berlin, Christopher and his Kind (1976).
In the opening pages of Goodbye to Berlin, there’s a poignant vignette crucial to the identity of the narrator. “At eight o’clock in the evening the house doors will be locked,” he writes. “The children are having supper. The shops are shut. The electric sign is switched on over the night-bell of the little hotel on the corner, where you can hire a room by the hour. And soon the whistling will begin. Young men are calling their girls. Standing down there in the cold, they whistle up at the lighted windows of warm rooms where the beds are already turned down for the night. They want to be let in. Their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad. I do not care to stay here in the evenings. It reminds me that I am in a foreign city, alone, far from home. Sometimes I determine not to listen to it, pick up a book, try to read. But soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the Venetian blind to make quite sure that it is not—as I know very well it could not possibly be—for me.”
It’s a superbly-written paragraph, perfect for conveying both the longing of its narrator, and the loneliness of the big city. But it’s also not quite true. Because the calls from the street could very well have been for the Christopher Isherwood who is not the narrator, “Herr Issyvoo.” That other Christopher Isherwood—the 26-year-old aspiring novelist, homosexual, friend of fellow writers W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender (who were also in Berlin in that period)—came to Berlin, at least in part, because, as he wrote more candidly a half-century later, “Berlin meant Boys.” Today, the boys no longer whistle, they use their ubiquitous cellphones; the by-the-hour hotel is still available. It’s the difference between Isherwood, the author and person, and “Christopher Isherwood,” the character, that provides the occasion, on the centenary of the author’s birth, for Peter Parker’s massive biography, Isherwood.
Isherwood was born August 26, 1904 in Cheshire, England, to a pedigree family of landed gentry who owned a castle-sized house called Marple Hall. It was “a symbol of everything about England,” says biographer Parker, that Isherwood eventually wanted to escape. His father, Frank, was in the military, and married to Kathleen, the daughter of successful merchants. When Christopher was seven, a younger brother, Richard, was born. Frank was killed in World War I at Ypres, while Christopher was at prep school. He eventually made his way to Cambridge in the early 1920s, where he became friends with future writers Edward Upward and W.H. Auden, but dropped out of school without a degree. As Isherwood later remarked, “Upward educated me.”
Isherwood turned to writing, published a first novel, All the Conspirators, in 1928, and was onto a second one, The Memorial (1932), when W.H. Auden returned from a brief trip to Berlin at the beginning of 1929. That was the first decisive moment. Auden had discovered a world that included interesting intellects and attractive boys. Isherwood was on his way. For the next four years, Isherwood lived mostly in Berlin, where he met people like Magnus Hirschfeld, the gay sexologist, and the louche sometime-archeologist, Francis Turville-Petre. Auden and Isherwood were joined by another young British writer, Stephen Spender, and, as one critic later put it, the three “ganged up and conquered a decade.”
Berlin is where Isherwood encountered the people who would become the characters in his books—Fraulein Thurau (the landlady who became Frl. Schroeder), Jean Ross (fictionalized as Sally Bowles), and con artist Gerald Hamilton (later turned into Arthur Norris). Berlin is also where Isherwood developed his notion of the personal “Myth,” a sort of Jungian idea of how to conceive of life, and where he warily recognized the enemy “Others” (beginning with his mother, Kathleen, and extending to the Nazis; the word is capitalized, like “Boys,” to mark its mythic status). Finally, “Berlin meant Boys,” mostly adolescent boys a half-dozen years or more younger than Isherwood, whom he met in rent-bars, and with whom he embarked on romantic affairs.
Once Hitler came to power, Isherwood got out of Germany and spent the next several years wandering around Europe with his Berlin boyfriend, Heinz, whom he was trying to rescue from potential military service at home. It was a twisting itinerary with stops in Prague, Vienna, and a tiny Greek island for a farcical, but grim stay with “Fronny,” as Turville-Petre was known. There were periodic visits to London, where Isherwood got his first movie writing job with an exiled Viennese director, Berthold Viertel, and attempts to settle in places as diverse as the Grand Canary islands, Copenhagen, and Sintra, Portugal, where he and Heinz tried communal living with Spender and his boyfriend for a while. Isherwood co-authored a couple of plays with Auden that got a fair amount of attention, but the most important writing he did, during a two-month stay on Teneriffe, was to bang out a very good novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, a noir-ish book that had some affinity to the writing of his distant cousin, Graham Greene, and which Leonard Woolf at Hogarth Press immediately accepted and published in 1935.
Heinz was eventually ensnared by the German bureaucracy in 1937, and Isherwood went on to other adventures, and other affairs. He and Auden travelled to China and collaborated on a volume of reportage about the Sino-Japanese war. In rapid order, Isherwood published a school memoir, Lions and Shadows (1938), co-authored Journey to a War (1939) with Auden, and most importantly, produced Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Both he and Auden were at the height of their reputations as their generation’s literary lions when they jointly travelled to America in January 1939, a journey that permanently changed the lives of both men.
That was the second decisive moment in Isherwood’s life. Instead of returning to England as World War II began, both he and Auden settled in the U.S., a decision widely viewed in British literary circles as a kind of desertion of both country and colleagues. Evelyn Waugh brutally satirizes both of them in Put Out More Flags (1943), and even friends like Spender and Cyril Connolly, author of Enemies of Promise, voiced their doubts. For all the doubts of friends and enemies, it was Auden who wrote from America in “September 1, 1939”:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade…
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lies in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
While Auden preferred New York, Isherwood located in southern California. He found screen writing work in Hollywood, but equally important, fell in with a variety of people interested in forms of mysticism and Eastern religion, including Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and most lastingly, the Vedanta guru, Swami Prabhavananda. As a pacifist (which was presumably one of his reasons for leaving England), Isherwood did wartime work under the aegis of the Quakers, which involved helping European refugees.
Much of Isherwood’s first two decades in the U.S. would later be regarded by him as “lost years.” While there was a serious, but ultimately foundering, flirtation with Hindu monkhood under the guidance of the Swami, there was also a great deal of boozing, terrible but well-paid hack work in the movies, considerable sex (which Isherwood was very skilful at obtaining), and no substantial writing whatsoever.
In 1952, the 48-year-old Isherwood met 18-year-old Don Bachardy, with whom he began what turned into a lifelong domestic relationship, ending only with Isherwood’s death in 1986. Although the relationship with Bachardy, who went on to become a portrait artist, was hardly monogamous (on either of their parts), the encounter was part of a slowly-unfolding third decisive moment in Isherwood’s life, namely, figuring out how to write again. It was only in the early 1960s that Isherwood returned to form and to his essential subject matter with Down There on a Visit (1962), soon followed by the first major modern gay novel in America, A Single Man (1964), and a decade or so later, the memoir Christopher and his Kind (1976). In addition, during that period, Isherwood penned a biography of one of the Vedanta saints; wrote a bad novel about the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, A Meeting by the River (1967); and produced an account of his relationship with his religious teacher, My Guru and His Disciple (1980). To the end of his life, at age 82, Isherwood enjoyed a reputation as the author of the classic Berlin stories and as an elder of the gay liberation movement.
This is the colourful life-saga that Peter Parker, the author of a previous literary biography, Ackerley (1989), recounts in his sizeable, detailed, and generally intelligent Isherwood. Parker’s biography gets better than passing grades, and I don’t mean that in a back-handed way. It’s the fashion to write lengthy literary biographies these days, and I don’t think Parker can be faulted on that score, although at times, the recounting of the tale seems overly-long. I found some of Isherwood sluggish, especially the obligatory initial genealogical chapters. But for both readers who don’t know much about Isherwood, and those who are fans of his work, Isherwood provides all the necessary facts, set in context, that anyone is likely to need.
Parker notes from the beginning that Isherwood’s entire writing life finds him wrestling with issues of autobiography—there are at least three volumes of purported autobiographical memoirs, and three novels of closely fictionalized autobiography—yet Parker seems rather peevish about “Isherwood embroidering for effect what is being offered to the reader as candid autobiography.” The genre-blurring device that Isherwood uses in his novels is that while real-life persons are slightly altered into fictional characters who are given fictional names, the narrator is given the name “Christopher Isherwood,” but is also subtly fictionalized, usually for reasons of discretion, since it was impossible to frankly present his own homosexuality prior to the mid-1960s. Isherwood himself remarked on all this in a prefatory note to Goodbye to Berlin when he says, “Because I have given my own name to the ‘I’ of this narrative, readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical, or that its characters are libellously exact portraits of living persons. ‘Christopher Isherwood’ is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more.” Parker’s complaints about autobiographical “embroidering” are thus a bit ironic, or perhaps simply the biographer’s occupational hazard.
Parker devotes considerable space to sorting out the embroideries from the “real story.” For example, he proves that Isherwood’s devoted and long-suffering mother, Kathleen, was not the monster that Christopher intimated she was. Well, yes, no doubt true, but the longish demonstration of this fact—making extensive use of her diaries (a habit that apparently ran in the family)—seems a somewhat hollow biographer’s triumph. Similarly, the biographer’s long-running discovery that Isherwood is rather obsessed with the well-being of Christopher (and of “Christopher,” the fictional character) doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.
Parker is more successful with other aspects of the life. Although it’s well-known that Auden and Isherwood were lifelong friends, and that they had occasional sex together over a stretch of years (what’s known among teens these days as “friendship with benefits”), what Parker touchingly shows is that Auden was genuinely in love with the slightly-older Isherwood, for a least a decade. Alas, for Auden, he was “the more loving one,” as he puts it in a poem about another love. In any case, Auden eventually finds his own teenager, Chester Kallman, with whom he went on to live a stormy and booze-besotted life.
The most poignant figure in Parker’s biography is Richard Isherwood, Christopher’s very eccentric, and probably schizophrenic, younger brother. Richard, who lived most of his adult life with his mother, Kathleen, was an untidy mass of tics and unconscious jerks, a barely functioning alcoholic, homosexual like Christopher but unable to successfully act on his desires, and given to a rambling diary-keeping graphomania that in Christopher is turned into literature. He’s a sort of mirror-version of a Christopher-gone-mad, and his sad story is one of the most memorable in the book. On the whole, Christopher is protective of Richard, making over to him his entire share of the family inheritance, and remaining in sympathetic contact with him throughout his life.
Another aspect of Isherwood’s life that comes through powerfully is his need for some kind of theology. Although his European friends saw Isherwood’s involvement with Vedanta as “sinking into the Yoga bog,” and though Christopher’s adventures with the Swami really look like California hocus-pocus, Isherwood’s spiritual yearnings aren’t hocus-pocus. Of course, as Parker points out, spiritual discipline didn’t come easily to “a sceptical, sybaritic, chain-smoking, egotistical and morally confused homosexual atheist.” This particular form of wandering in the desert doesn’t appear to have helped Isherwood write, but it may have tempered some of the anxiety of his exiled existence.
Finally, there is Parker’s treatment of the boys. For not only did Berlin mean boys, but for Isherwood so did Los Angeles, New York, and almost everywhere else. Not only for Isherwood, though. Also for Auden, Spender, “Fronny,” and dozens of others in Isherwood’s circles. What’s more, the desires of Isherwood and his friends are not for homosexual or heterosexual adults, but for late-adolescent males, a distinct but minority preference among gay men, albeit one with a pedigree that goes back to the ancient Greeks. As Cyril Connolly shows in Enemies of Promise (as does Waugh in Brideshead Revisited), it is a form of desire that has its social roots in the English boy’s school system, and a great many boys who later lived heterosexual lives (like Connolly, Waugh, and Spender) went through extended pederastic periods that often lasted into their late-twenties and early-thirties.
Parker gives us satisfactory accounts of all the boys in Isherwood’s life, from the first youth in Berlin to the final California companion. He flatly notes the taste for adolescents (Heinz, for example, was 16 when the 28-year-old Isherwood met him), but doesn’t indulge in either a lot of moralizing or psychologizing which, I think, is probably the most sensible way to treat the subject.
Isherwood’s powers as a writer included a lapidary prose style, an ability to see his friends as unforgettable characters, and a tremendous skill at portraying social situations, especially uncomfortable, psychologically-complex ones. As the great American critic Edmund Wilson shrewdly said about Goodbye to Berlin, “Christopher Isherwood’s prose is a perfect medium for his purpose. It has the ‘transparency’ which the Russians praise in Pushkin. The sentences all get you somewhere almost without your noticing that you are reading them; the similes always have a point without ever obtruding themselves before the object. You seem to look right through Isherwood and see what he sees.” Wilson added that Isherwood’s “real field is social observation, and in this field it would not be too much to say that he is already, on a small scale, a master.”
The problem for Isherwood was one of perspective, and he solved it by inventing the indirect narrator named “Christopher Isherwood.” He’s the foil for the remarkably realized characters in the Berlin stories, like Sally Bowles and the trapped, young Jewish businessman, Bernhard Landauer. Things happen to them, while “Christopher” remains a cipher. The device was successfully employed by Isherwood in his Berlin fiction, his reportage, and his school memoir, Lions and Shadows.
His friends tried to talk him out of “Christopher Isherwood.” Stephen Spender, in a long letter to Isherwood, complained, “I can’t help protesting against the little comic-cuts Charlie Chaplin figure into which you are getting so adept at turning yourself, especially as you are now called Isherwood in these stories. The self-portrait could scarcely—even in Lions and Shadows—be more evasive. By sneering at the more self-pitying & even tragic aspects of yourself, you are really showing a typically English brand of dishonesty, which consists in admitting the real and then making it seem unimportant by the exercise of a sense of humour… You are far more interesting, and rather more sinister in some ways, than you make out.”
Isherwood bought the argument. “Of course you’re right about ‘Isherwood’, he is an evasion and altogether too harmless and too knowing—‘the sexless nitwit,’ as somebody called him,” and then promised, “I will drop ‘Isherwood’ altogether in the future. I always meant to.”
The rest of Isherwood’s writing life was centred around the struggle to get rid of “Herr Issyvoo.” From the Berlin stories of 1939 to 1962 or thereabouts, Isherwood’s oeuvre is an almost complete blank. In that bleak quarter-century, he managed one novel. It was called The World in the Evening (1954). It was third-person, it wasn’t seen through the eyes of “Isherwood,” it was sort of heterosexual, and it was a disaster. It isn’t entirely accurate to say the whole period was a blank. Sometime toward the end of World War II, Isherwood blearily looked up from his hangover, remembered his movie work with Viertel, and wrote a pitch-perfect novella that begins, tellingly, with the lines:
“Mr. Christopher Isherwood?”
“You know, we’ve been trying to contact you ever since yesterday afternoon.” The voice at the other end of the wire was a bit reproachful.’
The voice belongs to a minion at Imperial Bulldog Pictures, who is trying to hook Isherwood up with the Viennese director, Friedrich Bergmann. “Friedrich Bergman, you know,” says the voice. “Never heard of him,” replies Isherwood. “That’s funny,” says the flunky, “He’s worked in Berlin a lot, too. Weren’t you in pictures, over there?” “I’ve never been in pictures anywhere,” primly declares Isherwood. And then, of course, he is in pictures, and in a neat novella about movie making and pre-war Europe that’s as good as anything by Nathaniel West or Budd Schulberg about the dream factory.
But apart from Prater Violet (1945), his novella about movies, Isherwood tried really hard to do in “Isherwood.” It was something like Conan Doyle’s famous efforts to get rid of Sherlock Holmes in order to write serious novels. As with Doyle, the effort to escape from what you can do was a dismal failure.
This is the most interesting story in Parker’s book, and the most important one. Parker provides all the materials, but he doesn’t really nail it.
Finally, in 1962, Isherwood wrote Down There on a Visit. It consists of four novella-length sketches, and is a sort of continuation of Goodbye to Berlin. Again, from its opening lines, we’re on solid ground: “Now, at last, I’m ready to write about Mr. Lancaster. For years I have been meaning to, but only rather halfheartedly; I never felt I could quite do him justice. Now I see what my mistake was; I always used to think of him as an isolated character… To present him entirely, I realize I must show how our meeting was the start of a new chapter in my life, indeed a whole series of chapters.” The story is a fictionalized account of Isherwood’s first visit to Bremen, Germany, when he was 23, invited there by a stuffy, distant relative, who is presented in the story as an important businessman.
It is also in this story that Isherwood works another turn on his narrator: “And now before I slip back into the convention of calling this young man ‘I,’ let me consider him as a separate being, a stranger almost, setting out on this adventure in a taxi to the docks. For, of course, he is almost a stranger to me. I have revised his opinions, changed his accent and his mannerisms, unlearned or exaggerated his prejudices and his habits. We still have the same skeleton, but its outer covering has altered so much that I doubt if he would recognize me on the street… The Christopher who sat in that taxi is, practically speaking, dead; he only remains reflected in the fading memories of us who knew him.” So now we have an author named Christopher Isherwood creating a a first-person narrator named “Christopher Isherwood” who writes about a third-person “Christopher” who tells his story in the first-person. Complicated, yes, but effective. In Down There, Isherwood presents unforgettable vignettes about his boyfriend Heinz, who appears as “Waldemar,” a portrait of “Fronny” who appears as “Ambrose,” the mad king of a private island in Greece, and Isherwood’s first attempt to present his American life, in “Paul,” a story set in 1940 about a celebrated male hustler (who was also memorialized by Isherwood’s fellow writers and younger friends, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal), who is interested in Isherwood’s efforts at spiritual enlightenment and his relation to Gerald Heard (who appears as “Augustus Parr”).
It should also be mentioned that Isherwood got a couple of lucky breaks that indirectly helped to solve the identity/narrator issue, as well as receiving much extraneous celebrity. In 1951, when Isherwood was in the doldrums, the playwright John van Druten produced a stage version of the Berlin stories, I Am A Camera (Parker doesn’t make clear that this helped, but I suspect it did.) Similarly, the 1960s stage version, Cabaret, and Bob Fosse’s Academy Award-winning film version (starring Michael York, Liza Minelli and Joel Gray) not only brought in a lot of money for Isherwood, but no doubt helped him to write his mid-70s memoir about Berlin. Oh yes, and Isherwood certainly didn’t think “Life is a cabaret, my dear,” as Gray and Minelli warble in the film.
With the Isherwood/”Isherwood” problem solved, Isherwood could, in his next novel, A Single Man (1964), simply create a third-person character named George, who is a closely fictionalized version of the aspect of Isherwood who was a gay, Brit-expat, English professor at a California college. Although both Vidal and James Baldwin had published earlier openly gay, serious novels, A Single Man is the first thoroughly successful one to appear in the U.S., and stands up four decades after its publication in ways that the earlier novels don’t. Though A Single Man is hardly shocking today, in its day, the Los Angeles Times review was headed “Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga,” a tone all too characteristic of the hatred and spite of the times. In subsequent books, like Kathleen and Frank (1972) and Christopher and His Kind (1976), Isherwood was able to use the double-“Isherwood” narrator.
On the whole, Parker is not entirely satisfactory on the literary works, though all the material is scrupulously there—dates of publication, sources, surveys of reviewers’ reception of the books, etc. But, for example, the appearance of Goodbye to Berlin is dispatched in a couple of pages, and Parker doesn’t really explain why it’s great. The “Isherwood”/narrator question is spottily handled. The problem of the relation between the life, the work, and the times is, of course, the central issue of all literary biographies. Most of them tend to be, to my mind, upside-down, with the biographer committed to proving that, after all, those great imaginings are only those of a human being. Well, sure. Parker is certainly no worse than many other serious biographers, but he’s hardly outstanding on this score. Nor is he particularly helpful about the literary times. Isherwood’s place among other prose writers of the 1930s and 40s—Orwell, Henry Green, Waugh, Connolly, not to mention non-English writing contemporaries—is barely sketched. Not fatal flaws, I suppose, but reason to read Isherwood with measured judgment. Given the difficulty of doing this sort of thing credibly at all, I don’t want to make too much of my complaints.
In the end, Isherwood does what decent biography is supposed to do. This bulky tome sends you straight to those spare, elegant books about “Christopher” and his kind.
Berlin, June 26, 2004, Christopher Street Day