“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.”
THOSE WORDS, voiced by the narrator of the story Goodbye to Berlin (1939), could just as easily have been spoken by its author, Christopher Isherwood. For Isherwood’s genius was in observing the small, telling details of his own experience and developing them into rich works of fiction as sharp and true as life.
Isherwood was the author not only of novels but also of several plays, almost a dozen screenplays, a series of memoirs, and several books on Hinduism and Vedanta. Indisputably one of the 20th century’s most important authors in English, he was also one of the first self-consciously gay writers to be read extensively by a wider audience. Isherwood is perhaps best known today for The Berlin Stories (1946), those semi-autobiographical works that were adapted as the play I Am a Camera (1955) and as the musical play and film Cabaret.
Born in England in 1904, Isherwood became a naturalized U.S. citizen after settling in Southern California in 1939. He lived in the Los Angeles area until his death in 1986. To mark the 100th anniversary of Isherwood’s birth, the Huntington Library is mounting this summer a new exhibition titled “Christopher Isherwood: A Writer and His World.” The exhibition draws from the Isherwood Papers acquired by the Huntington in 1999. This material is being supplemented by special items that were loaned by Isherwood’s long-time partner Don Bachardy, by the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and by the National Archives, Pacific Region.
Berlin’s sexual and social environment in the 1930’s was important to Isherwood’s development as he watched the Nazi party rise to power. His sense of self-discovery was intense during these pivotal years, but when he began to fear for his safety, he left and took to wandering around Europe, a trek that lasted almost a decade. During this time he also became a close friend to W. H. Auden, who later emerged as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. The two writers remained lifelong friends, with Isherwood becoming a hugely influential mentor, even editing Auden’s early poems.
In 1939 Isherwood emigrated to the United States, a new environment for him to explore and test. Disliking New York, he headed west, settling in Southern California. He met Aldous Huxley during this time, talked script-writing shop with Gore Vidal, and eventually entered into a permanent relationship with the younger artist Don Bachardy.
During the 60’s he worked as an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and also spent considerable time speaking and giving lectures. During the 70’s he and Bachardy, by then a noted artist, emerged as leaders in the burgeoning gay movement. Young male readers coming to terms with their own identities embraced Isherwood’s writings about the lives of gay men.
Isherwood also developed throughout his life keen spiritual views. In 1943 he became a follower of Swami Prabhavananda, and produced several works on the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta in the following decades. He was an avid practitioner of yoga.
Isherwood wrote works that transcend classification in their combination of autobiographical and imaginative elements. The Berlin Stories fictionalized his stay in pre-Nazi Berlin from 1929 to 1933. Other novels include Prater Violet (1945), The World in the Evening (1954), Down There on a Visit (1962), A Single Man (1964), and A Meeting by the River (1967). A partial list of autobiographical and nonfiction works includes Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (1938), Journey to a War (with W. H. Auden, 1939), and Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939 (1976).
Isherwood’s writings are characterized by, and widely praised for, the comic and ironic portrayal of life’s often tragic events and by a transparent, unobtrusive writing style that allows the reader to see the world through the narrator’s eyes. Graham Greene, for example, in 1986 described one of the Berlin stories, The Last of Mr. Norris, as “a permanent landmark in the literature of our time,” and Gore Vidal called Isherwood “the best prose writer in English.”
The Huntington Library made headlines in 1999 with the announcement of the acquisition of Christopher Isherwood’s complete archive from Don Bachardy. The collection of about 4,000 items contains literary drafts, diaries and journals, photographs, audio and videotapes, and letters from many authors, including W. H. Auden, Truman Capote, E. M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, Stephen Spender, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. One letter of note is from Isherwood’s lifelong friend Auden that reveals how the young Auden changed his verses to accommodate Isherwood’s close readings and suggested alterations.
The exhibit is designed to introduce Isherwood to those unfamiliar with his writings, and to reacquaint his fans with the remarkable literary legacy that he left. Drafts and notes for his works, such as A Single Man and The World in the Evening, illustrate the creation and development of his ideas and show the painstaking craftsmanship of one of the most meticulous perfectionists of 20th-century literature. Other manuscripts include an extraordinary travel diary kept jointly by Isherwood and Auden on their trip to observe the Sino-Japanese conflict in 1938. This diary was the basis for their book Journey to a War. Rare editions of Isherwood’s writings include Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Good-bye to Berlin (published together as The Berlin Stories), Christopher and His Kind, and Down There On a Visit.
In addition to the literary materials on view, a number of original portraits by Bachardy, a noted artist in his own right, accompany the books and manuscripts in the exhibition. Finally, documentary film footage will enable visitors to see and hear Isherwood interviews in which he discusses his life. “Some day,” he wrote, “all this will have to be developed.” Through the lens of Christopher Isherwood’s work, the carefully observed images of a lifetime—framed by his experience and illuminated by his gifts as a writer—have been indelibly fixed in the pages of literature.
Sara S. Hodson is the Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The exhibit under discussion, “Christopher Isherwood: A Writer and His World,” is on display from June 12 to Oct. 3 in the West Hall of the Huntington Library.