In his world-famous Berlin stories, Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986) described the volatile atmosphere of the last years of the Weimar Republic. Berlin had an enormous impact on Isherwood’s life and work; and his writings had an enormous impact on Anglophone readers’ perception of Weimar Berlin.
No writer has been more influential than Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986) in shaping the image of early 1930s Berlin for English-speaking audiences worldwide. Isherwood first arrived in Berlin in 1929 in order to visit W. H. Auden, and spent considerable amounts of time in the city from then until 1933. He lived for a period in accommodation connected with the Institute of Sexual Science before moving in with the family of his lover Walter Wolff on Simeonstraße, in Kreuzberg, and eventually settling in the apartment at Nollendorfstraße 17, which he used as a setting for his Berlin stories.
Isherwood’s Berlin social circle comprised contacts he made through his day job as a language teacher, local working-class lovers, and bohemian expatriate British artists and writers (including Auden, Stephen Spender, Gerald Hamilton and Jean Ross, whom he immortalised in the character of Sally Bowles). By night, he was an habitué of gay bars such as the Cosy Corner. For the socially privileged Isherwood, the encounter with working-class culture in Berlin was a bracing experience that strengthened his interest in communism.
The time in Berlin had a formative impact on Isherwood’s life and career. The permissive homosexual culture of the city allowed him to explore and develop his sexual identity in ways that would have been impossible in Britain: as he was famously to remark in Christopher and His Kind (1976), ‘To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys.’ He also immersed himself in cinema at a moment in which Berlin was one of the world centres of the film industry. And it is here that, for the first time, he inhabited the role of the exile or outsider that he also employed after he moved to America in 1939.
Isherwood came back to Britain just as the Nazis began to destroy the progressive and sometimes transgressive culture that he had found so congenial. In 1935, he published Mr Norris Changes Trains, which fictionalised his friendship with the shady Gerald Hamilton. This was followed, in 1939, by Isherwood’s best-known book, Goodbye to Berlin. Both these works are autobiographical, in that they are based on places and people that Isherwood knew. But Isherwood plays with the conventions of autobiography: his seemingly simple device of writing himself as a character and objective onlooker (the protagonist of Goodbye to Berlin is called Christopher Isherwood) creates a sometimes paradoxical and unsettling sense of distance between author and narrator.
The Berlin books are episodic narratives (some sections were published independently as short stories) that convey a strong sense of place and character through lucid, terse prose. They set forth a myth of Berlin as a fragile bubble of youth, hedonism, tolerance and freedom, soon to be burst by hatred and brutal right-wing totalitarianism.
Although he claimed to have destroyed his diaries and he only went back to Berlin once, commissioned by The Observer in 1952, the memory of Berlin haunted Isherwood throughout his career. In numerous interviews and later books, notably Christopher and His Kind, he rewrote the city many times over. By so doing, he found new ways of telling the stories of his sexual emancipation, political consciousness and interest in cinema, among other things. The Berlin writings of the 1930s were also the basis of commercially successful adaptations, notably John Van Druten’s play I am a Camera (1951) and Bob Fosse’s film Cabaret (1972). Stefano Evangelista
1—Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind (London: Vintage, 2012), p. 3.
Isherwood, Christopher, Christopher and his Kind (London: Vintage, 2012)
Isherwood, Christopher, The Berlin Novels: Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin (London: Vintage, 1999)
Berg, James J., and Chris Freeman (eds), The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood (Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 2000)
Page, Norman, Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998)
Parker, Peter, Isherwood: A Life (London: Picador, 2005)
Isherwood, Christopher, ‘Back to Berlin’, Observer (23 March 1952), republished in the Guardian