Christopher Isherwood: His Era, His Gang and the Legacy of the Truly Strong Man

by David Garrett Izzo
Reviewed by Toby Johnson

David Izzo's biography of Isherwood is part bio, part summary of the author's work, part in-depth literary anaylsis, and part spiritual philosophy. It's an impressive and interesting book. This is because Izzo's style manages to weave together so many themes and so many sources and because his subject had done precisely the same thing with his own life.

It becomes clear very early in this book that Christopher Isherwood and his gang were remarkably self-aware and self-analyzing. We discover that from very early in his life, Isherwood was treating his own experience as matter for journalism. His father, Frank, who was killed in WWI in 1915 when Isherwood was only 11, had "published" a family newspaper called "The Toy-Drawer Times" every morning, illustrated, about young Chris's life. His mother, Kathleen, helped him write his first "book" at age 6 called The History of My Friends, turning history into personal myth and fantasy.

In his last year at St. Edmund's Preparatory (high school), he met a boy who would change his life forever, alter the course of British literary history and give name both to the gang of friends and an entire generation, Wystan Hugh Auden. At St. Edmund's he also met his life-long friend and first collaborator, Edward Upward, with whom he wrote a series of subjective and obscurantist stories, peppered with nonsense words and set in a fantasy world called Mortemere.

Throughout his life, Isherwood continued to craft fiction based on these early experiences. He wrote about himself and his friends in the third person, sometimes using pseudonyms. He commented on history and meaning by placing himself and his experiences in the center of a fictionalized world. He also kept diaries and later in his life wrote commentaries about his own work. And, because he and Auden and their friends Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, etc. became important literary figures and popular writers, other people, critics and literary analysts, also wrote about them.

Part of what is remarkable about Izzo's analysis is that he has managed to piece together and explain all the many perspectives on Isherwood's life and personality development.

This phenomenon of writing about himself, only slightly veiled, is apparent in Isherwood's most familiar work The Berlin Stories which ultimately became the musical and movie Caberet. The story of William Bradshaw, British writer in pre-Nazi Germany, is the story of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin. The first dramatized version of the story was called I Am a Camera. That's precisely how he decided to report on what he'd discovered lurking behind the sexual liberation and sophistication. What isn't quite so clear in the literary creations is that Isherwood went to Berlin because of what Auden told him he'd find there: boys.

Auden and Isherwood's lives are important to us today in part because they helped create a world in which it was safe--even stylish--to be homosexual. It took a while and some personal growth, of course, but they told the truth about their experience of life. Isherwood's novel A Single Man, published in 1964, frankly and positively acknowledged homosexuality and portrayed it as to a call in increased consciousness.

An ongoing discussion throughout Izzo's book is the meaning of being Truly Strong and Truly Weak. The Truly Strong Man, the goal Isherwood apparently set for himself, acts from love and tells the truth; he passes Tests and proves himself, but not out of fear or neurosis (Isherwood and his gang grew up in the newly psychologically-sophisticated world announced by Sigmund Freud); his self-consciousness allows him to tell the truth. The Truly Weak Man acts from fear, in order to hide, turning self-consciousness into self-absorption.

Two pivotal experiences in Isherwood's later life were meeting Swami Prabhavananda, the apostle of Ramakrishna who came to America to teach the Hindu-inspired wisdom of Vedanta, and Don Bachardy, the young man who would remain Isherwood's lover and life-partner from 1953 to his death in 1986.

Isherwood's last book was My Guru and His Disciple. The title, of course, referred to Prabhavananda and Isherwood, speaking of himself in third person. It recounts the author's spiritualdevelopment and one-time effort to live as a Hindu monk. Though he preferred life with Bachardy to life as a celibate, he turned the quest to be Truly Strong to that to be truly spiritual and to live out of religious wisdom.

David Izzo's analysis of Isherwood's life and quest is impressive. As I try here to review it, I discover it's so rich in detail it is almost impossible to summarize. That's both its strength and its weakness, the problem created by Isherwood's self-conscious, self-analyzing, self-referential style. It's hard to keep track of what was real and what was fictionalized, of who was Isherwood the man and who was Isherwood the character, acting under pseudonym.

Readers and fans of Christopher Isherwood's are likely to thoroughly enjoy this book, finding in it a level of meaning they may not have seen in the writer's creations. The casual reader may find it daunting, but at the same time intriguing. It inspires curiosity and reverence for the life of a homosexual man, born in a time when that was still totally verboten, who becomes, partly through spirituality and partly through his commitment to honesty and self-analysis Truly Strong.

Izzo argues that Isherwood's legacy was shaping the anti-hero of early 20th Century literature into the sensitive, Truly Strong Man we see today as the hero in fiction and film, the person who can cry without shame and stand up for himself and others, changing virtue from stereotypically male traits to realistically human ones.

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