By Peter ParkerRandom House
Winsome and boyish (preternaturally and studiously so), Christopher Isherwood always appeared to be the youngest of Britain's young writers of the thirties, those clever, slippery wünderkinder of a "low dishonest decade," as their chieftain, W. H. Auden, put it even better than he knew. In fact Isherwood was older than Auden and Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Last year he reached his posthumous centenary.
What's more, as Peter Parker's elephantine but finally energetic new biography reminds us, Isherwood was the most aristocratic of the bunch, destined from birth to inherit Marple Hall, a huge Elizabethan house on the border of Cheshire and Derbyshire. The place would be near ruin by the time it came his way, in midlife, but he was still glad to turn it over to his addled younger brother—the sort of renunciatory gesture Isherwood had been making toward hierarchical, heterosexual England ever since public school.
His precocity and dandyism were established well before the loss of his father, Frank, in the Battle of Ypres, when Christopher was eleven. It seems unlikely, even without Frank's early death, that his firstborn would have turned out any less willfully feckless than he did, leaving Cambridge with no degree and finding less interest in medical school than in tutoring young boys. The most important psychological fact of Isherwood's early life was the overeager embrace of widowhood by his mother, Kathleen, who became in her son's mind a monster of nostalgia, a ruffled, squawking martyr suspended in an amber of Edwardian pride and prejudices. "Just think of her!" Isherwood cried out from Cambridge. "Sitting in front of a fire in Kensington, warming her cunt!" She would live well into her son's middle age, indulging his rebellions to a degree he couldn't see despite his nasty, persistent fixation on her.
Kathleen shows up, unpleasantly, in Isherwood's earliest novels, All the Conspirators and The Memorial, and she remains with him toward the end, in the memoir Kathleen and Frank, where—with customary reference to himself in the third person—he finally acknowledges her usefulness as the "counterforce which gave him strength … [what] saved him from becoming a mother's boy, a churchgoer, an academic, a conservative, a patriot and a respectable citizen."
Kathleen was the most otherly of what Isherwood always called the Others, those Blimps and boors he felt nipping at his heels. (Never mind that he inherited several parts of their mindset, including anti-Semitism.) Parker seems sympathetic to Kathleen in exactly the right measure; however admirable Isherwood's literary and sexual rebellions, the biographer knows when to get fed up with his subject. Once Isherwood starts exalting his myriad gay romances over the "evil old sentimental lie" of family ties, Parker declares his "remark about his hundred brothers and thousand sons, with its unfortunate echo of Goodbye, Mr. Chips," to be "quite as much of a sentimental lie as any notions about blood relationships."
Isherwood's sexual bravery was generally uncompromising and entirely adult, but his actual desires had an aspect of perennial adolescence. He derived his most reliable erotic pleasure from wrestling, usually commencing sex "in mock-innocence as a fight." (Parker leaves no doubt that Isherwood came out of these encounters on top.) The novelist found his lasting type at Repton School, when he was assigned a pint-size fag named, believe it or not, Austen Darling. He developed a consuming crush on the child actor Jackie Coogan, the movies' delicate Oliver Twist, and forever sought to be the protective older brother of his partners.
"Berlin meant Boys," Isherwood reminisced, with a delighted new impunity, in his 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind. The only remotely competitive motivation for the first of his many trips to Germany, in March of 1929, was a chance to spite Kathleen, widowed as she'd been by the Hun. When abroad, Isherwood settled into a routine of writing by day and cruising the bars of Berlin's east end by night. He wrestled, and bankrolled, a series of obliging youths from the working class, blending commerce and sentiment as potently as Hallmark or Disney ever would. He liked to idealize whatever tacit or explicit bargain underlay his relationships with Bubi and Walter (eventually Otto in "The Nowaks") and finally Heinz, with whom the writer exchanged rings and went on the run once Hitler clamped down and the German draft law threatened to scoop the boy into the army or prison.
Isherwood toyed with the idea of getting Kathleen to adopt Heinz, and tried, through the raffish adventurer Gerald Hamilton, to buy the papers of a new nationality for him. "Isherwood could, if provoked, come up with all manner of moral arguments for sticking by Heinz," Parker writes, "but a major reason for his loyalty was that it gave him the opportunity to defy the Others"—as they were represented by both petty officialdom and the first revvings of the Nazi killing machine.
Even so, Parker is right to label his subject "the least political member of his particular generation." (Hitler, the biographer convinces us, could never hold a candle to Kathleen in Isherwood's demonology.) The novelist might explain, with a certain regret, to his lifelong Communist friend Edward Upward that the personal would always trump the political in him ("I have made a mess of my leftism"), but Parker, a believer in each according to his means, values the remorseless detachment of Isherwood's Berlin short stories more highly than anything false ideological piety might have produced. Even Isherwood's deadpan depictions of Nazi violence had a defensible artistic integrity, Parker argues: "This was after all a city in which appalling things were shrugged off or regarded as a price worth paying for the improvements political change would supposedly bring."
Isherwood's credo, or confession, of objectivity found its most famous expression in the sentence "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." The detachment seemed to include his references to himself as "Christopher Isherwood" or, in the speech of his German landlady, "Herr Issyvoo." But self-portraiture by Isherwood's camera actually involved a lot of soft light and flattering refraction, and his friend Spender warned him against the airbrushed results: "I can't help protesting against the little comic-cuts Charlie Chaplin figure into which you are getting so adept at turning yourself … You are far more interesting, and rather more sinister in some ways, than you make out." In a 1938 diary Isherwood recognized himself as less a personality than "a chemical compound" whose "'character' is simply a repertoire of acquired tricks [and] conversation a repertoire of adaptations and echoes." He would urge those opening his memoir Lions and Shadows to read it like a novel, and eventually admitted to having used the persona "Christopher Isherwood" so often and so elastically that it began to confuse even him.
It is difficult to say whether all these permutations represented some new height of egocentricity or an attempt at self-annihilation. The author's relationship to his other real-life-based characters seems to have been equally curious. Parker surmises that Isherwood saw both his lovers and his dramatis personae "principally in relation to himself, rather than [as] autonomous beings." He took unusual pains to get the originals to sign off on their imaginary isotopes, seeking the approval of Jean Ross (Sally Bowles), Gerald Hamilton (Mr. Norris), and Lincoln Kirstein (Charles Kennedy in The World in the Evening) before releasing them into print. The effort went well beyond legal caution, as if the subjects' failure to acknowledge and sanction the portraits might make Isherwood doubt the actuality of his sitters.