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The Observer as Hero

By Peter Parker 
(Random House, 815 pp., $39.95) 

“FIX” IS A WORD FOR OUR time, blunt and secretive, yet promising transformation. If the “fix” is in, don’t we all suffer because of it? When the World Series of 1919 was “fixed,” the game needed Babe Ruth in order to recover. But if we have a bad knee or a car that won’t start, it is a mercy if someone says they can “fix” it for us. That treatment—we hope—doesn’t involve a cheating fix. It must be a true case of repair or restoration. But there is another way of “fixing” things, and it goes like this:

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 first four words are as famous as they are tendentious (a camera doesn’t know a kimono from a kiss). They are Christopher Isherwood in Berlin in the years from 1929 to 1933, between demoralization and Nazification, boys for sale and the Hitler Youth. That moment is still so modern, so dangerous, and so demanding of individual decision that it makes Hemingway in Paris only a few years earlier seem like the last season of the Grand Tour where Europe sat still to have its picture taken.

“Fixed” was, for Isherwood, a new usage: it is the photo-chemical process used to stabilize an image in the darkroom. That could make you think that “fixing” is somehow geared to correctness, or finding the one and only right print—as in, “Well, I’ve fixed your papers, Mr. Lime.” But, as any photographer knows, the fix is optional, and creative in its degree and its timing. The fix locks a picture in, but only at the photo-emotional level that the photographer wants. The fix is atmosphere: the day can be bright or noir. It is your choice.

Here is an example of how Isherwood’s fix could be ambiguous. When he came back from Berlin in 1933, he had the notion of turning his diaries and his memories into a “huge tightly constructed melodramatic novel in the manner of Balzac.” He wanted to find room for all the wayward, doomed, stray, and shadowy people he met in Berlin, and he thought of calling the novel Die Verlorenen, or The Lost. But he changed his mind (and the title remained available for the somber little-known movie that Peter Lorre directed in the 1950s). Yet Isherwood’s people—Sally Bowles, Mr. Norris, the boys, and even Herr Issyvoo— why, they are not lost, they are indelibly inscribed (I nearly said fixed) in our view of Berlin on the brink of Hitler. It’s a lurch or two, I admit, from Jean Ross (the original and unsuccessful Sally) to Julie Harris in I Am a Camera (1955) or Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972). Christopher Isherwood is now forever linked to the insouciance of “Life is a cabaret, old chum.” But if Sally Bowles had been that good, he once remarked, she would have been a star.

IF SALLY BOWLES'S BERLIN IS THE modern, swift-bite take on Isherwood, then the fixing day has come with Peter Parker’s immense and magnificent biography. Some of Isherwood’s admirers will be put off by its title. After all, Isherwood has hardly suffered from neglect, and a great part of his often tricky mix of art and self-promotion was to make his life the essential material for his casually narcissistic project. Well in advance of Norman Mailer and Advertisements for Myself, he was in the habit of keeping detailed journals that would then be reworked in the striking innovations of personal re- invention or autobiographical fiction that are Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, published together as the work we call The Berlin Stories and regard as a canonical evocation of Hitlerism. Yes, Herr Issyvoo feared and hated Hitler, and guessed what was coming earlier than most (he loved dread). But he was also sufficiently hooked on appearance and allure to train the cowlick in his own hairstyle to imitate the Fhrer’s.

Still, “A Life Revealed” is a modest subtitle for such a daunting process of reconstruction and re-appraisal. Parker’s book is well over four hundred thousand words, while its subject’s own work was known for brevity, chat, and snapshot spontaneity. It might easily have been two books, England Made Me and Becoming an American; and it is obviously a labor of great devotion and dedication. Parker gives great thanks to the no-strings trust and the quantity of papers offered by Don Bachardy, Isherwood’s near-spouse in the Californian years and his executor. At the same time he admits that while Bachardy made no intervention in the work, “he felt unable to give the book his endorsement when he finally read it.” What Bachardy may have found hard to bear is the mounting realization on the part of Parker that Isherwood was a user, a poseur, and the kind of fellow who might have been identified in his own books as a bit of a shit. The most nagging question presented by this great biography is whether this life really matters.

I do not mean to suggest that Parker is disapproving. Indeed, one of the steadfast things about this book is its author’s determination to test Isherwood on his own terms. In consequence, hardly anyone gives more damning testimony against Isherwood than Isherwood himself. The indiscretions and the false steps are as human as the fun. If you are a fan, this cannot come as a great surprise, since you will have already struggled with the weird way in the published Diaries that Isherwood can talk about “Christopher” as if he were a movie playing on a nearby screen. Long before the end of this long book, the riddle about Isherwood is not just whether he believed that he was a camera, but how closely he could regard his own life as a picture, a movie, one that he had certainly fixed (he was the lead character, the star, and the director, plus the most earnest audience), but for which he had no clinching responsibility.

SO HOW DOES ISHERWOOD WRITE? Reviewing Goodbye to Berlin in 1939 in The New Republic, Edmund Wilson thought that the Englishman was “already, on a small scale, a master.” According to Wilson, Isherwood’s prose “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.“ There it is again, that feeling of being caught in the act of seeing something naked or forbidden, in a mixture of voyeur’s guilt and photojournalistic thrill.

Parker is always alert to cameras in Isherwood’s life, and he regularly notes the films that Christopher was seeing. Apart from reading and writing, boys and movies filled Isherwood’s life, especially in the 1930s. One thing that Parker omits is just how far Isherwood was spurred on by pictures, or by forms of literature that borrowed from photography. It is fascinating to learn that Isherwood had read, and even identified with, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, but I wonder also how well he knew Dos Passos’s USA, with its mixture of line-drawing narrative illustrations, newsreels, and “Camera Eye“ sections.

Was Isherwood a true window on Berlin, or a moviegoer haunted by the life on screen and by his own impotence in stopping or intervening in its cruelties? I put it this way because a key to Isherwood’s witnessing of Berlin is his excited powerlessness. This could reflect the wistful leftist’s fear of the lights going out all over the world again, or the moviegoer’s sublime surrender to the automatic fluency of film. Consider this, from “The Nowaks,“ part of Goodbye to Berlin, and surely the stuff that impressed Wilson:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woolen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk-jugs. The pavement was chalk-marked for the hopping game called Heaven and Earth. At the end of it, like a tall, dangerously sharp, red instrument, stood a church.

As a first paragraph, could a narrative hook bite deeper? As reportage, or journalism, could it be more vivid? As prose, it refuses to yield to style for its own sake. The terse directness of the description prepares us for the colloquial body of most of Isherwood’s writing—the reliance on dialogue, the wicked ear for special pleading (or giving away the inner self) that is the secret to movie talk. But is the writer really a camera? I don’t think so. Such prose reaches way beyond the camera’s ability to see that the tattered bills advertise auctions or crimes. Indeed, the longer you reflect on that passing remark, the more clearly it becomes creative and mysterious—the more dramatically it indicates a whole economic and moral order, a diagnosis of a society.

But this hint is only a prelude to the startling depiction of the church standing there, as sharp as Gothic and as red as a wound. And there is something else, I think: the red is like blood, hand-colored on top of a black- and-white picture. I don’t know if Berlin in the early 1930s really looked like that, but it is what the world looks or feels like in M and Pandora’s Box. This is not to say that Isherwood didn’t use his eyes every day in wandering the shabby parts of Berlin, but I suspect that his creative impulse was often prompted by movies—more specifically, by the expressionist camera’s capacity for presenting a world that seems factual and exact but which is always a dream of death and decay. Just as there is no daylight in Lang’s austere films, so the light in Isherwood is seldom natural but rather theatrical. It is the baleful glow of the screen itself, and the city is not so much an authentic place as a stage set meant for the end of the world. Isherwood felt that his England was shattered after 1918, but at least it looked free from battles or occupation. Berlin, by contrast, was a blasted and demoralized place, a bare cavern, where different ideologies could be wheeled in and out like sets. That is the key to the German movies of that era, the way the world had become a haunted studio.

THERE WAS, TO BE SURE, A preening and sometimes cruel narcissist in this writer who had no ambition beyond the clarification and the celebration of his self. This is not always the most likable trait, no matter how hard it seems to be striving for lucidity or freedom. Several of his closest associates could not fail to notice this, even as they admired Isherwood as the natural leader of their group. Auden noted that Isherwood “held no opinions whatever about anything. He was wholly and simply interested in people. He did not like or dislike them, judge them favorably or unfavorably. He simply regarded them as material for his Work.” 

It is a measure of the searching but tolerant intelligence of Parker’s approach that he gradually draws the reader into wondering how far that pose of neutrality was an aggressive mannerism, and one that fit with the homosexual life that Isherwood did so much to open up. Christopher devoured boys, but in his diaries he was quite prepared to admit how rarely individuals actually moved him in any way that could compare with the impression left by his own feelings. He was naturally promiscuous, in the way that the camera is ready to snap, or to adore, anyone.

You read Parker’s book marveling at Isherwood’s readiness to go to bed with so many, and feeling the increasing chill of an egotism that never quite falls in love with anyone but hangs on the idea of a thwarted love. The nexus of Isherwood’s emotional life in the 1930s was the discovery of Heinz, a rough German kid, and the frantic attempts to keep Heinz away from Germany, where he risked imprisonment or worse, and the eventual masochistic sublimity as Heinz was indeed incarcerated and put out of bounds forever—or until 1952, by which time Heinz was married and Christopher had fresh legions of boys in sunny California.

The young Christopher took justified pride in his very striking looks. Auden wrote about “your squat spruce body and enormous head,” but Isherwood kept a rather more flattering (or literary) mirror in use: “I only seem young [he was thirty-four] because my face is lean and usually animated, and because I have very bright large grey-green eyes, and regular, if nicotine-stained teeth. ... The most I can hope for is to be described as‘interesting.’ The majority of people would probably say that my face had a lot of ‘character.’” Well, yes, in the way of actors’ faces. I don’t think it’s beside the point that over the years Isherwood and Bachardy (and David Hockney) established a look, or a gaze, for the artistic gay man—direct, candid, unashamedly pretty, the cowlick shifting into the “faux brutal” crew cut, the whole attitude, as Auden put it, “spruce“: looking one’s best, and bringing the best bright regard to the world. It can also give you the creeps sometimes, in just the way that talking seriously with actors can be a very depleting experience. They do it professionally, you see.

I understand that such observations come close to “prejudice,“ and I grant that we are not supposed to be so impressed by the way we look. But after reading Parker’s book, I suspect that Isherwood worked as hard at his look as he did with his prose. And it leaves a problem, or a black hole, behind the very “open” gaze, a worry that helps one be suspicious of all that facile chatter about being a camera. Cameras eat up experience, but they also flatten it. And the moving images on the screen whisper: just watch, don’t get too involved. Cameras are libertines not bothered with issues of fidelity or betrayal. In this sense, the camera quietly abets Isherwood’s romantic strategy: he “preferred to have two or three affairs running concurrently; in that way, he felt less involved with any particular individual.” That is what nagged at so many people who knew Isherwood, the way he consumed people without digesting them, because he had this theory of being so impersonal or objective:

There is only one protection, one hope for me. Let me strive and struggle for a certain calm, a certain balance. Let me have courage. Never, never admit one’s weakness to one’s dearest friend. The only happiness, or indeed sanity, is in a core of detachment. A vital proud core of utter utter indifference, so that one goes one’s way. In all humility, but alone.

And here is the same mood but more literary, Isherwood finding himself in a passage in Musil: For the more I think about myself, the more persuaded I am that, as a person, I really don’t exist. That is one of the reasons why—much as I’m tempted to try—I can’t believe in any orthodox religion: I cannot believe in my own soul. No, I am a chemical compound, conditioned by environment and education. My “character” is simply a repertoire of acquired tricks, my conversation is a repertoire of adaptations and echoes, my “feelings“ are dictated by purely physical, external stimuli. ... Very few people trust me, I think—and how right they are.

Parker has ample evidence of that. In 1938, the editor and publisher John Lehmann described Isherwood “sitting with his schemer’s gleam on his face, watching for signs of pleasant treachery in a flabby world.“ At much the same time Stephen Spender, an acolyte often scolded by Isherwood and depicted as a bit of an idiot, made this piercing observation about his autobiographical book Lions and Shadows: “The self-portrait could scarcely ... be more evasive. By sneering at the more self-pitying %amp% 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 humor. ... You are far more interesting, and rather more sinister in some ways, than you make out.” 

THE “TYPICALLY ENGLISH” IS at the heart of the matter. Christopher Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904 on the Cheshire estate of his grandfather. The future exile and resolute outcast was of the landed gentry class, and related to the Greene family, a sort of cousin to Graham Greene. The two men were far from close, though one of the few angles neglected by Parker is a comparison of the two writers, both hooked on movies, whose vivid writing grew out of a horror of so many things English.

Christopher’s father, Frank, a lieutenant colonel, was killed (and his body never found) at Ypres when Christopher was only nine. That left the boy and his younger brother Richard to their mother, Kathleen. There is no better way of describing Parker’s method than to outline his clear record of the ways in which Christopher wearied of his mother and her settled bourgeois character, and used her to some extent as the trigger to his homosexuality or the wall off which it was ready to bounce. But then, subtly, as the story proceeds, Parker lets another truth emerge: that the used and abused mother was decent and loving, albeit often helpless in the drab role of “Mother,” but patient, loyal, and nearly always the source of extra monies whenever Christopher got into a scrape. That means monies above and beyond the regular allowance from his uncle Henry. Parker has made splendid use of the mother’s diaries (she was like her son in pouring out her dilemmas in private pages), so we cannot overlook Kathleen being treated badly by a man whose credo was to see people for what they were, no more and no less. She learned to abide by her son’s gay life and often to subsidize it, and she had another son to look after, who was neurotically disabled and maybe an undiagnosed schizophrenic. And let us not forget Nanny. When Christopher made one of his crucial liberating trips to Germany, to get away from mother and motherland, Nanny packed his suitcase for him. Nanny was engaged in Isherwood’s infancy but kept on until he was past thirty. Sometimes the way in which this support system is referred to, but hardly noticed, is breathtaking. A time came in Christopher’s desperate attempt to keep Heinz for himself when they were living in Estoril, outside Lisbon. The German consulate found them, and delivered Heinz’s call-up papers. A lawyer could find no way out, whereupon Isherwood lamented, “Everything seemed to be slipping away down into a bottomless black drain. It is an awful moment when the absolute confidence of childhood—‘Nanny’d never let that happen to me’—is shaken.“

PARKER NEVER EXACTLY JUDGES Isherwood; it’s just that, with original diaries by the mother and the son, as well as the son’s later “literary” version, he is too scrupulous to let the discrepancies slip away. The book reveals the rather brisk way in which Isherwood often sought to “fix” or to correct his life in rewrite.

And yet Parker never lets us lose sight of the vivacity in Isherwood’s writing, or the compelling hysteria of his self-dramatization. And so we get a clear sense of Auden and Isherwood as collaborating playwrights (The Dog Beneath the Skin, 1935; The Ascent of F6, 1936; On the Frontier, 1938), and of Isherwood beginning to work as a movie scenarist, with the exiled director Berthold Viertel. The man who saw himself as an act was fascinated by stage and movie effects. What a movie it could make even now, Auden and Isherwood, schoolmates in their teens, lovers and wounding friends throughout the 1930s, playwrights in harness, and voices sneering at the England that dozed as fascist dreams built. They often lived and traveled together, not just in Europe, but in China, and then fatefully in 1939, before war had started, to America itself. They shared a lot. When Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter, needed to get out of Germany, she asked Isherwood if he would marry her to secure English papers. Christopher thought not. Mummy wouldn’t understand—even if he usually exulted in doing what Mummy didn’t grasp. So he suggested she ask Auden, and he married her. The poet and the novelist often sent joint cables together to friends, signed “Wystopher”—it’s like something out of A.A. Milne.

“ENGLAND MADE ME” IS THE first half of Parker’s book—it covers thirty-five years in 359 pages, and leaves you feeling you have lived through every hectic, exhilarating moment, even if there is a residue of shame that Isherwood keeps escaping. Of course, “escape” was the ultimate insult thrown at his removal to California as war took over Europe. As you may imagine, Isherwood fretted over whether he felt guilty or just numb. Remarkably, Parker shows how, once “away“ from his old world, much of the political apparatus of the 1930s slid off, like winter clothes in Santa Monica, and never came out of storage.

Did Isherwood become American? In so many ways, Isherwood in America relaxed, or slept—the promiscuity he could enjoy was now unlimited, though many readers may find it as boring and inconsequential as the movie work he did at several studios around town. He never really got his name on a good movie. If only he had teamed up with Hitchcock; they were both appalled by possessive mothers. Norman Bates is the kind of American Isherwood should have written about. Nor is Parker quite able to muster the necessary enthusiasm for Isherwood the Vedantan. Christopher at peace is such a boring fellow: he was most himself when edgy, guilty, and maneuvering. He could do the suntan of mysticism, but the swami soul is waiting for his mockery. Auden thought the Vedantism was mumbo-jumbo. The aged Somerset Maugham told Christopher that he’d sold out for happiness.

In 1945 he published Prater Violet, which contains brilliant analyses of the comedy and fraud in moviemaking. Then there were more conventional novels—the curiously inert The World in the Evening (1954), and maybe his best book of all, A Single Man (1964), in which there is a taut, unsentimental tone about what happens when spruceness turns autumnal. But as he ran out of new experiences, Isherwood faced the problem of inventing characters. This he did not really know how to do. He needed someone from life to take off on.

NOT EVEN A LONG REVIEW CAN properly convey the pleasures of this book. Parker writes very well, with a dry humor that brings Isherwood’s balloon to earth. Does the book deserve its length? I’m sure Parker knows how much longer it might have been. I kept promising myself that I would do some judicious skimming here and there, but I could not: Parker is too skillful for that, too faithful to the material, and to the gossipy appeal of Isherwood. The detail is immense, but I forgive it all for discoveries such as this one: that Gotz von Eick, a tall blond Jewish musician with whom Jean Ross had an affair in the early 1930s, turned into Peter van Eyck (1913-1969), an unforgettably pouty, baby-faced heavy in films such as Mr. Arkadin, The Desert Fox, and The Wages of Fear.

To look at van Eyck (imagine Peter Lorre on steroids) was to know that he had a history he was trying to forget. And acting was the modern way of doing oblivion. That’s how Harry Lime in The Third Man manages to preside over the ravaged Vienna by playing himself after death. I think that this is the answer, really—for Isherwood and his gang survived remarkable and dodgy times when Berlin was not a moveable feast but a stain of bankruptcy that threatened the world. For decades we were all guilty over that Berlin. It was a moment when gayness was first liberated amid greater threats than it has faced since. But it was also a time when moral fiction-writing had hardly begun to face the question of whether choice or loyalty means anything when you can have everyone.

Isherwood was not a camera. No one is or ever will be. But he was one of the first to feel the temptation, and to realize that the idea was so heady it appealed to liberals and fascists alike. “I was born a film fan,” he once remarked.

The cinema puts people under a microscope: you can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects. True, the behavior you see on the screen isn’t natural behavior; it is acting, and often very bad acting, too. But the acting has always a certain relation to ordinary life; and, after a short while, to an habitu like myself, it is as little of an annoyance as Elizabethan handwriting is to the expert in old documents. Viewed from this standpoint, the stupidest film may be full of astonishing revelations about the tempo and dynamics of everyday life; you see how actions look in relation to each other; how much space they occupy and how much time.

There it is, the special way in which Christopher Isherwood learned to write about the moment, and had a decade of his life so crammed and so tense with tempo it’s no wonder that he was tired or frustrated afterward. The Californian Isherwood, after all, was someone resting up from the intense dread and thrill of a movie about days and nights in Berlin.

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.