Twenty years ago I found myself cast in the show Cabaret. I knew of it, of course, having heard the music from the score, and having seen the film version with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Gray…and had learned that there was a (non-musical) film based upon the story called ‘I Am A Camera’ with Julie Harris in the lead.
What I didn’t have any experience with as yet was the source material – The Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood.
I have dubbed this section of my blog as ‘out of print’ authors, and I am pretty confident that many of Isherwood’s works are out of print and therefore can be a bit of a challenge to find. Truth be told, I’ve not looked for a brand new Isherwood book in a store for years. I own much of his catalogue in hardback, snatched from the coffers of used book stores here and there over the years, devoured as I went along, and worth every penny and every moment spent to read them.
Isherwood, born in the UK in 1904, emigrated to the United States in 1939 when he was already an established author and playwright, as well as mentor to other authors and poets. During his early adult years he traveled extensively in Europe and China as well as a trip to the United States prior to settling in California and becoming an American citizen in 1946.
Isherwood then spent the remainder of his life chronicling his experiences, from early childhood through his adult years (as well as working on travel diaries, plays, and non-fiction works about a religious monastic order called the Ramakrishna) which provided the source material for his fiction works and his autobiographical offerings, with each being equally as enjoyable and fascinating as the other. Much of Isherwood’s fiction can be then deconstructed and deciphered as to his motivation and perspicacity for the fictional works by reading its non-fiction counterpart or what, where, and who Isherwood ‘was’ at the time he wrote it or not long before. His inspiration for his novels is more than just largely drawn from his own experiences.
Admittedly (which may surprise some) I’ve not yet read The Berlin Stories. That said, I have indulged in PLENTY of his other books – The Memorial, The World In The Evening, Down There On A Visit, A Single Man, Christopher And His Kind, Lions And Shadows, and My Guru And His Disciple amongst them – and still have more to go, such as Prater Violet, A Meeting By The River, All The Conspirators, The Mortmere Stories, and Kathleen and Frank – as well as his collaborative novels written with other authors, his letters and diaries, and much, much more. To begin to read Isherwood is to find yourself with a treasure trove of material to select from. There are also, for the diligent, articles he wrote over a series of years between 1943 and 1969.
Isherwood is, to me, one of the best examples of ‘autobiography as fiction’ writers that the twentieth century is to be credited with. Less drug and drink addled than Kerouac, less oversexed than Miller, but every bit as enjoyable to read. While it might be challenging to try to find some of the works listed above, they are all (and I mean all) worth pursuing if you try one and find that you like his style. Many (if not most or all) of his books can be found on Amazon, of course, but I highly recommend the giddy feeling of finding him in a used book store somewhere between Washington Irving and James Joyce in the literature section and slowly collecting and savoring his work over time.
There are also books about Isherwood (none that I can say I’ve read personally) which give greater insight into a man hailed as one of the best writers of his time.
He may be out of print (possibly) in brand new copies – but Isherwood and his observations of his education, life, and experiences are never out of style.