The Myths of Christopher Isherwood

Most of Christopher Isherwood’s novels are autobiographical. Many are narrated by someone named either Christopher Isherwood or William Bradshaw. Despite this, Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood—the name he was given at birth in 1904—was in some ways the least egocentric of novelists. The narrator who shares his name seems almost invisible, merely a hole in the air. All the other characters, who reveal their secrets to him while asking nothing in return, are physically real and emotionally larger than life. The rogue and double agent Mr. Norris in Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), the bohemian chanteuse Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), the titanic film director Friedrich Bergmann in Prater Violet (1945), the dissolute archaeologist Ambrose and male courtesan Paul in Down There on a Visit (1962), and, in Isherwood’s fictionalized memoir Lions and Shadows (1938), the eccentric Hugh Weston, modeled on W.H. Auden, are all flamboyantly themselves, while “Christopher Isherwood” scarcely exists at all.

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Bettmann/Corbis
Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in London on their departure for China, 1938

In his nonfictional memoirs, Isherwood writes about himself as if he were not a single person but a disconnected sequence of persons. In Kathleen and Frank (1971) and Christopher and His Kind (1976) he writes about his present-day self in the first person, as “I,” and his younger self in the third person, as “Christopher.” Even his present self is less an individual than a generic member of a collective tribe—the gay tribe of Christopher and His Kind—or the replaceable occupant of a social role, as he describes himself in the title My Guru and His Disciple (1980). To an editor who met him infrequently, he seemed a different person each time.

He reported to a friend in 1939, “I am so utterly sick of being a person.” He was already, in private, convinced that he wasn’t one. “As a person, I really don’t exist,” he told his diary in 1938:

That is one of the reasons why 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 a repertoire of adaptations and echoes, my “feelings” are dictated by purely physical, external stimuli.

In 1939, after leaving England for America, he took up Vedanta, a religion he had never heard of earlier. Journalists and friends imagined that he had experienced a conversion to new values and a new sense of himself. In fact, he had adopted a religion that, unlike the cradle-Christianity he was reared in, confirmed what he already believed, that his personality was an illusion from which he must escape.

Introducing a collection titled Vedanta for the Western World (1945), he envisioned “all the teachers and prophets” telling him: “Christopher Isherwood is only an appearance…. He has no essential reality.” A few years before his death in 1986 he told an interviewer …

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