Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in the 1930s. Isherwood writes that Auden "once told me, almost admiringly, that I was the cruellest and most unscrupulous person he had ever met." Ah, gay friendships!
What is it?
It’s a memoir, first published in 1976.
So, who is Christopher’s “kind”?
Gay men, basically. Or, as he calls us early in the memoir, “the tribe.”
Any of us in particular?
Well, one imagines he could have written about many, because he doesn’t seem to have had any trouble attracting sexual partners. And the memoir covers the years 1929 to 1939, when he was aged 25 to 35, so … you can put two and two together. But the principal members of the tribe that he talks about here are W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and E.M. Forster—so, a panoply of great gay/bi English writers—as well as his main boyfriend in the 1930s, Heinz.
It’s not just a recounting of successive sexual encounters, is it? That can make for dreary reading.
Not at all, although I did find the first part of the book a tad dreary at times, as he talks about his early life in Berlin. Isherwood goes to great pains to outline the differences between his novels about this period (such as Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin) and the real-life people and incidents the novels are based on, but as I haven’t read any of those books, I wasn’t that interested.
But the second half of the book becomes quite exciting, after the Nazis assume power in Germany and he and his boyfriend Heinz have to keep moving around Europe in an attempt to stay ahead of the authorities.
Christopher Isherwood is a huge figure in twentieth-century gay life. Does this book contain valuable insights or understanding about gay men?
It certainly does, although perhaps less than I’d expected. Isherwood comes across as a somewhat narcissistic, shallow, petulant and lazy man at times (he’s pretty honest in his self-appraisals, I must say), and he’s not given to great flights of philosophy. His manner can be charmingly straightforward or irritatingly flip. But the book does offer fascinating glimpses into a whole community of men (Christopher and his kind) living gay lives in 1930s Europe. It even includes a first-hand account of Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute of sexuality in Berlin. And overall, the memoir stands as an account of one man’s journey from living “as though the tribe didn’t exist and homosexuality were a private way of life discovered by himself and a few friends” (as he says near the beginning of the book) to a consciousness of the place of his loving kind in a turbulent world.
So it was worth it in the end?
Absolutely. It’s easy reading (a bit too easy sometimes), and pleasant. It’s just nice to read an author, particularly one of his generation, talk so openly about the physical attractions of men, masturbation (“I cannot recommend masturbation too highly”), gossipy, emotional, bitchy gay guys, and, movingly, about the intersection of personal sexuality and politics.
Are you going to give this a star (using the Michelin system)?
Two?! Frankly, you didn’t sound all that convinced by this book.
I do have misgivings about it, it’s certainly no masterpiece, but ultimately it is a very important memoir by a major figure in gay history, and as such should be read by members of the tribe.
Ours and Christopher’s, yes.