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Santa Monica CityWide Reads: Christopher Isherwood


Kudos to Susan Annett, of the Santa Monica Public Library in her latest staging of the Citywide Reads program highlighting the centenary tribute to Christopher Isherwood, author of The Berlin Stories. If you did not know of or have not yet taken advantage of this unique community literary opportunity, now is your chance. This month is a doozie. If you are not in the area, follow along online.  


April 19, 2004

BookBuffet attended the first lecture at the Montana Avenue Branch Library in Santa Monica (CA) and came away informed and enthused.  The fusion of literary tribute, scholarly academic attention, and homage to the period's art was brilliant. For any of you who live, work, visit or go to school in Santa Monica, this month’s promotion is a fabulous introduction to your new social life in a community of interested readers. For those who cannot join in the festivities, follow the program online or check the links listed at the end of this article for events listed in other communities.


The first speaker was Sue Hodson, curator at the Huntington Library (Pasadena, CA). She has mounted an exhibit titled "Christopher Isherwood: A Writer and His World" scheduled June 12 through October 3. Her talk was a sensitive biographical introduction to the author, as gleaned from the over 300 letters and papers in the Huntington's collection from notables such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. I’m sure many of you will be surprised to know Isherwood’s role as friend, lover, and critic factored so hugely as an influence on Auden and the editing of his poetry. Their personal letters exchange a wealth of literary insight and mentorship that is remarkable and illuminating. 


Sue’s slide presentation showed which real life personalities became the characters in Isherwood’s novels: the blunt nosed Gerald Hamilton was inspiration for Mr. Norris, and the enigmatic Gene Ross becomes Sally Bowles, perhaps better known to the general public as portrayed by Liza Minnelli in the film version of his book, Cabaret.(Winner of 8 Academy Awards in 1972, one of the stars of the classic film, Michael York, is speaking at some of the upcoming CityWide Read events.)


Sue traced Isherwood’s life from a student at Cambridge in Britain, to his years of personal and sexual discovery in pre-WWII avant-garde Berlin, and finally to his self-satisfied and productive life in Santa Monica as an author and screenwriter-in-the-sunshine. This latter period, marked by his developing spiritualism and his dedication to his art with unfliching honesty and truth, culminated in his last and possibly best work, A Single Man.


The second speaker, Tim Benson,  came to illuminate the place and period of Berlin with examples of art by such painters as Max Beckman with his New Objectivity and Otto Dix’s Expressionism. (Expression, which reflected visual outward descriptions of inner psychological states, was a  movement that mirrored the dissillusionment after WWI with bitter realism.) We were shown the famous Adalon Hotel and Eldorado Lounge in black and white photography taken from the vantage of the Brandenburg Gates looking down onto the strasses. We learned the pivotal role of the cabarets, which were magnets to free-basing German social stratifications of transvestites, gays, and tourists as well as budding artistic luminaries escaping the moral confines of England, including Auden and Francis Bacon, who were mixing to the jazz rhythms so representative of freedom from structure and convention.


The third and final presenter in the lecture series was Carola Kaplan, recently retired from the Califronia State University (Pamona) English department. Her talk was titled "Isherwood and Hollywood: Where the Wandering Stopped". Here Carola somewhat lost the audience initially with her complex analysis of the author's work as reflecting a move from his “I am a Camera” viewpoint in his early stories to a more profound change and commitment reflective of his own personal journey into spiritualism and Yoga, and the fulfilling relationships in his later years from 1939-1986 to his death. We see a more whole, peaceful man, whose philosophy, “all work has equal value,” allowed him to exert as much effort into his screen writing career in Hollywood (including The Loved One—originally by Evelyn Waugh) as other writing and aspects of his life. In the end Kaplan provided a scholarly and personal connection to the work that was well received.


Christopher Isherwood's Works












Goodbye to Berlin: First published in 1939, the novel evokes the gathering storm of Berlin before and during the rise to power of the Nazis. Events are seen through the eyes of various individuals whose lives are about to be ruined.


A Single Man: When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. Anthony Burgess called it "A testimony to Isherwood's undiminished brilliance as a novelist."


Prater Violet: "Prater Violet, in my view, is one of the best short novels in English written in this century." Stanley Kauffman


The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood edited by Edward Mendelson. This collection gathers eight plays (four written in collaboration with Isherwood) along with several pieces for film, cabaret, and radio. Nearly all the material has long been out of print; some has never been published before.


The Isherwood Century, edited by James J. Berg  and Chris Freeman with an inroduction by Armisted Maupin. This rich resource of personal reminiscence and considered critical reflection is the next best thing to a biography of Isherwood. It may even become one of the essential books for students of English literature and culture in the 20th century.


Links and Resources


International Movie Database Website: filmography of all of Isherwood's works.


Gay filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim has made over 50 films, including the 1999 feature about the gay Jewish sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) who began the effort to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany. Nicknamed the "Einstein of Sex" he was all but erased by Nazi Germany. Praunheim's film of the same name is, according to reviewer Kurt Von Berhrman, essential viewing—despite substandard production values—as an art film evocative of the era and the man.

by Paula Shackleton



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