These days Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) is probably remembered mostly as the author of the novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) which was adapted into a play I Am a Camera and also a film of that name, and then the musical Cabaret.
Goodbye to Berlin was based on Isherwood's experiences living in Berlin in the early 1930s, but in that novel (and in a memoir published later) he masked certain aspects of his life and his motivations in visiting Berlin during this time. By the 1970s, times had changed sufficiently for Isherwood to be much more open about himself, and the result is the fascinating memoir Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939, published in 1976. Here Isherwood reveals that he went to Berlin for the relatively open gay social life in that era. The book expands from that into a portrait of Isherwood's circle of English gay literati and his travels throughout Europe and around the world.
From the opening pages, Isherwood uses an interesting narrative technique: He refers to his 1970s self with first person pronouns, but to his 1920s and 1930s self with the name Christopher, sometimes switching back and forth in the same sentence:
Christopher's first visit to Berlin was short—a week or ten days—but that was sufficient; I now recognize it as one of the decisive events of my life. I can still make myself faintly feel the delicious nausea of initiation terror which Christopher felt as Wystan pushed back the heavy leather door curtain of a boy bar called the Cosy Corner and led the way inside. (p. 3)
It's a useful technique that allows the older man to comment on, to second guess, and to sometimes disapprove of his younger self.
Wystan is the poet W.H. Auden, who was a longtime friend of Isherwood's; the memoir tells of several collaborations during this time, including a late-30s trip to China that resulted in a book. Also making many appearances in Christopher and His Kind is the poet and novelist Stephen Spender. Towards the end of the book, even Virginia Woolf makes a cameo appearance.
Although homosexual activities weren't exactly legal during the time Isherwood lived in Berlin in the waning years of the Weimar Republic, there was certainly much toleration. Indeed,
in 1929, the Reichstag Committee had finished drafting a penal-reform bill. According to this bill, consensual sex acts between adult males would no longer be crimes... The bill had been presented to the Reichstag and seemed likely to be passed into law. Then, in October, came the U.S. Stock Market crash, causing a period of panic and indecision in Europe which was unfavorable to reform of any kind. (p. 19)
When the Nazis gained power in 1933, an oppressive clampdown began that targetted not only Jewish-owned businesses but the gay bars as well. Interestingly, a similar change was occuring in the Soviet Union: Since 1917 the sexual rights of the individual had been recognized, only to be withdrawn in 1934 under Stalin's government. (p. 334).
The figure of E.M. Forster hovers over the memoir like a godfather, and Isherwood meets him in 1932 in a "tremendous encounter":
It was tremendous for Christopher. Forster was the only living writer whom he would have described as his master. In other people's books he found examples of style which he wanted to imitate and learn from. In Forster he found a key to the whole art of writing. The Zen masters of archery—of whom, in those days, Christopher had never heard—start by teaching you the mental attitude which which you must pick up the bow. A Forster novel taught Christopher the mental attitude which which he must pick up the pen.
By the time Christopher and His Kind was published, Forster had died (in 1970 at the age of 91) and the whole world knew of his novel Maurice, which was written in 1913-1914 but not published until after Forster's death. In 1933 Forster gave Isherwood a typescript of the novel to read and Isherwood describes his wonder of Forster "imprisoned within the jungle of pre-war prejudice, putting these unthinkable thoughts into words." Forster asked,
quite humbly, how Maurice appeared to a member of the thirties generation. "Does it date?" Forster was asking. To which Christopher, I am proud to say, replied "Why shouldn't it date?" This was wise and true as well as encouraging, and it cheered Forster greatly. He told Christopher so in a subsequent letter. (p. 126)
In 1932 in Berlin, Isherwood had met a young man named Heinz, who become his first true love. As the novel progresses toward the end of the decade, Christopher and Heinz are living and travelling together outside of Germany. When the inevitable war gets closer and Heinz becomes eligible for conscription, it becomes increasingly urgent that Heinz should find someway to avoid returning to Germany. Many avenues are pursued, and lawyers and officials consulted, and money spent, all to let Heinz become a citizen of another country. As Heinz's prospects drop away one by one, there is an authentic frantic suspense here that is rather rare in memoirs.
Of course, Christopher and His Kind is also peppered with some wonderful anecdotes. In 1938, Isherwood and Auden visited Egypt:
Wystan and Christopher were disappointed in the pyramids. They looked messy and quite new; like the tip heaps of a quarry, Wystan said. But they were staggered by the Sphinx. It seemed so alive, so horribly injured, so malign. A passenger on the Aramis had told them that the ancient Egyptians must have psychically foreseen the future importance of America to the rest of the world; that was why they had placed the Sphinx facing westward. Back on the ship, a few days later, Wystan wrote a poem which declared that the Sphinx is "gazing for ever towards shrill America." But then both he and Christopher were troubled by doubts. Did the Sphinx face westward? Strangely enough, neither of them could remember. Finally—after their return to London—Wystan asked someone at the Egyptian embassy. With the result that his revised version of the poem reads: "Turning / a vast behind on shrill America." (p. 297)
A year later, Isherwood and Auden left England for the United States, and Christopher and His Kind ends when Isherwood is about to embark in the country in which he then lived for the rest of his life.