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On this day in history in 1986, died Christopher Isherwoood.
Isherwood was a novelist and playwright, best known for his novels concerning Berlin society in the 1930s.
Isherwood was born in Stockport, Cheshire of well-to-do parents. He was educated at St Edmund’s School, where he became a friend of W H Auden, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Unhappy with his upper-class existence and fearful of the consequences of his homosexuality being discovered, Isherwood left for Berlin, which had a reputation for bohemian manners and sexual liberation.
At Berlin, Isherwood worked as a tutor, whilst writing the trilogy known as The Berlin Stories. These works depicted the degenerate German capital in the aftermath of the First World War. An unusual feature of Isherwood’s prose is the viewpoint of the author who states ‘I am a camera with its shutters open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’. The characters, which the camera observes, live squalid yet interesting lives oblivious of the growing Nazi movement, which threatens their tranquil existence.
The trilogy became immensely popular, partly because it correctly forecast the rise of Nazism in Germany and its horrendous consequences and partly because of the naïve but likeable characters who appear on the pages. The trilogy inspired I Am A Camera, a play and then a film and Cabaret, firstly a musical and then a film.
What is not so well known about Isherwood’s work is that it is designed to be read at different levels of meaning. Isherwood was not able to give a true record of his homosexual encounters in Berlin, due to the censorship laws of the time. The charming frivolous characters, on which Cabaret is based, are metaphors for the factual individuals with whom Isherwood had relationships. The vain and giddy Natalie and the irrepressible Sally Bowles on Isherwood’s pages are the men that he encountered in the seamy German capital. The musical and film, Cabaret, is therefore based on a false assumption. Perhaps it should be renamed Charade.
Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin.
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