Christopher and His Kind
By: Jake Weatherill
February has dawned, the longest month of the year (not actually) has been and gone. Mornings seem a little lighter. The evenings do not feel as dark as they did before.
Oh, and it’s LGBTQ+ History Month! With that in mind I wanted to go with one of those (many, many) books that have been on my reading list for time immemorial, and because there’s no time like the present to correct a wrong. So, what is this book that I have been doing such an injustice to? Well dear reader today we’re going to be looking at Christopher Isherwood’ autobiography Christopher and His Kind.
The first time I ever came across this novel was not in fact as a book. Back in those for gone days of 2011, before it seemed like we were perpetually living in a perma-crisis. I was still a long haired, baby-faced student trudging around the campus of The University of Greenwich. Matt Smith had been the new Doctor in Doctor Who for just over a year, and I had rapidly fallen in love with his portrayal of The Doctor’s 11th incarnation. Not just because of the whimsy, and the vibe of an old man in a young mans body. To my mind Matt Smith was proving himself a sensational actor, having been convinced of his brilliance after the exceptional delivery of a Richard Curtis written monologue.
Now before this becomes a blog about Doctor Who (and I wouldn’t object to that but seeing as I meander enough when writing anyway I should probably be keeping my focus where it’s supposed to be), you’re probably wondering why I even mentioned it given that our subject is supposed to be Mr Isherwood. Well that would be because in 2011 the BBC dropped a trailer for Christopher and His Kind, starring Mr Smith as the eponymous Christopher Isherwood. Being a bit of a Smith fanboy (was it obvious?) I decided this was on my viewing list. Not only was I captivated by Smith’s performance, but I was drawn into this television movie like a fish being reeled in. I can’t even now explain why. It wasn’t just the acting, nor the fact that I had spent a significant amount of my historical studies throughout education learning about Inter War Europe with a focus on Germany.
Once it was finished, and I became aware it was a book originally, it was added to my reading list. Yet the first time I read it I struggled to really get into it. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to focus. So on the ‘To Read’ list Christopher and His Kind went. Seemingly to be forgotten or supplanted by other things that would be added.
Fast forward a decade and there I am in a meeting with my publisher of this humble blog. Given that January usually means ‘New Year/New Me’ and the such I decided that it was time to go rummaging around my room for Christopher and His Kind. If I wasn’t going to finish it in 2023, then I was never going to!
Christopher and His Kind was first published in 1976, and being Isherwood’s autobiography was markedly different from his previous works. In his latter life Isherwood felt that he had a duty to address and correct the self-censorship of his earlier works, convinced that he must be candid about the nature of his life. It seems he felt that he owed a duty to his ‘Tribe’ to dispel such misdirection (for want of a better term) and contribute to the cause of the Gay Liberation movement that had developed in the late sixties. Thus his memoirs were born, with a particular focus on his time as an emigre in Weimar Germany from 1929-1939.
Throughout the book Isherwood displays an incredible candidness about his life, from his first sexual experiences, to fights with his mother, and his escape to Berlin. In a lot of ways there’s an overriding sense of liberation throughout this autobiography. As if by lifting his own self-imposed purdah on reality Isherwood has felt long forgotten moments of his existence flooding back to him in all their glory. As such there is certainly a sense of clarity which retroactively feels absent from some of his novels (more on this later). Isherwood also has the ability as a writer to make you feel as if you’re sat at a table in The Cosy Corner, sipping German beer and listening to him regale you with exploits of his life like an old friend who you haven’t seen in ages who you really need to catch up with. Being able to build such a relationship with the readers gives Isherwood an ability to play on the emotions of the reader through his witty charm. Even though there’s the satisfying nature of feeling as if you have been revealed a secret truth, it’s important to remember that part of this book focuses on Berlin during the rise of Nazism thus also giving a dark underbelly to the tale of Isherwood’ life. There is fear as much as love in this book. A darkness to counter the light of Isherwood’ liberation.
Now, if I was to have one slight gripe it would be this. Throughout his memoirs Isherwood will often intersplice his actual lived experience with passages from his novels. This is largely done to firstly provide context to Isherwood’s life events in relation to his novels, setting out where they fit in to his timeline. Secondly though it is used to reveal the truth behind the influences in his novels. Whether it be Lions & Shadows or Goodbye to Berlin, shedding new light on which characters represent whom and what actually transpired. While I do understand why this was done in this way, I can’t help but feel that to an extent that it has a slightly detrimental impact to those novels that are being dissected. It’s like a magician revealing to you the intricacies of his tricks one after the other. They may still remain technically impressive but they lose of some of the wonder, somewhat damaging their initial charm.
However overall I feel that Christopher and His Kind is a candid, frank memoir that paints a vivid picture of Isherwood’s liberation as he embraces his sexuality in Bohemian Berlin. His ability to bring life to inter-war Berlin’s streets brings a unique element to this memoir, giving a glimpse into an often forgotten period of German history, with the years of The Weimar Republic giving way to darker days. Whether you’re a fan of Isherwood’s novels or not as an autobiography Christopher and His Kind is undoubtedly worth a read.