Christopher and His Kind

I've loved Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin ever since I first read it as a teenager, I probably saw the film of Cabaret around the same time, and loved that too. Although both film and book are based on Isherwood's own experiences of 1930's Berlin, they are not purely autobiographical - events have been changed, characters conflated or altered, and certainly in respect of Isherwood's own sexuality greatly changed. So, in a way, Christopher and his kind is the "true" story behind Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin.
This is Isherwood's most honest account of his life in the 1930's. As a practicing homosexual, he felt constrained by life in England, and moved to Berlin, to a city which felt freer, and where he could meet boys. And at first the city did feel remarkably free, a city whose nightlife was in direct competition with Paris, and was determined to become ever more decadent. It also felt free politically, communism appeared to be becoming ever more popular, and as a fellow traveller, if not a committed communist, Isherwood enjoyed living there politically too.

Incidentally this made an interesting comparison with my previous read - Child 44. There is a section in Tom Rob Smith's novel in which the hero unwittingly starts a police purge of homosexuals. This would have been unthinkable to Christopher Isherwood, for in the 1930's the Soviet Union was one of the few countries in which homosexuality was not illegal.

Gradually however life in Berlin changes, fascism gains the upper hand, and it becomes increasingly more difficult and dangerous to be a homosexual there. Isherwood's relationship with his long-term partner Heinz is threatened and they move across Europe trying desperately to find some way to prevent Heinz's return to Germany.

The story is compelling and fascinating, peopled with a who's who of literati of the early 20th century (W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, John and Beatrix Lehman, Virginia and Leonard Woolf). It also charts the slide towards totalitarianism and war from an interesting perspective.

When I saw the BBC adaptation of Christopher and his kind recently, it mentioned that Isherwood had met up with Heinz (now happily married with a son) after the war, they had remained friends until this book was published, but after that never made contact again. It's hard to see why. Isherwood is sometimes rather patronising towards Heinz, but his love and loyalty to him shine through. A fascinating account, of especial interest to anyone who has loved Isherwood's Berlin books.


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