I read this as a teenager and don’t think I then had the cultural capital – the access to the language, tonalities, frames of reference – to understand GOODBYE TO BERLIN. It seems magnificent to me now: the characterisation, the description of places, the shifts in narration, the comedy and the critique; with Nazism structured into the stories and their ordering in the volume so that by the end they have invaded all areas of life in Berlin. I may have to revisit his other major works and see if my experience of them match my memory.
Gregory Woods has pointed out to me that this is the edition that, ‘ speaks of a “gay couple” on the back cover, which drives a steamroller over all of Isherwood’s daringly ambiguous restraint’. It is:
It is that edition and it would certainly be reductive and inaccurate to describe Otto as ‘gay’. Still that’s a problem with the production of this particular edition — which I otherwise really love; the novel feels lovely to hold — rather than the novel itself.
PS: Now reading Christopher and His KInd where Isherwood says that Mr. Norris is based on Gerald Hamilton and that ‘MR. NORRIS fails to reveal what was the most enduring bond between Gerald and Christopher, their homosexuality.’ … so my intuition wasn’t wrong.
A wonderful read; laugh-out-loud funny in places; precise and with very subtle use of what can only be called camp. It vividly evokes the politics of the era right from the beginning; the fights between the Communists and the Nazis; the violence and brutishness of the latter. Berlin in the early thirties is vividly evoked. And at the centre of it all is Mr. Norris, the scoundrel; exceedingly polite, very secretive, outgoing, vain, a charmer constantly on the look-out for that easy pot of gold, untroubled by morals or ethics. The only thing that mars it is what I see as a kind of sexual masquerade; one can imagine Mr. Norris so much more easily licking the boot of a Hans rather than an Annie as he begs to be whipped. It would also make the relationship with Schmidt much more understandable. Mr. Norris reminded me a bit of Quentin Crisp: the rouge, the nails, the exceeding politeness, the coquetry through culture; Norris is a bit more nervous and lacks the abundant hair, having to wear wigs that always end up slightly askew. But there are similarities. I once knew elderly gay gentlemen like that. Norris as heterosexual doesn’t quite convince. But it doesn’t matter really. Isherwood probably got away with as much as was then possible. Besides, the book offers so much else.
Chris & Don: A Love Story(Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007) explores the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is a film everyone who sees it will have a lot to say about: the thirty-year difference in age; the enormous gap in social class; the equally wide gap in artistic achievement.
Both Isherwood and Bachardy were seminal figures in the Gay Liberation Movement of my youth and I felt I knew quite a bit about them: Isherwood, the left-wing, upper-class, pacifist, pal of Auden, the author of Goodbye Berlin,Isherwood and His Kind, I Am A Camera and A Single Man; Bachardy, the fashionable portraitist of Souther California’s most modish, famous and talented; both at the very the centre of a group of artists that included Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Hockney and so famous for their salons that George Cukor set the beginning of Rich and Famous at a party in their Santa Monica house; an out gay couple when there were no others and iconic for having the courage to be so.
However, I had never heard Don Bachardy’s voice and I was startled by it here. Why does a California native speak like an aristocratic Englishman?: that tone, that accent, that manner. A Queen is free to choose who s/he wants to be but the choice made is not without significance. He’s clearly submerged himself into his idea of Isherwood; his ideal way of being is that which Isherwood represented to him. Love, self-hatred, snobbery, fandom (and Bachardy liked to insert himself in the pictures of the movie stars he so worshipped) surely all played a role in such a choice. The film offers so much to think about and say, with perhaps very little that is good or enhances one’s appreciation of what they once represented.I at first found myself a little judgmental but then concluded that we each imagine and try to construct a way of being and a way of loving. Theirs worked much better than most.
Isherwood looks hale, avuncular, kind and patient throughout. Bachardy looks like a very young underage boy in the earliest of the gorgeous fifties colour footage we get to see, someone trying too hard to look young in the later footage, later still, someone whose subsumed their very being into that of another; when we see him talking to his brother, it’s like people from two worlds speaking across different cultures and bridging that gap with love, care and affection.
In letters and notes, Isherwood paints himself as an old pack horse; Bachardy is the mewling cat; they obviously loved each other very much; and like all gay couples then, invented what it meant to have a loving relationship for themselves. Isherwood’s Diaries, exhausting in their precision, perfection, and constancy are nonetheless very good at evoking this developing relationship in social contexts long gone and sometimes hard for us to imagine. What the film has to offer that one can’t get from the Diaries is the home movies. They show a lost world of sea voyages to glamorous European capitals. Their colours alone, the product of now disappeared film stock, evoke a lost word. They also afford the sight of the home in which so much took place, friendly but not usually open to guests like us, and of course the voices.
Isherwood/Bachardy meant a lot at a time when even a firmly shut closet door didn’t keep out the ill-wind of homophobia and it took guts to be out much less proud: few ventured to be open about gay relationships. There was always something touching about a couple’s desperate search for domesticity of the most basic and complacent kind being branded the worst kind of outlaws by society and all its structures of control, like insisting on living out an idea of sharing food when they’re sending drones out to bomb someone for making an omelette.
The fact that their relationship was seen to be so long-lasting was held up as a role model and somehow validating of gay relationships. They helped change the focus of the discussion from sex to love. The truth is always more complex than any attempt to represent it. I’m sure Isherwood/Bachardy will remain significant — Cabaret will go on ensuring that the writer of its original source material will be remembered; A Single Man might also add gloss to the shine of his reputation; Isherwood will carry on being one of the most celebrated of 20th-Century writers; the couple will carry on signifying, albeit perhaps differently, they will continue to mean a lot to future generations of gay men; they will continue to discomfort; and this film certainly adds to our knowledge.
Bette Davis — shown here fat in the fifties in one of those photographs Bachardy used to insert himself in and get celebrities to autograph later — once said that old age isn’t for sissies. But my lasting image of this film is that of an old sissy,colour-co-ordinated from tip to toe, riding out to the Farmer’s marker with a crew film behind him, and enjoying every moment of it and of where his life had brought him to; being brave about a lot of things, not least acknowledging his wants; and living them out with a few tears, panache and a great deal of love.
I installed Now TV, Google Chromecast and also subscribed to Netflix last week so much of my cultural consumption this week has been spent trying to explore their offerings. I very much enjoyed seeing Ballet 422 in which Justin Peck, a member of New York City Ballet’s ‘corps de ballet’ is chosen to choreograph a new work. The series follows Peck from the moment he starts his choreography to the moment the work is premiered at Lincoln Centre.
I find ballet glamorous and moving in its idealisation of art in posh settings. Here are all these young people, totally committed, totally absorbed, totally disciplined; sacrificing their youth, their beauty, their health and most likely their future earning power for art in full knowledge that even the very best in the world can mostly only expect to eke out a living in that milieu for a few years, that that form is ephemeral and disappears at the very moment of enactment, and that only the rich or the fanatically committed have access to that art they serve. At the end of Ballet 422 there’s a moment when Peck is in front of the house with the audience — proud Mom by his side — as he thrills to see his work onstage; then as soon as the houselights dim, he dashes backstage, changes into costume, and joins all the other background dancers onstage for the next ballet, ego submerged, the collective over the individual, always part of a company, now back to anonymity within it. I found it moving.
I also loved seeing Hollywood: Singing and Dancing on Sky Arts, a thirteen-episode history of film musicals narrated by Shirley Jones. It’s one of those series that not only has clips from the main figures — Garland, Astaire, Chevalier etc– but also includes delicious rare clips from B musicals featuring the likes of The Andrew Sisters and the Big Bands and Peggy Lee; the filmmakers prove very knowledgeable. All styles of the genre are well represented and the long form means the series is luxuriously peppered with glorious numbers. It’s also great to see Mickey Rooney’s appreciation of Eleanor Powell, hear why Leslie Caron didn’t like Busby Berkeley musicals (all the strict formations reminded her of the Nazis) and hear Shirley MacLaine’s views on Maurice Chevalier, whom she worked with on Can-Can with Frank Sinatra and Louis Jourdan: ‘’Chevalier was a supreme narcissist. He knew who he was; jeez he never forgot it. He was Mr. France and knew it but after all he *was* Chevalier. I liked him very much’.
Supergirl is the reason I subscribed to Now TV: I was so eager to see it! And I so wanted to like it. It’s perhaps the most overtly feminist series on television ever. It’s got a female superhero with a sister who in spite of not having super-powers also does daring things. They look after each other. Jimmy Olson is now black. It’s got Calista Flockhart doing a Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and in fine form…and yet. I didn’t quite get into Arrow either though I haven’t fully given that a chance yet. Likewise the few episodes of The Flash I have seen doesn’t tempt me to see more. Perhaps I’m now too old for this kind of thing. And ye, as i’ve written here previously, I happily sat through the whole first series of Daredevil….
The best of the comic-book connected series that I saw last week was Jessica Jones on Netflix on which more later…