Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ich bin ein Berliner

It's been a bit of a journey getting through it, but I finished Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical Christopher and His Kind, covering his life from 1929-1939, although technically the book ends in January of 1939 as he and W H Auden sail into New York City. But still, it's a decade spent partly in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party and around Europe and Asia.

We start with Christopher's arrival in Berlin, and his search for someone who can fulfill his fantasy of the "foreign boy". Which I'm not particularly kidding about. In a change from his fiction, here, the author is being honest about his homosexuality and how it propelled him through life. He describes in detail about how finding a boy who could be GERMANY in the avatar of a lover appealed to him, and so he met Bubi at one of the local dives. (There are a few long passages that precede this meeting discussing why the author didn't ever feel particularly comfortable in the UK practicing his homosexuality, and a few glimpses of college encounters ridden with guilt. It's a bit like reading Brideshead Revisited.)

Anyway, his romance with Bubi doesn't last long, particularly when Christopher's German improves, ruining the fantasy. H does move in with Frl. Schroeder, which is much like what''s described in Berlin Stories. Here though, she's a bigger than life character, one who doesn't care what happens under her roof as long as no one gets hurt. He talks of going back to Berlin later in life and visiting with her, hearing what happened to her during and after the war, as she lived in West Berlin.

He, as in the above mentioned book, does move in to the slummish attic with Otto and his family, although here we find out that it was not due to financial difficulties, but because he and Otto were shacking up. His description of his relationship with Otto is a bit odd, since to the author, it revolved around dominance and submission, with both trying to achieve the upper hand with the other. Or as described, Christopher gave Otto money and gifts, or Otto started looking elsewhere for attention.

As life in Berlin proceeds ever downward (Isherwood leaves right about the time Hitler gained the Chancellorship), we see the real people who populated Isherwood's Berlin books. Gerald, the lawyer who in time became Mr. Norris; Joan, who became Sally Bowles; and several students who had their own roles to play, some of whom survive, some of whom don't. We hear of the fighting in the streets between the three major political factions (those behind the current government, those backing the Nazis, and those who thing the Bolsheviks had it right and Germany needed to become a Communist nation), and how most of this is overlooked by the police.

He does meet and fall in love with Heinz, who becomes his constant companion throughout life out of Germany. So about 1933 to 1937ish. This includes stays in Belgium, Portugal, Greece, and France, but never in Christopher's homeland.  This is due to problems with Heinz's passport, which lists his occupation as something akin to domestic help. When Christopher tries to get Heinz into England, he's not allowed in, since Christopher's rather bourgeois family would unlikely need a foriegn houseboy. Christopher and Auden complain that it's likely because the border agent knew Christopher was Heinz's lover because the guard was also homosexual.

That love affair eventually falls apart, as Heinz's attempts to change his citizenship keeps running into issues, and Hitler starts conscription. Eventually, forced to return to Germany for what's supposed to be a night, Heinz is arrested by the Gestapo.

Thankfully, Isherwood passes on that Heinz did indeed survive the war, and even ended up marrying a woman and having kids. Which isn't exactly a happy ending, but it certainly beats the heck out of the fates of others arrested under Paragraph 175.

While this relationship was the focus of much of the book, Heinz's fate is revealed with about a fourth of the book left to go. Which leaves us with Isherwood and Auden going to Asia to cover the Japanese invasion of China, and their eventual immigration to the US. Where Isherwood leaves us with a bonne mot about how his future lover was only 4 years old when Isherwood made it to the States.

This book was not exactly what I expected. Based on what I'd heard from others, I was expecting most of it to be set in Berlin, and Heinz to be more of a focus of the narrative. Neither of which is true. Then again, Isherwood leaves Berlin in 1933 and Heinz is arrested in the late 30's.

Early passages in the book, describing his realizations of his queerness echoed back to my own early coming out, trying to find a personal mythology to explain why the heck I was so different than everyone else around me.

One of the things that becomes quite clear after the Reichstag fire is that those who could, left Germany. Those who couldn't, stayed. And in the case of the landlady, had to perform enough lip service to the Reich to survive, even if she did vote Communist in the prior election. Something that we, here in the modern era, seem to forget when looking back at it. It also makes Max and Elsa a smidgen more sympathetic in The Sound of Music when they sing "No Way to Stop It".

I'm also kind of amazed by his account of Chamberlain's role in the Munich Agreement, or the Munich Diktat, depending on how one feels about appeasement. Isherwood makes it sound like Chamberlain knew he's failed. Then again, he also says the communist leader at the meeting was probably the only one who openly opined the entire thing was farcical.

About the only thing that really got on my nerves through the first part was his tendency to refer to himself in third person when discussing the past, while using first person when recalling various things in what was his present. It took a lot of getting used to, plus the occasional reference to his eventual conversion to Hinduism.

Really though, Isherwood's tale reminded me most of the character of James Whale (himself a real person) as portrayed by Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters. Then again, both men were of a similar age and similar class backgrounds.

While I enjoyed the book, I doubt this will be one I revisit all that often. If only because a few things in here, particularly when he gets self destructive, made me want to reach into the story and smack some sense into him. (I mean this figuratively.)