Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Isherwood on Writing

Isherwood on Writing

Christopher Isherwood
Edited by James J. Berg
Foreword by Claude J. Summers
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 296
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Isherwood on Writing
    Book Description:

    In the 1960s, Christopher Isherwood gave a series of lectures at California universities. During this time Isherwood, who would liberate the memoir and become the founding father of modern gay writing, spoke openly for the first time about his craft—on writing for film, theater, and novels—and on spirituality. Isherwood on Writing brings these public addresses together to reveal a distinctly—and surprisingly—American Isherwood.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6105-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xvi)
    Claude J. Summers

    The lectures that Christopher Isherwood delivered at California universities in the late 1950s and early 1960s are fascinating on a number of levels. Reading them fifty years after they were originally delivered is to observe an accomplished and versatile artist in the process of evolving. It is also to feel acutely—through their reticences and euphemisms—the constraints he felt then at speaking openly about homosexuality even at liberal universities before congenial audiences. The lectures offer us a valuable glimpse into a thoughtful writer’s literary strategies and theories at a pivotal moment in his life, a time when he is...

  4. Editor’s Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction: The American Isherwood
    (pp. 1-34)
    James J. Berg

    So begins a lecture Christopher Isherwood gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in April 1963. In addition to describing his intentions and methods for the lectures, his statement reveals more than public modesty. He is excusing the members of his audience from having read many of his works, as any author might do in such circumstances, but his broad disclaimer also suggests that his standing in the academic community, invited lecturer or not, was in question. In talking at a university in 1963, Isherwood could not be assured that his audience had even heard of his work, much less...

  6. Part I. A Writer and His World, 1960

    • [Part I: Introduction]
      (pp. 37-41)

      Christopher Isherwood started lecturing at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1960 with the title of his lecture series given to him by the university: “A Writer and His World.” The series is a thematic discussion of his work and his life, beginning with “Influences.” The next two lectures (“Why Write at All?” and “What Is the Nerve of Interest in the Novel?”) address general questions of the novelist’s work. The series continues with topics that Isherwood felt uniquely qualified to comment on, given his own work as a writer: “A Writer and the Theater,” “A Writer and the...

    • Influences
      (pp. 42-51)

      Many years ago now there used to be a poster which I very much liked—it was seen all over Los Angeles—advertising that famous cemetery, Forest Lawn. The poster showed a charming elderly lady, very well preserved, with attractively fixed silver hair and obviously in the best of health, who was saying, “It’s better at Forest Lawn. I speak from experience.” Just how this experience had been obtained fascinated me. But this is my slogan, for better or worse: I speak from experience.

      In the nineteenth century people were very fond of having influences in their lives, and when...

    • Why Write at All?
      (pp. 52-63)

      Last time I talked about the influences which worked upon a particular writer, myself, and, in describing these influences, I went into a certain amount of autobiography. I ended up by speaking about a kind of person whom I called the Outsider (as opposed to the Insiders), that’s to say, somebody who realizes consciously that he belongs to a minority, and, of course, every one of us does in one way or the other. But, the Cooperative Outsider tries to regard this role as socially constructive. In other words, not merely to go along with his Insiders, his brothers under...

    • What Is the Nerve of Interest in the Novel?
      (pp. 64-72)

      My talk today is probably going to be the most unsatisfactory in the series, because what I’m going to try to do is to a certain extent attempt to define that which cannot be defined, that is, what actually makes a novel vital, alive, good—great, if you want to use the word, which I rather dislike. Anyway, the question arises always: how can one get down to the nerve of the novel? What is the nerve of the interest? A friend of mine, a British painter named Francis Bacon, told me once that when he painted he was always...

    • What Is the Nerve of Interest in the Novel? (continued)
      (pp. 73-83)

      This week’s talk and last week’s talk are the only two that are kind of closely connected together, and for that reason I must recapitulate very briefly what I said last time. I said that I was going to attempt the very difficult task of trying to define what it is that makes for greatness, or supreme vitality, in the novel. And I quoted a saying of Robert Louis Stevenson: “True realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poet: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice . . . For to miss the joy is...

    • A Writer and the Theater
      (pp. 84-98)

      Today I am going to talk about the theater, and my dabblings in it. I say dabblings in relation to the theater, because, as a matter of fact, I have never really been totally involved in any theatrical production. Although some people refer to me as a playwright, there isn’t any play that I ever wrote the whole of, except for one play, my very first, at the age of about six or seven.¹ This play anticipated Somerset Maugham by being calledThe Letter. Only it was calledLa Lettre, and it was entirely written in French. The plot of...

    • A Writer and the Films
      (pp. 99-113)

      Today I’m going to talk about “A Writer and the Films.” This is a companion piece to my talk “A Writer and the Theater,” and I must recall a few of the things that I said then. I suggested that the art of the theater is based, to some extent, on the fact that the actors and the audience are together in a box—a place of confinement—and that the story of a play, among all the other things it is, is the story of how at the end of it everybody is going to be released from that...

    • A Writer and Religion
      (pp. 114-129)

      Religion is a vague word that immediately needs to be defined because what I’m going to deal with is the figure of the saint in literature—the difficulties of dealing with him, and the rewards of success in dealing with him if you do succeed. I am not proposing to talk about literature dealing, for instance, with the various religious organizations or churches, and I will talk only indirectly about the literature dealing with monasteries and convents. I’m thinking more of the saint as a fictional character. Now, of course I must start by defining what I mean by a...

    • A Last Lecture
      (pp. 130-142)

      This is in two senses a last lecture, the last of a series of talks I have been giving at the University of California, Santa Barbara, entitled “A Writer and His World.” In another sense, I am going to try to give you what is called a “Last Lecture.” This is something which is done from time to time. My great friend Professor Douwe Stuurman gave such a talk quite some time ago,¹ and the idea is that, without becoming melodramatic, you attempt to say the kind of thing you would say if thiswereyour last lecture—where you...

  7. Part II. The Autobiography of My Books, 1963–65

    • [Part II: Introduction]
      (pp. 145-148)

      The compilation of this second series of Christopher Isherwood’s lectures, which he called “The Autobiography of My Books,” proved problematic. There are two extant documents to which this title might apply: the first is an audiotape recording of two lectures given at the University of California, Berkeley, on April 23 and 30, 1963. Isherwood and the university intended to present a two-part lecture, but Isherwood covered less material than he had planned on the first night, and so the series was extended to a third session. The first two sessions were recorded, but the third, on May 8, 1963, was...

    • All the Conspirators, The Memorial BERKELEY, APRIL 23, 1963
      (pp. 149-160)

      I’ll start off with a reassurance: in order to follow my remarks it’s quite unnecessary to have read any of my books. Furthermore, the whole question as to whether these books have any literary merit or not is entirely academic as far as this discussion is concerned. What I am going to talk to you about is simply this: as a child of my time, I have been concerned with certain themes which are typical themes of the different periods of my life and I have written about them. And by describing these themes, and so by indirection the books...

    • The Berlin Stories BERKELEY, APRIL 30, 1963
      (pp. 161-172)

      Last time, for the benefit of those who weren’t here, I explained that I was going through the autobiography of my novels. This does not mean, however, that you have to have read one single word that I ever wrote, because what I’m endeavoring to do is just to talk about the themes used by me and therefore by many others at different periods—what kind of themes were fashionable or in the social consciousness or zeitgeist—and also to dwell on certain technical problems, which again apply to many other writers besides myself.

      I’m going to start today with...

    • The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6, On the Frontier LOS ANGELES, APRIL 27, 1965
      (pp. 173-183)

      I am going to talk today about the three plays that I wrote with W. H. Auden and also about a travel book we wrote together later. These plays were all written during the 1930s, and our collaboration was really partially accidental. We had been close friends since our school days, and he used to show me everything he wrote. We had, at the beginning of the ’30s, written a play which we did not at all expect to have produced and indeed was just a sort of parody or joke. It was calledThe Enemies of a Bishop, and...

    • Prater Violet LOS ANGELES, MAY 4, 1965
      (pp. 184-198)

      The last play we wrote was calledOn the Frontier, and Auden and I wrote that in 1938. As a matter of fact, we wrote it partly while we were traveling together to China. We wrote a travel book about that calledJourney to a War. The play dealt more or less with the contemporary situation. That is to say, it was set in two imaginary countries that were on the verge of war. The only device of any particular interest in it was that on the stage simultaneously there were two families who were supposed to belong to the...

    • The World in the Evening LOS ANGELES, MAY 11, 1965
      (pp. 199-212)

      In 1941–42 I was working with the American Friends Service Committee at a Quaker hostel in Haverford, which is outside Philadelphia and is in some respects the center of Quakerdom in the East.¹ I found myself very sympathetic to the life led by the Quakers in general and also to the humors of life in the hostel. The hostel consisted of a whole group of refugees from central Europe, all of whom were professional people, the great majority of them schoolteachers who had left because of the Nazis and had been lucky enough to find their way to this...

    • Down There on a Visit LOS ANGELES, MAY 18, 1965
      (pp. 213-216)

      In the winter of 1954–55, I made a trip to Mexico, and I got interested in the idea of what it means to cross a frontier, going from one country to another. I superimposed on that the idea that a country can be both itself, a perfectly ordinary country with inhabitants, and, at the same time, it can be a sort of limbo or purgatory for all sorts of people who are living there not necessarily connected very closely with the country at all, that is to say, various kinds of expatriates who are living in the place. I...

  8. Part III. Lecture Notes

    • [Part III: Introduction]
      (pp. 219-222)

      The following notes are an integral part of this collection. They are significant for what they are not as well as for what they are. They are not fully developed lectures that were meant to be read at a podium. Rather, they are prompts for a speaker who mixed together some of his best anecdotes about himself and others with thoughtful commentary on many topics. They are the “funny stories” he told to his students (as he reported in his diary on May 18, 1960;Diaries1: 856) inserted into a thematic discussion of his own life and work.


    • A Writer and His World
      (pp. 223-238)

      First of all, this series is called A Writer and His World. A, not The. In this first lecture, I’ll deal with influences on a writer; next the nerve of interest in a novel; next a writer and the theater; next, a writer and the films, next a writer and politics, next a writer and his Religion, and then a Last Lecture.

      Like the lady from Forest Lawn, I shall speak from experience.

      When the 19 century people spoke of Influences, they usually meant books. But books don’t change you unless you’re ready for a change. It wasn’t really T.S....

    • Writers of the Thirties
      (pp. 239-240)

      Notes for lecture, Monterey Park Library, March 31 ’62

      The Writers of the Thirties—a journalistic concept. And “The Thirties” really started with the stock market crash in 1929.

      The W. of the T., according to journalists, were Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice, Rex Warner, Upward, Lehmann.

      Orwell was opposed to them. (Homage to Catalonia); Graham Greene was labeled a Catholic, but not really opposed. (The Confidential Agent) However, he had denounced the persecution of the Church in Mexico. Henry Green belongs later, despite Blindness and Living. Evelyn Waugh belongs both earlier and later.

      Characteristics of the W of the...

    • The Novel As Experience
      (pp. 241-242)

      Los Angeles City College: May 2nd 1962

      What does this title mean?

      I take it to mean—how far and in what manner does the novel grow out of the novelist’s personal experience of life?

      There are writers who claim they invent everything. And the laws of libel anyhow encourage us to be dishonest about this. But I admit that my work is always founded on direct experience. If you compare me with an artist, I’m like one whose work is representational. I seldom abstract much. Many writers abstract a great deal. For example: historical novelists, writers of science fiction,...

    • A Personal Statement
      (pp. 243-244)

      Define dharma. What is the dharma of the writer?

      The writer should always write as an individual, writing for other individuals. Writing for other people as a mass, rather than a collection of individuals, is one of the differences between art and propaganda.

      The writer is necessarily an outsider. AN:This is not the same as being a rebel. Even when he’s in full agreement with the majority, this is a temporary agreement. He always reserves the right to dissent. This is not the same thing as belonging to the so-called loyal opposition, because the opposition has a policy. The...

    • Voices of Novelists and Dramatists: Modern
      (pp. 245-246)

      Garden Grove, October 21 1962

      This is not a lecture and not a recital. The usually accepted way of dealing with a book is to read it through from beginning to end, and that’s that.

      I suggest to you that the ‘story’ of a book is no more revealing, superficially, than an entry against a name in Who’s Who—where was he born, whom did he marry—at the end of which we ask, ‘yes, but what was he like?’

      I am asking you to get into the habit of considering books in this way—of listening to the voice...

    • What Is a Novel?
      (pp. 247-249)

      UCLA May 17, 1965

      The Novel tells a story. “A fiction in prose of a certain extent.”

      That is as far as you can define it. The only other definition is by negatives. The novel, we agree, is not journalism, is not a political pamphlet, is not a religious sermon, is not a historical essay, is not a sociological treatise, is not an essay in one of the natural sciences. Yet you have journalism in the USA trilogy of dos Passos, political pamphleteering in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, sermonizing in Huysmans La-Bas, history in War and Peace, sociology in...

    • The Novel and the Novelist
      (pp. 250-252)

      What is a novel? Forster, it tells a story. James, the most prodigious of literary forms, is better.

      Other definition by negatives: not journalism, not a political pamphlet, not a sermon, not an historical essay, not a sociological treatise, not a scientific work AN:not poetry—but Dos Passos USA, Grapes of Wrath, La-Bas, War & Peace, Brave New World, Hemingway-Kipling-Mann. Biography and Memoirs also have the nature of the novel. And the psychiatrist’s case-history.

      And what about form? What’s the difference between it and a short story? Length, but what about books of stories and picaresque novels? The novel can...

  9. Editor’s Notes
    (pp. 253-266)
  10. Index
    (pp. 267-274)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-275)