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Isherwood: A Life Revealedby Peter Parker
"Like his comic-book namesake, Peter Parker eventually manages to take off his geeky glasses and boldly leap — a life-writing Spider-Man at last! — toward acute inference and surprising judgments. Once Isherwood is in California, the book begins to approximate Parker's insightful (and leaner) 1989 biography of the editor and memoirist J. R. Ackerley." Thomas Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Here is the definitive biography of one of the most exciting, influential, and elusive authors of the twentieth century. Christopher Isherwood's novels and short stories, including those that inspired the musical Cabaret, have always been assumed to be largely autobiographical. Based in part on Isherwood's private papers — unavailable until now — this fascinating book presents the real story of his life, a life that saw a relatively conventional boy become an acclaimed writer, mystic, and "grand old man" of the gay liberation movement. In the end, Isherwood: A Life portrays someone who misled as much as he revealed.
Born in 1904, the heir to a large country estate where his grandfather was squire, Isherwood had a youth filled with both privilege and loss. His father's death in World War I devastated his mother and created a "hero-father" image that would haunt both Christopher and his unstable brother for the rest of their lives. He began to acknowledge his homosexuality at his English boarding school and subsequently formed a definition of "self" based on subterfuge, performance, and escape. With his lifelong friends W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender he emerged as one of the leading literary figures of the 1930s.
From the bars, nightclubs, and slums of Weimar Germany — where Isherwood created The Berlin Stories and introduced the world to Sally Bowles — to homosexual communes in Greece and Portugal, to the film studios of London (the subject of his novel Prater Violet) and Hollywood, his destinations became arenas for his reinventions. Isherwood's later years as an unofficial spiritual and sexual sage in Southern California only added to the abiding mystery of his life.
In addition to using Isherwood's correspondence, unpublished diaries, and other previously unavailable sources in painting this clear and definitive portrait, Peter Parker has also unearthed the author’s telling early works, including parodies, school memoirs, and even part of a crucial lost novel. Painstakingly researched and brilliantly written, Isherwood: A Life captures the fugitive reality of a man who has become a favorite artist and important symbol of an entire era in our life of letters. Published in the centennial of his birth, it will be read as long as Isherwood himself is.
"Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood's consistently rebellious, fictional self-reinventions are put into perspective alongside his exhaustive, introspective diaries in this authoritative and lively life. Of the generation of English writers who defined the 1930s, Isherwood (1904 — 1986) alone came from landed gentry; he recast himself as a serious novelist, a left-wing playwright, a political journalist and a pacifist. Meticulously following the rootless Isherwood from Weimar Berlin to war-torn China, Parker delves incisively into his relationship with Stephen Spender and with Auden. Parker portrays the frequent collaboration with the latter (highly acclaimed, at the time) as more emotionally crucial to Auden than to Isherwood. Their split upon emigrating to America just before the outbreak of WWII gave Isherwood, who settled in Hollywood, far from Auden's New York, further opportunity for self-exploration and expression. While Isherwood's social circle encompassed other notable exiles, from Charlie Chaplin to Thomas Mann, Isherwood's literary output stalled until the Broadway success of an adaptation of his Berlin Stories as Cabaret. Isherwood's later memoirs, to which Parker attributes a role in the gay liberation movement, receive the same insightful critical attention from Parker (biographer of J. R. Ackerley) as Isherwood's early work. With the final installment of Isherwood's voluminous diaries yet to be published, Parker's biography, written with full access to his subject's papers, will likely remain definitive. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. Agent, Emma Sweeney at Harold Ober Assoc. (On sale Dec. 7)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This is the major biography that Isherwood deserves — a thorough look at the details of his complex itinerary, geographical, artistic and spiritual. It is a lively, informed account of his milieu and the interweaving of his life with those of Auden and Spender and Upward....Parker manages all this toing and froing with acrobatic aplomb, lending any given episode neither too much nor too little weight." Edmund White, The Times Literary Supplement
"Parker has written a fine biography because he admires Isherwood for the right reasons and feels free to express disapproval of his many faults." Brooke Allen, The New York Times Book Review
"[A]n essential resource for coming to terms with a key figure in the Auden circle." Kirkus
About the Author
Peter Parker is the author of The Old Lie: The Great War and the Public-School Ethos and a biography of J. R. Ackerley. He is the editor of A Reader’s Guide to the Twentieth-Century Novel and A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers. He is an associate editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and writes about books and gardening for a wide variety of publications. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997 and lives in London’s East End.
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