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literature

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Isherwood, Christopher (1904-1986)  
 
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Moreover, what is faulted in the early fiction is the repression rather than the expression of homosexuality, a repression that underlines the isolation of the narrator of Goodbye to Berlin, who is attracted to Otto Nowak's "naked brown body so sleek with health," but whose inability to connect meaningfully even with the characters with whom he is in most intimate contact mirrors the essential loneliness of Berlin itself.

In the early fiction, Isherwood depicts his gay characters as infected (along with many others) with the soul sickness that denies life and distorts reality. They manifest symptoms of the obscure dread that pervades post-World War I England and pre-Hitler Germany.

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For example, Edward Blake of The Memorial is a version of a recurrent character type in Isherwood's early work, the Truly Weak Man; he constantly needs to test himself and is unable to combine love and sex. But Blake's unhappiness (which leads to a suicide attempt) is due not to his homosexuality but to his predicament as a casualty of the first world war.

Similarly, the unhappiness that plagues the gay characters in The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin is attributed not to their homosexuality but to their failure of commitment to life, a failure that they share with everyone else in the novels.

In the early works, the gay characters are juxtaposed with the heterosexual ones to reveal beneath their apparent polarities a shared reality of the deadened spirit. As one character in Goodbye to Berlin remarks, "Eventually we're all queer."

The Later Novels

Isherwood's later novels, beginning with The World in the Evening (1954), probe more deeply and focus more intently on the plight of the homosexual in a society. In these works, gay characters are both more numerous and their homosexuality defined more sharply in terms of their social roles and the obstacles they face than is the case in the earlier fiction.

The dilemma faced by the gay characters of the later novels is epitomized by their apparently incompatible needs to assert their individuality and to feel a sense of community. This conundrum is felt by Bob Wood, the Quaker artist of The World in the Evening, one of the earliest sympathetic portraits of a gay activist in Anglo-American literature.

The angriest of Isherwood's gay characters, Wood bitterly attacks the heterosexual majority for its failure to accept the gay minority. Sick of futile discussions of the etiology of homosexuality, he would like to "march down the street with a banner saying, 'We're queer because we're queer because we're queer,'" but even this protest, wildly unlikely in the early 1940s, when the action of the novel takes place, is impossible: His lover, Charles, a Jew who has changed his name, "is sick of belonging to these whining, militant minorities."

At the end of the novel, Wood joins the Navy. His motives are not conventionally patriotic, but he refuses to accept exemption from military service on the basis of his sexual orientation "because what they're claiming is that us queers are unfit for their beautiful pure Army and Navy--when they ought to be glad to have us." The solidarity that Wood feels with his fellow homosexuals is extremely rare in the literature of the period, as is Isherwood's conception of homosexuals as a legitimate minority with real grievances.

In the "Ambrose" section of Down There on a Visit (1962), Isherwood creates a haunting portrait of the homosexual as persecuted victim. The title character is an expatriate Englishman who has created a self-sufficient anarchic community on the Greek island of St. Gregory. Described in terms suggesting saintliness and otherworldly absorption, Ambrose retreats to his island, where he reigns over a disorderly menagerie like "one of Shakespeare's exiled kings."

On St. Gregory, he attempts to create a brave new world of his own imagining. His fantasy of a homosexual kingdom is revealing as a parody of the unjust reality that provokes his alienation. In this fantasy, it is heterosexuality that is illegal: "meanwhile it'll be winked at, of course, as long as it's practiced in decent privacy. I think we shall even allow a few bars to be opened for people with those unfortunate tendencies, in certain quarters of the larger cities."

This comic riff embodies the homosexual's bitterness at being excluded from the larger society, but it also betrays Ambrose's hidden desire for involvement in the world. Ambrose, no less than Bob Wood, suffers from the absence of community.

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