Feb 212018

Today is the birthday (1907) of Wystan Hugh Auden an English poet noted for a large body of poetry that  engaged with politics, morals, love, and religion, and varied greatly in tone, form and content. Auden was born in York, grew up in and near Birmingham in a professional middle-class family, attended English boarding schools, and studied at Christ Church college, Oxford, beginning in 1925. Auden was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood in 1925 by his fellow student A. S. T. Fisher (they had known one another in boarding school). For the next few years Auden sent poems to Isherwood for comments and criticism. From his Oxford years onward, Auden’s friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely. In groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way. In more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome. He was punctual in his habits, and obsessive about meeting deadlines, while choosing to live amidst physical disorder.

Auden started at Oxford with a scholarship in biology, but had switched to English by his second year. Friends he met at Oxford include Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. These four were commonly, though misleadingly, identified in the 1930s as the “Auden Group” for their shared (but not identical) left-wing views. By the time I became interested in poetry as a teen in the 1960s they were known as the “Poets of the 30s” even though they were all, with the exception of MacNeice, still quite active. Auden left Oxford in 1928 having barely scraped through finals, with a degree in English.

After a few months in Berlin in 1928–29 he spent five years (1930–35) teaching in English public schools, then travelled to Iceland (where he believed he had ancestry) and China in order to write books about his journeys. He came to wide public attention at the age of 23, in 1930, with his first book, Poems, followed in 1932 by The Orators. Three plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood in 1935–38 built his reputation as a left-wing political writer. He moved to the United States partly to escape this reputation.

Auden taught from 1941 to 1945 in U.S. universities, followed by occasional visiting professorships in the 1950s. From 1947 to 1957 he spent winters in New York and summers in Ischia. From 1958 until the end of his life he spent his summers in Kirchstetten in Lower Austria, where he died, and in his last 2 years he spent the winter months in a cottage on the grounds of Christ Church. I was an undergraduate at the time, and saw him wandering up St Aldates towards Carfax once or twice. My college was opposite Christ Church. He looked lost and bewildered – not the man I knew from his poetry.

Auden’s work in the 1940s, including the long poems “For the Time Being” and “The Sea and the Mirror,” focused on religious themes. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety,” the title of which became a popular phrase describing the modern era. In 1956 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and served until 1961. His lectures were popular with students and dons, and served as the basis of his 1962 prose collection The Dyer’s Hand.

From around 1927 to 1939 Auden and Isherwood maintained a lasting but intermittent sexual friendship while both had briefer but more intense relations with other men. In 1939 Auden fell in love with Chester Kallman and regarded their relationship as a marriage. The relationship ended in 1941 when Kallman refused to accept the fidelity that Auden demanded, but the two maintained their friendship, and from 1947 until Auden’s death they lived in the same house or apartment in a non-sexual relationship, often collaborating on opera libretti such as The Rake’s Progress, for music by Igor Stravinsky.

Many of Auden’s poems during the 1930s and after were inspired by unconsummated love, and in the 1950s he summarized his emotional life in a famous couplet: “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me” (“The More Loving One”). He had a gift for friendship and, starting in the late 1930s, a strong wish for the stability of marriage. In a letter to his friend James Stern he called marriage “the only subject.” Throughout his life, Auden performed charitable acts, sometimes in public (as in his 1935 marriage of convenience to Erika Mann that provided her with a British passport to escape the Nazis), but, especially in later years, more often in private. He was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed.

Auden was a prolific writer of prose essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological and religious subjects, and he worked at various times on documentary films, poetic plays, and other forms of performance. Throughout his career he was both controversial and influential. Critical views on his work ranged from sharply dismissive, treating him as a lesser follower of the likes of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, to strongly affirmative, as in Joseph Brodsky’s claim that he had “the greatest mind of the twentieth century.” After his death, his poems became known to a much wider public than during his lifetime through films, broadcasts and popular media. This was once popular:

Auden died in Vienna in 1973, a few hours after giving a reading of his poems at the Austrian Society for Literature. He died at the Altenburgerhof Hotel where he was staying overnight before his intended return to Oxford the next day. He was buried in Kirchstetten.

Auden was a great admirer of M.F.K. Fisher — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/m-f-k-fisher/ In his introduction to Fisher’s The Art of Eating (1954) he writes: “I do not know anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” He cites several examples, including this passage:

I now feel that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home. . . A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits.

The passage likely inspired Auden’s poem “Tonight at 7:30.”

My problem in finding a recipe is that Auden was not so much inspired by the food at dinner parties but by the company, and his admiration of Fisher concerns how she writes about people and places and things, not about recipes per se. Never mind. She gives a decent recipe for tapenade. I don’t know why she spells it tapénade: misplaced pretentiousness maybe. Tapenade is a Provençal dish consisting of puréed or finely chopped olives, capers, and olive oil. Its name comes from the Provençal word for capers, tapenas. It is a popular dish in the south of France, where it is generally eaten as an hors d’œuvre spread on bread, but sometimes it is used to stuff poultry for a main course. Tapenade’s base ingredients are capers and olives. The olives (most commonly black olive) and capers are finely chopped, crushed or blended. Olive oil is then added until the mixture becomes a paste. Tapenade is often flavored differently in varying regions with other ingredients such as garlic, herbs, anchovies, lemon juice or brandy. This is Fisher’s recipe slightly edited.

M.F.K. Fisher’s Tapénade


1 cup pitted, chopped black olives
½ cup anchovy fillets, chopped
½ cup canned tuna
1 tsp dry mustard
½ cup capers
1 cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
1 ½ fl oz brandy


Pound the first six ingredients in a mortar to form a paste (I use a food blender on pulse). Add the olive oil slowly like making mayonnaise. Mix in the lemon juice slowly, and then the brandy. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Aug 262017

Today is the birthday (1904) of Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood an English author whose best-known works, The Berlin Stories (1935-39), two semi-autobiographical novellas inspired by his time in Weimar Republic Germany, were adapted first into the play I Am a Camera (1951), then the 1955 film of the same name, followed by a stage musical Cabaret (1966) which was adapted for film, in rather sanitized version, in 1972. Isherwood’s name is not exactly a household word these days, but Cabaret is well remembered.

Isherwood was born in 1904 on his family’s estate close to the Cheshire-Derbyshire border. He attended Repton School in Derbyshire where he met his lifelong friend Edward Upward with whom he wrote the extravagant “Mortmere” stories, of which only one was published during his lifetime. He deliberately failed his tripos and left Corpus Christi College, Cambridge without a degree in 1925. For the next few years he lived with violinist André Mangeot, worked as secretary to Mangeot’s string quartet and studied medicine. During this time he wrote a book of nonsense poems, People One Ought to Know, with illustrations by Mangeot’s eleven-year-old son, Sylvain. It was not published until 1982.

In 1925 A.S.T. Fisher introduced Isherwood to W. H. Auden, and he became Auden’s literary critic, as well as partner in an intermittent, casual liaison. Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comment and approval, and then through Auden, Isherwood met Stephen Spender, with whom he later spent much time in Germany. His first novel, All the Conspirators, appeared in 1928. It was an anti-heroic story, written in a pastiche of many modernist idioms, about a young man who is overwhelmed by his mother. In 1928–29 Isherwood studied medicine at King’s College London, but gave up his studies after six months to join Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.

Rejecting his upper-class background and fully embracing his attraction to men, he remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. Commenting on John Henry Mackay’s Der Puppenjunge (The Pansy), Isherwood wrote: “It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic.”

In 1931 he met Jean Ross, the inspiration for his fictional character, Sally Bowles. He also met Gerald Hamilton, the inspiration for the fictional Mr Norris. In September 1931 the poet William Plomer introduced him to E. M. Forster. They became close and Forster served as his mentor. Isherwood’s second novel, The Memorial (1932), was another story of conflict between mother and son, based closely on his own family history. During one of his return trips to London he worked with the director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend, an experience that became the basis of his novel Prater Violet (1945). He worked as a private tutor in Berlin and elsewhere while writing the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and a short novel called Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often published together in a collection called The Berlin Stories.

Isherwood collaborated on three plays with Auden: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1939). He wrote a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of his childhood and youth, Lions and Shadows (1938), using the title of an abandoned novel. Auden and Isherwood traveled to China in 1938 to gather material for their book on the Sino-Japanese War called Journey to a War (1939).

In 1939, Auden and Isherwood left England for the United States on temporary visas, a controversial move, later regarded by some as a flight from danger on the eve of war in Europe. Evelyn Waugh, in his novel Put Out More Flags (1942), included a caricature of Auden and Isherwood as “two despicable poets, Parsnip and Pimpernel”, who flee to America to avoid World War II.

While living in Hollywood, California, Isherwood befriended Truman Capote, who was at the time an up-and-coming young writer who was influenced by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, especially in the themes of the story “Sally Bowles” that emerge in Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Isherwood also had a close friendship with Aldous Huxley, with whom he sometimes collaborated. Gerald Heard had introduced Huxley to Vedanta (Upanishad-centered philosophy) and meditation. Huxley became a Vedantist in the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, and introduced Isherwood to the Swami’s Vedanta circle. Isherwood became a convinced Vedantist himself and adopted Prabhavananda as his own guru, visiting the Swami every Wednesday for the next 35 years and collaborating with him on a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The process of conversion to Vedanta was so all-consuming that Isherwood was unable to write another novel between the years 1939-1945, while he immersed himself in study of the Vedas.

Isherwood considered becoming a US citizen in 1945 but balked at taking an oath that included the statement that he would defend the country. The next year he applied for citizenship and answered questions honestly, saying he would accept non-combatant duties like loading ships with food. The fact that he had volunteered for service with the Medical Corps helped as well. At the naturalization ceremony, he found he was required to swear to defend the nation and decided to take the oath since he had already stated his objections and reservations. He became a US citizen on 8 November 1946. Soon after, he began living with the photographer William “Bill” Caskey and in 1947 the two traveled to South America. Isherwood wrote the prose and Caskey took the photographs for a 1949 book about their journey entitled The Condor and the Cows.

On Valentine’s Day 1953, at the age of 48, he met teenaged Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. Reports of Bachardy’s age at the time vary, but Bachardy later said, “At the time I was probably 16.” In fact, Bachardy was 18. Despite the age difference, this meeting began a partnership that, though interrupted by affairs and separations, continued until the end of Isherwood’s life.

During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished—and Bachardy typed—the novel on which he had worked for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a course on modern English literature at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early 1960s. The 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised eyebrows at the time, with Bachardy, in his own words, “regarded as a sort of child prostitute,” but the two became a well-known and well-established couple in Southern Californian society with many Hollywood friends.

Perhaps Isherwood’s finest achievement, although much less well known than Berlin Stories was his 1964 novel A Single Man, that depicted a day in the life of George, a middle-aged, gay Englishman who is a professor at a Los Angeles university. During 1964 Isherwood collaborated with US writer Terry Southern on the screenplay for the Tony Richardson film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s caustic satire on the US funeral industry.

Isherwood and Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood’s life. Bachardy became a successful artist with an independent reputation, and his portraits of the dying Isherwood became well known after Isherwood’s death. Isherwood died at age 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California. His body was donated to science at UCLA, and his ashes were later scattered at sea.

Because for so many people Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin is what he is remembered for, I have chosen a traditional Berlin dish, Hoppel Poppel, as a celebration.  It is one way that Berliners use up Sunday leftovers, and so is not generally to be found on restaurant menus. But it is popular in home cooking.

Berliner Hoppel Poppel


1 lb leftover cooked meat, cut in thin strips
2 onions, peeled and chopped
4 tbsp butter
1½ lb boiled potatoes, chopped
salt, pepper
6 eggs, beaten


Fry the onions in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until translucent. Add the meat, potatoes, and remaining butter, and fry until the potatoes are golden brown. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the eggs and stir gently until the eggs are set.

Serve immediately.

Serves 4