One of the first things I did when I visited Berlin (to interview the city’s gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit) in 2003 was to find Nollendorfstrasse 17, the apartment house where Christopher Isherwood lived in the 1930s. His book The Berlin Stories, from which the musical Cabaret was adapted, had a profound effect on me as a young man. There was just something about the way he captured the dreamlike optimism of his queer cadre of friends and neighbors that appealed to me. Berlin, in his pages, read like a cleaner, more sophisticated (yet just as debauched) version of San Francisco in the 1960s and ’70s. And like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the book was made even more compelling by the impending tragedy its characters couldn’t have known.
The opposite is the case in Isherwood’s 1964 novel, A Single Man, which has been brilliantly adapted for the big screen by first-time screenwriter and director Tom Ford. Unlike the wide-eyed players in The Berlin Stories, the protagonist of A Single Man, George, thinks he’s seen it all—including his nothing-but-bleak future. And after the death of his longtime lover, he resolves to end his own life. In the 2008 documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story, Isherwood’s longtime partner, artist Don Bachardy, says the novelist based A Single Man, in part at least, on his fear that he might lose Bachardy. Yet, as luck would have it, the men lived together for another 22 years, until Isherwood’s death in 1986.
This story sticks with me as we go to press with the year-end issue of The Advocate as much because of Bachardy’s anecdote as because of Ford’s expert adaptation of Isherwood’s very real fear. Few people will mark 2009 as a banner year—too many of us lost our jobs, our homes, and/or our life savings (and just as many of us fear joining those ranks). But amid all this hardship, we’ve also witnessed amazing progress—including marriage equality in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and a groundswell of activism that spread across the country and hit a fever pitch in Washington, D.C. It’s proof that we don’t have to be in the middle of “the best of times” for some of the best of things to take place.
This progress also speaks to what, I think, is one of Isherwood’s overriding messages—that somewhere between the sometimes-oblivious optimism of The Berlin Stories and the despondency of A Single Man is an undeniable promise of uncertainty. And good times or bad, it’s up to us stand up and make the most of them.