Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”, (p. 9)

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin comprises six interlinked stories based around the author’s experiences of living in Berlin during the early 1930s.  The book would be worth reading simply as a piece of social history documenting the lives of ordinary people during the last days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party.  But Isherwood is also a superb writer, the kind of writer who makes very finely crafted writing appear effortless.  His prose is such a pleasure to read.

The first story ‘A Berlin Diary’ introduces us to the assorted outsiders and survivors who inhabit the seedy boarding house where the narrator, Christopher, resides at the beginning of his time in Berlin, and which is presided over by his eccentric landlady, Frl. Schroader.  The second story, ‘Sally Bowles’, is probably the most famous, providing most of the source material for the musical Cabaret.  It charts the rise and fall of Christopher’s friendship with Sally, an upper-class English girl whose affected manners mask her desperation. In a different book a character like Sally might appear as just another ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ but when she is represented by a narrator who has no sexual interest in her, the horror and pathos of her situation become apparent. Sally is depicted as a woman who believes that acting in a certain way will get her what she wants, but all it ultimately gets her is being used and discarded by men.  The story ‘On Ruegan Island’ sees Christopher take a trip to the island of the title, where he meets up with a depressed, gay Englishman called Peter Wilkinson and his companion, a teenage hustler called Otto. Officially, Christopher is Peter’s friend, but it’s the lively, amoral Ottto who really holds his and our attention in the story.  When he returns to Berlin in the following story, ‘The Nowaks’, Christopher briefly stays with Otto’s struggling, working-class family.  Otto’s brother is joining the S.A. and his mother has TB.  One of the strangest and most affecting parts of the book is the visit that Christopher and Otto take to see Frau Nowak in the Sanitarium.  Then the chilling penultimate story, ‘The Landauers’, takes us into a very different part of Weimar Society, the wealthy, Jewish family with whom Christopher is acquainted, particularly their passionate daughter, Natalia, and her melancholic cousin, Bernard.  The Landauers are educated, liberal, progressive and clearly doomed under the new order in Germany.

Although Goodbye to Berlin is extremely readable, the narrative does have an unsettling undercurrent, the source of which lies, I think, in Isherwood’s inability (due to the law of the time) to write openly about his narrator’s sexuality.  This results in an oddly distanced narrative.  Although Christopher spends a lot of time hanging around with obviously gay and bisexual men, like Peter, Otto and Bernard, he always keeps them at a distance. This creates a sense of another story just behind the surface narrative, a story that isn’t being told, as if the emotional centre of Goodbye to Berlin is always displaced elsewhere. I’ll be very interested to read some of Isherwood’s later works in which he is able to be open about his sexuality and see what impact this has on his narrative tone.

This “closeting” may be the cause of the other aspect of the narrative that I found a little unsettling, which is Isherwood’s positioning of his narrator as “a camera”, an observer, rather than a participant, in the stories.  It is a distancing move that the real Isherwood insists upon in the preface, “Christopher Isherwood is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more”.  On the one hand, I think Isherwood succeeds in conveying the impending horror all the more powerfully through his detached, observant narrative.  But at times the narrative construct “Christopher Isherwood” comes across just a little like David Attenborough observing animals in their habitats. There is also a feeling that the author, the real Isherwood, is using these people for his own ends, especially Otto and Sally Bowles, who are both represented rather cruelly.  Jean Ross, the real woman upon whom Sally was based does seem to have felt hurt and used by the way Isherwood drew on her real life experience in the stories, especially her abortion.

For me, the most emotion comes through in the last story, ‘A Berlin Diary’, which is also the most fragmented, perhaps deliberately so as to suggest, in its structure, the collapse of Weimar Society.  It’s almost in note form. The sense of detachment crumbles and the last story conveys  a real sense of impending horror and things falling apart, the end of the possibilities contained in a difficult but also vibrant time that will never come again.

An important book, both in terms of the history of Europe and LGBT literature.  I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

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