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.

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