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In which Netty finally makes it to Berlin … sort of

February 26, 2012

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We’ve encountered a couple of authors in previous incarnations of ANRC who do that terribly post-modern thing of inserting characters into their fiction with their own names. Paul Auster does it; Phillip Roth, too. And Bret Easton Ellis. And here we have English-born writer Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye To Berlin, a suite of six short stories starring an English-born writer, called … yep, you guessed it.

I’m not even sure post-modernism was a concept in 1939, when Berlin was first released as a whole. As Isherwood says in a forward to the book penned in 1935, the stories form “a roughly continuous narrative” of what was originally intended to be a weighty, episodic novel of pre-Hitler Berlin entitled The Lost. My research tells me Goodbye To Berlin is often coupled with the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (or The Last of Mr Norris, if you happen to reside in the US of A), with which it shares some overlapping characters and situations. Companion books, if you will. It’s called The Berlin Stories, and if, like me, you’re a newcomer to Isherwood, in retrospect I’d recommend you getting that one. I’ve always been a big fan of killing two birds with one stone.

Oh, and another thing: Isherwood also states – somewhat disingenuously? – “Because I have given my own name to the ‘I’ of this narrative, readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical …” Glad you cleared that one up for us, Chris. I suspect, however, that you doth protest too much.

So yes, Goodbye to Berlin is my introduction to Isherwood, at Andy’s behest, for the “Revisited” section of this year’s Challenge (which involves Andy and myself reading books/authors the other is vicariously “revisiting”). Christ, I’ve never even seen Cabaret, whose lead character Sally Bowles (famously played in an Oscar-winning turn by Liza Minnelli) makes her first appearance in these pages. Something of an embarrassing omission on my part in my moviegoing experience. I don’t know why Isherwood has never previously crossed my radar (he has certainly crossed Andy’s – you can find Andy’s 2010 blog on A Single Man right here: https://wellreadweare.wordpress.com/tag/christopher-isherwood/). Better late than never, I suppose.

I’ve never been to Berlin. When it comes to Germany, I’ve only ever been to Munich, and Frankfurt (where I got a horrible, horrible case of food poisoning thanks to a dodgy meatloaf consumed at a reasonably upmarket place recommended by a friend’s brother. Don’t go there). Mention Berlin and I think of the wall; of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in the mid-to-late 1970s, strung out on drugs but making some of the best music of their careers;  and the movie Christiane F., the true account of a young teen addict and prostitute. Berlin has always, in my mind, equalled art and drugs.

There’s not really any drugs in Goodbye To Berlin, which is set pre-World War II, loosely spanning the period 1930 to 1933. It’s Isherwood’s eighth book, published in 1939 when he was in his mid-1930s (and four years after Mr Norris Changes Trains). Christopher Isherwood (uh, that’s the fictional Christopher Isherwood) is an English writer who has relocated to Berlin, where he works on a novel, gives English lessons and – along with four other lodgers – rents a room from a middle-aged landlady, Frl. Schroeder.

The first story, A Berlin Diary (autumn 1930) sets the scene, detailing Isherwood’s initial experiences in Berlin. His friend Fritz Wendel introduces him to Sally Bowles, a fellow English expat trying to carve a career for herself as a singer and actress. Isherwood (uh, that’s the real Isherwood) based Sally on his real-life friend Jean Ross, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality (his first autobiography, Lions and Shadows, was released the year before Goodbye To Berlin – it would be interesting to see how much overlap there is between the two books). It’s easy to see why Sally Bowles has endured through other forms of media and in other writers’ hands (Cabaret, the film and the musical, morphed out of an earlier play called I Am A Camera) – she is one of the most engagingly memorable characters I have encountered in quite some time, and her lengthy chapter provided the most riveting read for mine.

Isherwood spends the summer of 1931 on Reugen Island, where he shares a house with Peter Wilkinson, a wealthy but disenchanted Englishman of his own age, and his teenage charge Otto Nowak. The pair share a particularly volatile relationship; Peter is paying Otto for his time, but it is never clear if this arrangement also entails sexual favours. Falling on hard financial times, Isherwood accepts an offer to move in with Otto and his family – his parents, older brother Lothar and younger sister Grete – into a damp, two-room attic.  In contrast to the poor, working-class Nowaks, he also forges a friendship with the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own several high-end department stores. He befriends first the teenage Natalia, and then her older cousin Bernard. The timeline tends to skip back and forth through these three chapters, but not to any detrimental effect.

The final story, A Berlin Diary (winter 1932-33), serves as a bookend to both this collection and (the character) Isherwood’s time in Germany. It is also the most overtly political chapter, although there are plenty of references and overtones scattered throughout its precedessors. Communists and Jews are firmly in the target sights of Nazism, which is well and truly embedding itself across the city, forcing its residents to either flee or adapt. Isherwood is one of the lucky ones who can leave; on the morning before his return to England, he takes one final stroll around the city on a beautiful winter’s morning. With the vantage of hindsight, the reader knows all too well what lies ahead for these people, and the characters we have met in the preceding pages. The final line of the book is also its most poignant: “Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened.” We talk of great first lines in books – well, I can’t remember the last time I read a better final line; it is full of both wistfulness and horror.

To be honest, I don’t know how far back I will end up going into Isherwood’s back catalogue. I certainly want to read Mr Norris Changes Trains, and there is a copy of A Single Man collecting dust somewhere on my bookshelves. But I am glad I read Goodbye To Berlin. No matter how far the journey takes me, this was a very fine start.

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