Goodbye to Berlin was chosen by my book group to read during August, we meet later this evening to discuss it. My first Christopher Isherwood book, and I don’t know what I was expecting, but it surprised me for a number of reasons. Although the book is a novel, it reads more like a personal travelogue, the narrator sharing a name with the author. Obviously there is a large autobiographical element to the book which is based upon Isherwood’s travels in the Weimar republic of Germany during the 1930’s.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.
I found there to be a great subtlety to the writing, a strong sense of place and several very memorable characters. In this novel Isherwood explores, politics, sexuality and German society of the 1930’s, it’s an excellent depiction of a society on the brink of enormous upheaval. The novel, is told fairly episodically as it is presented in six overlapping stories, many of the characters disappearing and re-appearing at different times and in different places. The writing throughout is wonderfully evocative, with Isherwood revealing both a German landscape and society now lost.
“Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the iron-work of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.”
As Goodbye to Berlin opens Christopher is living in lodgings in Berlin, his landlady the wonderfully memorable and rather lovable Fraulein Shroeder, a kindly, gossipy middle aged woman who calls Christopher Issyvoo –and treats her lodgers more as friends, even turning a blind eye to the non-payment of rent and prostitution. Isherwood’s fellow lodgers include, the aforementioned prostitute; Frl. Kost, Bobby who works at a cocktail bar, Frl Mayr who is a music hall performer and a commercial traveller. This opening story/chapter certainly has a very autobiographical feel, the stories of everyday life in a Berlin lodging house with its affairs and squabbles are very affectionately drawn.
In subsequent chapters of the book we meet a host of other characters; maybe the most memorable of all is the young English woman Sally Bowles. Sally is a cabaret performer, only about nineteen, she is both a little naive, and knowing, a little immoral, out for herself, affected and full of dreams. Wearing bright green nail polish, drinking cocktails at all hours, she puts something of a spell on Christopher. In the summer of 1931 Christopher travels to Ruegen Island where he meets awkward young Englishman Peter, and his lover Otto. Otto manipulates Peter to his own advantage, and for a while the two enjoy a lot of fun and silliness, but of course the fun doesn’t last. Otto vanishes with the contents of Peter’s wallet, seemingly without a backward glance. Later back in Berlin, when Christopher can no longer afford to live at Fraulein Shroeder’s he is quick to take Otto up on his offer to put him up at his family’s apartment. The Nowak household is poor and chaotic, giving Christopher a glimpse of a whole other section of society.
In contrast to the Nowaks are the Jewish Landauer family, their daughter Natalia is one of Isherwood’s students. The Landauers are wealthy and generous, and through them Christopher meets Natalia’s cousin Bernhard who invites Isherwood along to his garden parties and country house weekends. Here Isherwood witnesses the world that is soon to disappear; in Isherwood’s company the reader witnesses the contrasts and cynicisms at the heart of this society
‘Heart failure!’ The Austrian shifted uneasily in his chair: ‘You don’t say!’ ‘There’s a lot of heart failure,’ said the fat man, ‘in Germany these days.’ The Austrian nodded: ‘You can’t believe all you hear. That’s a fact.’ ‘If you ask me,’ said the fat man, ‘anyone’s heart’s liable to fail, if it gets a bullet inside it.’ The Austrian looked very uncomfortable: ‘Those Nazis . . .’ he began. ‘They mean business.’ The fat man seemed rather to enjoy making his friend’s flesh creep. ‘You mark my words: they’re going to clear the Jews right out of Germany.
In the final section of the novel, taking place in Berlin at the end of 1932 and 1933, the changes that have taken place under Hitler’s leadership are quickly apparent with an escalation in violence, arrests and new restrictions. Agitators and school boys come to the attention of police, with Isherwood himself witnessing the beating of a young man by the S.A, and there is a feeling of everything spiralling quickly and terrifyingly out of control. Inevitably in 1933 Isherwood leaves Berlin, as the title implies he is bidding farewell to a city that will never be the same again.
“To-day the sun is brilliantly shining; it is quite mild and warm. I go out for my last morning walk, without an overcoat or hat. The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city.”
This is a novel of the end of one kind of society and the start of something new and frightening, Nazism doesn’t raise its head as much as you might expect and yet it’ always there, and everyone will eventually be affected. I very much enjoyed my first experience of Christopher Isherwood, I’m sure I will read more by him in the future.