Christopher Isherwood, from Goodbye to Berlin

I suspect that there will be more than one entry on Christopher Isherwood, mainly because the volume of his writing that I have is an anthology with excerpts from different works. It seems rather silly to wait until I have finished the whole anthology before writing up my thoughts because, by the time that I have read the concluding story I will most probably have forgotten everything I thought when I read the first.

And so we begin with the first extract which, as the title says, is from Goodbye to Berlin. This collection of short stories is an autobiographical, but fictionalised, account of Ischerwood’s stay in Berlin during the 1930s. The short stories included in my anthology are A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930) and Sally Bowles. The latter introduces the reader to the eponymous character and is the story from which the play I Am a Camera and later Cabaret were adapted for stage and screen. I had read Sally Bowles before; I know this because I recognised the Prairie Oyster ā€“ a drink, consisting apparently of a raw egg and a generous amount of Worcester sauce, which Sally drinks because she ‘can hardly afford anything else!’ And according to wikipedia this is often served as a hangover cure. I think I’d prefer the headache.

Anyway, I am straying off topic. In a similar way to the cinematic adaptation (I confess I have seen neither the stage play nor the musical) is concerned with the rise of Nazism, anti-Semitism and Communism, the two short stories are fascinating eye-witness accounts of 1930s Berlin. The point of view is interesting; as an outsider, an Englishman, a writer and a gay man Isherwood’s perspective on the Nazis is most unusual. He is not in Berlin as an official journalist to report on Herr Hitler; instead, he lodges in the flat of a formerly wealth elderly lady, who lost everything in the Great Depression. His fellow lodgers are from the lower echelons of society, including poor professors and ladies of pleasure. Yet the novel still refers to even those despised or ignored by society as ‘Frau’ and ‘Herr’, a mode of address which equalises the characters the narrator describes.

The narrator is interesting; whilst the stories are autobiographical, the characters are only based on real people. Therefore, to call the narrator the author would be incorrect, even though the narrator is also called Isherwood. I suppose this is another case of ‘Isherwood the author’ as opposed to ‘Isherwood the narrator’ ā€“ much as literary critics distinguish between, for example, ‘Chaucer the poet’ and ‘Chaucer the pilgrim’ in the medieval Canterbury Tales.

I can see that this is a rather rambling post but I am determined to let the words flow rather than to edit it like an essay. There is a time and a place for order but somehow not here. Still, I will keep myself brief, even though there is so much to say! Isherwood somehow manages to convey a complete picture of Berlin ā€“ from the rich to the poor, the political, the cultural. The film portrays the image through picture but Isherwood’s stories have no winding descriptions or exposition. Everything is conveyed through speech and character. The characters introduced tell a story and each, the narrator suggests, could tell more than one. Even if you have seen the film, the musical, the play or all three, the novel, I think, paints a more vivid picture of Berlin. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book although I will pace myself. For now, perhaps, I will finish the other books I have to read.

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