Monday, March 30, 2009

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

From the blurb:
A charming city of avenues and cafes, a grotesque city of night-people and fantasts, a dangerous city of vice and intrigue, a powerful city of millionaires and mobs - all this was Berlin in 1931, the period when Hitler was beginning his move to power.

Here are Mr Norris, the improbable old debauchee mysteriously caught in the struggle between Nazis and Communists: plump Fraulein Schroeder, who thinks an operation to reduce the scale of her Buste might relieve her heart palpitations; the Landauers, a distinguished and doomed Jewish family; Sally Bowles, whose misadventures in the demimonde were popularized on the American stage and screen by Julie Harris in 'I Am a Camera' and by Liza Minelli in 'Cabaret'
The Berlin Stories is known by other names. It is, officially, two books: The Last of Mr Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. The Last of Mr Norris is also known as Mr Norris Changes Trains, but as Isherwood explains in his introduction, the American publisher found Mr Norris Changes Trains to be obscure. Goodbye to Berlin is comprised of four pieces published separately, Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers, and Berlin Diary: Automn 1930. It's less complicated than it sounds, and you might already have an idea of some of the story of Sally Bowles already, if you've seen Cabaret the musical or the movie.

I far preferred the second story, Goodbye to Berlin, over the one on Mr Norris, whom I found rather unlikeable. I didn't quite understand Isherwood's narrator, William Bradshaw, who meets a stranger on a train (Mr Norris) and becomes friendly with him. And continues to remain friends despite the many oddities and seeming half-truths Mr Norris tells.

"Well groomed and witty, with money to burn, he must have been one of the most eligible young bachelors of his large circle; but it was the money lenders, not the ladies, who got him in the end."

Goodbye to Berlin is more comprehendable. It's a set of observations of the residents of Berlin, the friends he made when he lived in Berlin in the 1930s. It is his photobook of Germany: "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."

It's about the characters, such as Sally Bowles, an English actress, who believes herself to be "a sort of Ideal Woman, if you know what I men. I'm the sort of woman who can take men away from their wives, but I could never keep anybody for long. And that's because I'm the type which every man imagines he wants, until he gets me; and then he finds he doesn't really, after all".

And Bernhard Landauer, who is "sympathetic, charming", but at the same time, Isherwood observed that: "he is not going to tell me what he is really thinking or feeling, and he despises me because I do not know. He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him. And becausee I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him."

Isherwood casts his observant eye over pre-war Berlin, and his love for the city comes through in his simply brilliant writing. He feels for Berlin: "Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching". But perhaps it is the fact, the knowledge that the lives of these characters are soon to be turned upside down: "The newspapers are becoming more and more like copies of a school magazine. There is nothing in them but new rules, new punishments and lists of people who have been 'kept in'."


Sarah said...

I'd only vaguely heard of this book before, you've made it sound really interesting so I will look out for it.

For a non-fiction account of Berlin in the 20's and 30's, you should try the wonderful What I saw by Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hoffman).

olduvai said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for the recommendation! I'll have to check that out.