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BOOK REVIEW – CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD – GOODBYE TO BERLIN 1939 Vintage Books.

 

A collection of six overlapping short stories set against the backdrop of the declining Weimar republic as Hitler rose to power.  Isherwood, appearing himself as a fictional narrator, lives as a struggling author in the German capital, describing his meetings with the decadent, often doomed eccentrics, bohemians, and showgirls around him.  The sense of oblivious naivety to the gathering storm around them gives his characters tremendous pathos and tragedy. The title refers not just to Isherwood’s departure from a city he clearly loved, but also to the sense that the Berlin of the early thirties was irrecoverably destroyed by the rise of the Nazis, and the destruction of the Weimar State. Isherwood is evoking an age that will never be seen again. It’s not so much a story of sorrowful departure as an obituary.

 

A BERLIN DIARY (AUTUMN 1930) Reading with the authenticity of Autobiography, (with many characters thinly disguised versions of real people), the opening story is focused on Fraulein Shroeder, a kindly landlady at Isherwood’s lodgings, (calling Isherwood Ishyoo) who finds all of her guests to be dear friends, no matter what they say and do. Even none payment of their rent doesn’t phase her. She proudly shows off where a guest once vomited on the now ruined carpets. Prostitutes bring clients to her upper rooms, but the kindly Fraulein turns a blind eye to it. She gets more upset over a broken teapot than such soliciting.

 

Nazis live in her flat, bickering and denouncing the Jewish guests, but the Fraulein sees this as comedy rather than potential future bloodshed.  Her contentment is only broken when one of the guests steals some money from her, at which point Isherwood breaks off the narrative.

 

SALLY BOWLES – The best-known story in Goodbye To Berlin, and the influence –inspiration on the films I Am A Camera and Cabaret.  Isherwood is introduced to vivacious, if highly immature socialite, Sally Bowles, an English girl with dreams of becoming a great actress.  She works as a cabaret singer in a seedy club in Berlin. Her larger than life mannerism, and dotty charm appeal to Isherwood, and they become great friends.

 

The sense of blindness to the rising National Socialist menace is highlighted when Sally and Isherwood witness a parade for a major dignitary, but have no idea what has merited the pomp and grandeur or the historic event unfolding. They are too caught up in their own private lives and selfish desires.

 

When Sally gets herself pregnant, Isherwood and the Fraulein arrange an illegal abortion for her. Later, Sally gets involved with wealthier people, and cruelly snubs Isherwood, as no longer of her class. He gets revenge when he is visited by an obvious conman, by giving him Sally’s address. His spiteful amusement turns sour when he realizes that Sally has fallen utterly for the conman’s charm, and he has robbed her blind. Sally and Isherwood become friends again, and set the police on the conman. Son afterwards, Sally leaves the country in pursuit of more dreams. Though she writes to him, Isherwood never sees her again, and misses her terribly.

 

 ON REUGEN ISLAND – Here the action moves from Berlin to a popular German holiday resort, where Isherwood meets Peter, a troubled and embittered young Englishman who has managed to fall out with most of his family and friends, and whose alienation has led him to a nervous breakdown and a need to seek Freudian analysis. 

 

Many psychiatrists have failed him, and he has moved across Europe from Oxford, to Berlin, where he has run out of money. He is involved in a relationship with a young man called Otto (one of the Nowak family who have a story of their own in the same collection).

 

There are chilling images of beach huts bearing Nazi swastika flags, and children singing Nazi anthems. Peter despises anti-Semitists, despite which a nazi doctor latches onto him as if Peter was his best friend. Isherwood also despises the doctor, who thinks there is no such thing as a Communist (Peter and Isherwood showing some affinity with left wing politics).

 

The relationship between Otto and Peter gets cruel, with Otto being mean and over-possessive, which drives Peter to suddenly leave for a return to England and hoping for more money from his family for therapy. Otto is devastated by his departure.

 

How aware Isherwood was of the extent of the Nazi menace and looming war is becoming increasingly apparent as you read deeper into Goodbye To Berlin, and often the horror and menace is captured with great subtlety.

 

 THE NOWAKS – Finding that his own money is running out, Isherwood seeks cheaper lodgings, and he calls on the Nowak family to ask if there are any such lodgings in their slum neighbourhood. Mrs. Nowak immediately invites Isherwood to lodge with her family and he accepts. The family are highly dysfunctional, but each likes and respects Isherwood. He finds their conflict stifling, and the house is extremely small, and has even been condemned as unsanitary and unsafe, but the Nowaks continue to live there regardless. The father is a socialist, while Otto, the son, (who appeared in the same collection story On Reugen Island, is incredibly cruel to his mother and to his sister. He is a nazi sympathiser, and womaniser.  He practices self-harm to get sympathy and attention.

 

Isherwood seeks sanctuary by visiting a local casino, a den of thieves where people regularly leave by the bathroom windows as the police enter. One day, Fraulein Novak is diagnosed as having had a breakdown, and sent away to a sanatorium to recover. Otto is genuinely devastated by her departure. Isherwood moves out of the house, but eventually meets with Otto and accompanies him to the sanatorium for a touching reunion with his mother.

 

THE LANDAUERS – A riot erupts in Berlin and the Nazis destroy a number of Jewish properties, in a media regards as a minor event with few people hurt. The event reminds Isherwood that he has been invited to meet with the prominent Jewish family, The Landauers, who he has had a note of introduction to since leaving England. He decides to introduce himself to the family, and ends up dating one of the Landauer girls, who shares his love of the cinema. The family own a major department store, and the father gives Isherwood a grand tour of the shops within it. The head of the family (and business) Bernard, was reluctant to help the Communists in the doomed Spartakist uprisings, and his reluctance to participate in the campaigns of the Left is seen as very telling on what would happen to the Jews later.  Their pacifism, and reluctance to help combat what was going wrong around them would lead to the horrors of the Holocaust later.

 

This storey is set before the departure of Sally Bowles, who also features in this story. She upsets the dinner party she attends with the family by making Anti-Semitic remarks, and talking of pornography. The meeting with Sally creates friction between Isherwood and Natalie, and their relationship slowly sours. Bernard, however continues to be a friend, and invites Isherwood to his English style cottage in the German countryside, but the author feels out of place in the rich man’s circle of friends.  (This is set at the time when poverty had driven Isherwood to have to live with the appalling Nowak family in the preceding story in this collection).

 

The family receive death threats in writing from anonymous Nazis, but ignore them as crank mail. The Nazis even threaten a family uncle who Te Landauers believe to be safe because he lives in Warsaw (Poland being of course invaded as World War Two erupted in earnest about the time the book went to press). Soon afterwards, Isherwood, about to leave Germany himself, learns that his friend Bernard has died. The official media reports say he died of a heart attack, but everyone suspects he was shot or sent to the now elected Nazi party concentration camps. 

 

Having discussed this, friends around Isherwood begin to tell Jewish jokes as the story ends.

 

A BERLIN DIARY WINTER 1932-3 is the closing story. In the last few months of his stay, Isherwood sees Berlin in the grip of a terrible winter, and the normally optimistic, happy regular friends he has met seem melancholic. They cling nostalgically to the past, unable to think of the uncertain future.  The author sees a boxing club where the bouts are obviously fixed but the Germans bet on the outcome anyway;  - Isherwood notes that they seem willing to believe anything. Conflict between Communist and Nazi intensifies. Isherwood sees one Communist beaten badly, and blinded in one eye by Nazi thugs.  The children are drawn increasingly into scout groups (precursors to the Hitler Youth). Nazis collect funds from even people they beat up regularly, as everyone is too afraid not to donate. The newspapers become increasingly juvenile in quality and give endless lists of new crimes and punishments. Isherwood makes plans to get out of Germany while he still can, and on his last day, the sun shines and the people look happy and free, but it is a dangerous illusion. Isherwood notes that he feels guilty because he too is smiling.

 

See the companion volume review at CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD – MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS

 

Arthur Chappell

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