Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood
Back towards the end of 2013 I read Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, a book Isherwood himself later harshly criticised but which I loved. It almost made my 2013 end of year list, just squeezed out by Berlin Alexanderplatz in the surprisingly hotly contested Best Novel Set in Berlin category.
Goodbye to Berlin is the second in Isherwood’s loosely linked Berlin stories collection. It was published in 1939, four years after Norris and with Germany on the brink of war. It’s a portrait of a city in violent decline; of an increasingly intolerant culture that has neither room nor sympathy for marginal people.
Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle-class.
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.
Goodbye to Berlin conjures the disappearing city back to life in all its squalor and glory. Berlin is one of the great cinematic cities, and Isherwood’s camera captures it well. A city though is nothing without its people, and Isherwood shines there too with a cast of sharply distinguished characters drawn from life. Most famous of all of these of course is the inimitable Sally Bowles:
I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. … Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.
‘Frau Karpf, Leibling, willst Du sein ein Engel and bring zwei Tassen von Kaffee?’ Sally’s German was not merely incorrect, it was all her own. She pronounced every word in a mincing, specially ‘foreign’ manner. You could tell that she was speaking a foreign language from her expression alone.
Sally Bowles for me, and I imagine for most people, is inseparable from Liza Minelli’s career-defining performance in Cabaret. It’s a film I first saw as a teenager and which I’ve enjoyed several times since, never tiring of it. It’s an absolute classic.
The difficulty with seeing a film before you read the book it’s based on is that the film can define (and thus limit) the book. Instead of a world of imagined possibilities you see Liza Minelli or Sean Connery or whoever played a character in the film. It’s therefore a tribute to Goodbye Berlin that as I read it I saw past the film to Isherwood’s characters.
Here Sally is an English teenager, though no less precocious than in the film. She’s a terrible singer and her cabaret career is short-lived. Like Holly Golightly she makes her money from rats and super-rats (not that she calls them that, but while the labels and countries might differ the men don’t much). Also like Holly she gets by on a combination of charm, self-belief and never looking back.
Sally looms large but is just one of a fascinating cast. Fraulein Schroeder, first met in Norris, reappears here still letting out rooms to eke out her pension; later Isherwood spends a summer with Peter, a gay intellectual, and Otto, Peter’s more sexually fluid working class boyfriend; from there Isherwood comes to share a cramped Berlin apartment for a while with Otto’s family the Nowaks, including Otto’s brother in the Hitler Youth; and finally there’s the rich Landauers, Jewish owners of a rich Berlin apartment store with whom Isherwood becomes friends.
It’s a rich brew. Sally makes her money by sleeping with older men (the only younger one she sleeps with turns out to be making his money by sleeping with older women), but it’s hard to see where she’d fit into the Nazi ideal of Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Peter loves Otto and jealously tries to control him with money, while Otto rebels by staying out late and sleeping with women. They have no future together, but then Peter at least has no future in Germany at all.
The Nowaks and Fraulein Schroeder are ordinary working class people, likable and on a personal level open minded. They don’t hate Jews or gays or even have any particular opinion on them, but the economy is stagnant and there are bills to pay and you have to adapt to the times you live in…
Meanwhile the Landauers are well-off, educated and sophisticated. They’re established, establishment even. It’s hard for them to believe that there’s no longer a place in Germany for them, let alone the places the Nazis have in mind to send them to. Isherwood can see it because he’s already seen what the Nazis do to the powerless, and he can see that the Landauer’s money won’t grant them any immunity.
If there’s a common theme here it’s of people dancing on the brink of an abyss. Rich or poor, gay or straight, middle class or working, each of them slowly adjusts almost without noticing to a world that gets a little uglier every day. What’s happening is there to see all around them, but the facts are too terrible to be acknowledged so mostly they close their eyes or play down its significance.
Some of course do recognise what’s happening, Isherwood among them. He has the luxury of being able to leave. Others who should do the same either can’t, or won’t.
Every evening, I sit in the big half-empty artists’ café by the Memorial Church, where the Jews and left-wing intellectuals bend their heads together over the marble tables, speaking in low, scared voices. Many of them know that they will certainly be arrested – if not today, then tomorrow or next week. So they are polite and mild with each other, and raise their hats and inquire after their colleagues’ families. Notorious literary tiffs of several years’ standing are forgotten.
The book closes in the winter of 1932. Fraulein Schroeder, who once voted Communist, now talks “reverently about ‘Der Fuhrer'”. The Nowaks are likely doing the same. “After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” Along the way this is a charming and funny novel, filled with quotable scenes and likable characters. That’s what makes it so very sad.