Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

This new method of just mooching through my shelves is already a vast improvement on the bookish burn out I was in danger of a while ago, and I am only on day four! Actually over lunch yesterday myself and Kimbofo were discussing the merits and possibilities of doing ‘a Susan Hill’ and bar being bought books by friends and sent review books not buying a single book in 2010. Neither of us has said we are definitely doing it but we mused it for some time. Anyway I didn’t have a book to read after the weekend so when I got an invite on Sunday night to see Cabaret yesterday I went and found my copy of the book that started it all off ‘Goodbye To Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood.

Goodbye to Berlin is less a novel, though it classifies itself as one, and more a collection of four stories and two diary entries. All these tales are based around the underground and lower end of society in 1930’s Germany as the Nazi’s slowly come to power and there is a great time of change in Berlin. Though written from the perspective of Christopher Isherwood a young writer at the time these, the author clarifies in the introduction, are all works of fiction – I wasn’t sure if I believed that as the characters we meet are so vivid.

One of the stories in the book, which do all interlink, and possibly my favourites is Sally Bowles and was the story that inspired the film I Am Camera that then became the iconic Cabaret. Sally is a wonderful character living on the wrong side of town and hanging out with the wrong kind of people invariably getting herself into trouble. She moves into the same apartment as Christopher that we see in the first Berlin Diary where we also meet the wonderful landlady Fraulein Schroeder who is a wonderful motherly, yet incredibly nosey landlady who takes in the tenants other people wouldn’t rent to.

We also see how men who liked men coped with such a forbidden love in On Ruegen Island, and tales of poverty in The Nowaks and The Landauers before a wonderful final Berlin Diary as Isherwood, both the character and the narrator bid farewell to the city and the love affair they have had with it and the people who walk its back streets. Through all of these tales we meet the minorities and the rejects of Berlin who give an unusual insight into Berlin during its history that I hadn’t read the likes of before.

Actually I tell a slight lie as some of the characters that you meet in the wonderful The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin are part of the Berlin Cabaret set though maybe not so vivid and that in part is why I find it hard to believe that the characters we meet, emotions we feel and the streets we walk are purely fictional they come so fully formed and so full of life even in the most difficult of circumstances.

I really loved this book, I sadly really didn’t love the version of Cabaret that I went to see this week though but I shall say no more. I thought all the characters I met in this book were wonderful and think Sally Bowles may be one of my favourite characters of the year. I also loved seeing that period in history and the lead up to WWII and the Nazi Regimes rise to power through such a different perspective utterly enthralling. It’s also wonderfully written evoking the emotions of the people and the sounds and smells of the streets.

I already have the other of Isherwood’s Berlin books Mr. Norris Changes Trains and may have to read that very soon. I may break one of my reading rules as normally I like to hold off from another read by a wonderful author I have just discovered, does anyone else do this? However with my new ‘read whatever’ whim takes me on or follow whatever journey the books I read lead me on and I feel Isherwood’s Berlin has much more to tell. Has anyone else read these or any other of Isherwood’s non-Berlin based books?


Filed under Books of 2009, Christopher Isherwood, Review, Vintage Classics

8 responses to “Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

  1. I really enjoyed reading this; I was encouraged to read it before starting history a level (which kicked off with a module on Weimar Germany) and it was my first taste of reading around a subject by reading relevant fiction/autobiographies. I found it fascinating. I’ve not seen the film nor the show but would love to, and it was wonderful rereading it when I went to Berlin a few years back.

    • I have never been to Berlin, though now through Lilly Aphrodite and especially with this wonderful book I do feel I sort of have if that doesnt sound too pretentious? This in particluar makes me wish I could go there, possibly in a time machine to see all these streets and characters for real.

  2. He does a wonderful job capturing the experience of a city, doesn’t he. This book is a favorite of mine, too. I see what you mean about finding it hard to believe the people are fictional. I believe they are all based on real people he meant. He does give that little speach in the introduction about how his technique is to become a camera and simply record what he sees without comment or moralizing on it. That makes it even harder to see the book as fiction.

    I’ve also read A Single Man which is about a man living in Los Angelos. I enjoyed it as well. Again he does a marvelous job capturing the experience of a particular city. He has this wonderful passage about driving the freeways in Los Angelos. He says one must experience it in a Zen like, meditative state. He’s got much more to it than that. I remember the first time I drove the freeways on L.A.–I found he was completely right about the experience.

    I can only assume he was completely right about 1930’s Berlin. I’ve been to Berlin twice and love the city. It’s easy to imagine his characters living there, and to imagine what the city was like in 1930. But, of course, it’s changed since then.

    • I like the sound of A Single Man and if he can make all the places he writes about as evocative as he does Berlin with this book I think I am going to enjoy more and more of his work. I feel I have found a new author I want to go on lots of adventures with!

      Thanks for the further Isherwood recommendations.

  3. Looking at my reading spreadsheet, I see that I have read more Isherwood than I thought I had. Everything that I have read by him I have liked, some more than others of course. The World in the Evening and A Single Man are good. Jacobs Hands is a fable that he co-wrote with Aldous Huxley and it is an interesting, quick read. One that I really liked I read fairly recently. A Meeting by the River is about a brother that goes to India to see his brother who is about to become a Brother. That is a monk. The point of view shifts back and forth from one brother to the other, so you get a sense of what both brothers don’t say to each other. An excellent read.

    • You have a reading sreadsheet… so do I!!! Thats brilliant, I hardly know anyone else who has one of those.

      A Meeting By The River sounds unusual and wonderful, thats another one to look out for. Interesting that you havent read a dud one of his books, thats a very good sign.

      • kimbofo

        Hehehe, I used to have a reading spreadsheet, but I ditched it this year because it was getting too friggin’ complicated. I now just keep a list of the books in my TBR pile.

        By the way, have always meant to read something by Isherwood but have never got around to it. This might be the impetus I need.

  4. Pingback: A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood « Savidge Reads

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