Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Review: Berlin Books - Goodbye to Berlin

In the run-up to Christmas I decided to put together a series of reviews on books about Berlin, both fiction and non-fiction. Here's the first installment...

Goodbye to Berlin (or the Berlin Stories): Christopher Isherwood

I love this book. Usually it comes packaged as 'the Berlin Stories' along with 'Mr Norris Changes Trains', but the Mr Norris story is not a patch on what can be found in Goodbye to Berlin, mainly because as a character, Mr Norris is just plain annoying. Mr Norris Changes Trains, or 'The Last of Mr Norris' as it sometimes called, is a kind of comic Goodbye to Berlin-lite. I want to stick to the real thing:

The book/novel is split into various chapters about certain moments or times in Isherwood's life in Berlin. Of course, Isherwood always called it a novel, but then muddied the waters by calling the narrator, well, Christopher Isherwood. It is based on the time he lived in Berlin, 1929 - 1933, the period between the Wall Street Crash and Hitler's rise to power. As a snap-shot of life in Berlin during this turbulant period there are not many better, and although the majority of the stories contained in Goodbye to Berlin deal with characters and the details of their lives, the political situation is never far away from the action.

This is the case with the Nazi Isherwood and his friends meet on the beach in Ruegen, or with the issue of the Jewish boycotts of the Landauers department store...whilst you read about the struggles between Otto and Peter and their relationship on Ruegen, or of the family dynamics of the Landauer family, the sense of Berlin in a particular time and place remains strong throughout.

And then of course there is Sally Bowles. The character who is the inspiration behind the film Cabaret, and arguably the main character in Goodbye to Berlin after the narrator. Or perhaps even more so; the 1975 edition of 'the Berlin Stories' (with Mr Norris included) was entitled 'The Berlin of Sally Bowles' such was her fame beyond the book. Isherwood himself seemed to be in thrall to her, and what the character became in the wider world, but for me I find Sally a little cold, dippy, and unsympathetic.

I would much rather read about the entertaining Nowak family, or the other stories I mentioned, and at one point even the Isherwood character loses his patience with Miss Bowles. I could well understand why he got fed up with her. What I couldn't work out was why, in the end, he could never stay away from her. Regardless of my problems with Sally, Goodbye to Berlin remains one of my favourite Berlin books because of the way it invokes the atmosphere of the time, of a city on the brink of something but no-one knows what, and how that situation manifested itself in the social, economic and political lives of ordinary people who lived there.

This is what gives the book a sense of melancholy and sadness, especially when you try to imagine what came next for the characters within...the firebrand Communist, sometime-homosexual, Otto, or the Jewish Landauer family or even Frau Schroeder, Isherwood's landlady. This is Berlin on the edge, a portrait of bohemians, politicos, the rich and the poor, and Ishwerwood manages in a surprisingly small amount of pages to draw them all, and draw them well.

'Berlin Stories', which includes Goodbye to Berlin, is available at Amazon, or if you are in Berlin, you might want to try one of the English Bookshops in Berlin.

More Books on Berlin

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