Home > 1930, 20th Century, British Literature, Classics, Highly Recommended, Isherwood Christopher > 20 Books of Summer #14: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood – Disquieting

20 Books of Summer #14: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood – Disquieting

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1938) French title: Adieu à Berlin. Translated by Ludmila Savitsky

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was published in 1938. It is composed of six pieces set in pre-WWII Berlin. They are in chronological order and feature characters that overlap from one piece to the other. The narrator is named after the author, but he claims in the foreword that there’s nothing to read into it and that “’Christopher Isherwood is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more”. I’ll call him the Narrator, to avoid any confusion between the writer and his literary doppelganger.

Goodbye to Berlin opens with A Berlin Diary – Autumn 1930 and ends with A Berlin Diary – Winter 1932-3. A contemporary reader immediately knows that the Narrator will picture Berlin during crucial years, the ones when the Nazis took power. Between these two bookends, we’ll spend some time with Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers and spend the summer 1931 On Ruegen Island with the Narrator.

We get to meet with Berliners in one of those boarding houses that were so frequent in those times. Frl. Schroeder rents rooms in her flat to survive and the Narrator lives there while he supports himself by giving English lessons. He stays there the whole time, except when, broke, he moves in with the Nowaks, a working-class family. While I didn’t care much about Sally Bowles, I was interested in the Nowaks. It gives a good picture of the struggling working class of the city. The part about the Landauers, a Jewish family who owns a famous department store in Berlin, was engaging too. (For the record, the store already has an inhouse nursery to watch the children while their mothers are shopping.)

Isherwood doesn’t write an openly political novel but his description of life in Berlin is a vivid picture of a city that slowly shift from free and impoverished to ruled and controlled by the Nazis. With light touches, the reader feels things change around the Narrator. His students’ type changes: at first, we see him giving lessons to bored upper-class housewives and in the last winter, he teaches English to Germans who want to leave their country and work in the USA.

Unemployment is going up. Bobby, another of Frl. Schroeder’s boarders goes from occasionally working to unemployed. The Nowaks live in a squalid attic, one that regulations declare unfit for accommodation but do they have a choice? Banks go bankrupt, factories close, the price of food goes up. There’s no clear focus on this, details here and there alert the reader and it’s up to them to put the pieces together to have a clear picture.

The more the book progresses, the more the presence of the Nazis and S.A. men makes itself known. It starts with flags and militants. It ends with beatings on the streets, arrests, book burning and Hitler taking power. The night life goes from wild and free to interrupted by police raid in cafés and cabarets. The attacks against the Jews progress, get more and more violent until it is pure persecution.

And the population adapts, like Frl. Schroeder:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to any new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Fürher’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

The Narrator is in a unique position. He lives in Berlin and shares the population’s way-of-life. He’s protected by the safety bubble of his British nationality but at the same time, he’s not there as a newspaper correspondent. He belongs to the Berliner people and is an outsider.

Goodbye to Berlin is the Narrator’s farewell to a city he spent time in and had to leave due to the political circumstances. It’s also his adieu to a certain Berlin, the fun one where he sowed his wild oats. His book is disquieting, especially in the times we’re living. What would I do, if I were in Frl. Schroeder’s shoes? Do we, common people, see dictators coming before it’s too late?

  1. August 30, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages… one of those I bought in a Vintage sale because it was listed in1001 Books. I really must tackle the ones at least that I’ve got, before I die!

    Like

    • August 30, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      Your last sentence made me laugh. I didn’t know it was on the 1001 list. 🙂

      Well, it’s a good book, so you can move it up your pile.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. August 30, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    It’s an awful long time since I read this, on the back of Cabaret which is very different – and I didn’t care for Sally much either. But I would like to revisit it now, because I think there would be some worrying resonances now.

    Like

    • August 30, 2020 at 7:52 pm

      Novels from the 1930s may be a bit worrying in our times. I’d be curious to read your thoughts if you reread it now.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. August 30, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    Right now it’s becoming all too clear how this can happen; battling back can feel like being stuck in a vat of molasses that is slowly hardening with more being poured in. Thank you for an eloquent write-up, time for me to pick them up again.

    Like

    • August 30, 2020 at 7:54 pm

      I agree with you, I’m worried about the blows inflicted to Western democracies these days.

      Like

  4. August 31, 2020 at 8:04 am

    I read this some years ago, and was disappointed – I thought it glorified hedonistic selfishness and largely played down the ugliness of the times. And I suppose that’s what dictators thrive on.

    Like

    • August 31, 2020 at 8:38 pm

      Why would you think that? The Narrator is living on a day-to-day basis, without any other direction than seeing where life will bing him. He’s a dilletante and would-be writer but I don’t understand where the “hedonistic selfshiness” comes from.

      I don’t think he played down the ugliness of the times.
      He was living them and I think what he depicts is exactly the frog-in-the-jar metaphor. The temperature in the jar raises, the frog survives, adapts until it can’t take it anymore and dies because the temperature is too high.
      People gradually adapt and when they realize what is happening, it’s too late to escape.

      Liked by 1 person

      • September 1, 2020 at 12:24 am

        Yes, I’m sure you’re right. It was long ago I read this, and my perception is maybe clouded by what’s happening in the world now – we seem to be making the same mistakes.

        Like

  5. August 31, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    This has been in my TBR pile forever, I really must move it up the pile. As you say, there are worrying parallels with today, we don’t seem to learn from history.

    Like

    • August 31, 2020 at 8:39 pm

      A little readalong with Lisa, maybe? 🙂
      I hope you’ll read it, I’d be interested in your review.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. August 31, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    It’s interesting to read your billet on this, Emma. I think you’ve captured the growing sense of darkness as the book progresses, the increasing incidents of violence and tensions in the city as the Nazis tighten their grip. Isherwood was a great observer of other cultures, like a ‘camera’ as I think the book suggests.

    Like

    • August 31, 2020 at 8:43 pm

      He makes the reader understand how things changed gradually and how people adapted to each new shocking things.

      I don’t agree with Simon’s comment above. I don’t think that he downplayed the ugliness of the times. He shows us how people were struggling to survive. Somes failed to see the bigger picture, some converted to Nazism.

      Like

  7. August 31, 2020 at 6:59 pm

    One of my absolute favourite books, I re-read this every few years! I appreciate your review.

    Like

  8. August 31, 2020 at 8:53 pm

    Ah, Berlin is great, books about Berlin are great. Thank goodness this particular Berlin is gone, though.

    This Isherwood, and the earlier one, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, are must must must reads, given the other books I have been reading. But I have not yet read them.

    Like

    • August 31, 2020 at 10:55 pm

      Well, I need to visit Berlin and you need to read this Isherwood. 🙂

      Like

  9. September 2, 2020 at 11:53 pm

    I think I wrote both about this and Mr Norris Changes Trains at mine a while back. Both are excellent – I should read more Isherwood. Like you I was more interested in the Nowaks than Sally, but Sally has her moments and of course she does have that marvellous film adaptation. I thought Isherwood captured the time well, and therefore disturbingly, at least as much as I can judge obviously not having been alive at the time. The slow escalation, which you bring out here, is well captured.

    Like

    • September 8, 2020 at 8:59 pm

      Sorry for the late answer, somehow I missed your comment.
      I’d like to read Mr Norris Changes Trains too.

      In a way, Isherwood reminds me of Francis Scott Fitzgerald in Tales of the Jazz Age. In appearance it’s light but they capture the essence of their time.

      Like

  1. August 31, 2020 at 10:32 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: