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

August 30, 2020 20 comments

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?

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