Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood.

GTBThis is set in 1930s Weimar Germany. It’s semiautobiographical and describes pre-Nazi Germany and the people he met: the caring landlady, Frl. Schroeder; the “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles, a young Englishwoman who sings in the local cabaret and her coterie of admirers; Natalia Landauer, the rich, Jewish heiress of a prosperous family business; Peter and Otto, a gay couple struggling to accept their relationship and sexuality in light of the rise of the Nazis.

It was first published in 1939 and highlights the groups of people who would be most at risk from Nazi intimidation. It was described by contemporary writer George Orwell as “Brilliant sketches of a society in decay.” In his autobiography Without Stopping, the author and composer Paul Bowles suggests that Isherwood, whom he met in Berlin, may have borrowed his surname for the character Sally Bowles. Isherwood confirms this in his 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, writing, “[I] liked the sound of it and also the looks of its owner.”

A continual theme throughout the book is what people will put up with as their conditions gradually decline and what people will continue to accept as normal. This can be seen in Sally’s association with the man who swindles her of money, claiming to be a film producer. He asks her to marry him and she puts up with his uncouth behaviour in hopes of fame and fortune. He later turns out in fact to be a penniless 16 year old boy who is mentally disturbed. Another example of this normalising attitude can also be seen in the conditions the Nowaks live in with too many beds crammed into a small flat between other furniture and a dripping ceiling. It can also be evidenced in the gradually worsening relations between Otto and Peter who come to despise each other but continue to bicker, argue and needle each other for much longer than is healthy in order to sustain their relationship.

Quotations:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”

‘Because I have given my own name to the ‘I’ of this narrative, readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical, or that its characters are libellously exact portraits, of living persons. ‘Christopher Isherwood’ is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more.’

‘Poor Frl. Schroeder is inconsolable: ‘I shall never find another gentleman like you, Herr Issyvoo – always so punctual with the rent … I’m sure I don’t know what makes you want to leave Berlin, all of a sudden, like this …’ It is no use trying to explain to her , or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself as she will adapt herself to every new regime.’ And he continues, ‘After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.’

‘Like everyone in Berlin, she refers continually to the political situation, but only briefly, with a conventional melancholy, as when one speaks of religion. It is quite unreal to her. She means to go to university, travel about, have a jolly good time and eventually, of course, marry.’

‘Yes, Herr Issyvoo, I’ve got something to remember each of them by … Look here, on the rug – I’ve sent it to the cleaners I don’t know how often but nothing will get it out – that’s where Herr Noeske was sick after his birthday party.’

‘I am so sorry,’ said Frl. Hippi, rising, ‘but for today we must finish. And we shall see us again on Friday? Then goodbye, Mr Isherwood. And I thank you very much.’

‘Oh, hullo, Chris darling!’ cried Sally from the doorway. ‘How sweet of you to come! I was feeling most terribly lonely. I’ve been crying on Frau Karpf’s chest. Nicht wahr, Frau Karpf? She appealed to the toad landlady, ‘ich habe geweint auf Dein Brust.’ Frau Karpf shook her bosom in a toad-like chuckle.

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