Thursday, 21 February 2013

Review: Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood

Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood

Vintage, 1989 (1939)

'I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,' are the famous lines on the first page. This a semi-autobiographical account of Isherwood's time in 1930s Berlin.

Written as a connected series of six short stories the book, first published in 1939, is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society. Isherwood shows the lives of people at threat from the rise of the Nazis: Natalia Landauer, the rich, Jewish heiress, Peter and Otto, a gay couple and the 'divinely decadent' Sally Bowles, a young English woman who was so memorably portrayed by Liza Minnelli.

Goodbye to Berlin takes place in the earlier 1930s, when Germany was in a state of transition from the Weimar Republic to Nazi rule. Christopher Isherwood, the character at the centre of all six stories (based on, but not a mirror of, the author), is an Englishman living in Berlin whilst attempting to write a novel.

Each of the stories focuses on different characters that criss-cross through Christopher's life. There is Sally, the flighty British girl who speaks terrible German and sleeps with rich men in return for money and gifts, and Peter, a rather timid man struggling to make sense of his relationship with Otto, who is young and carefree and treats Peter very badly, yet neither of them will leave the other. Later, Christopher ends up living with Otto's family, the Nowaks, in a two-room attic apartment with a broken window. Throughout, there is an atmosphere of shabby decadence. Everyone seems to be poor, living hand to mouth, yet with an almost fatalistic atmosphere lurking somewhere behind it all. Christopher is so poor at one point he moves in with the Nowaks, yet at other times he schemes with Sally to travel across Europe as the guests of one of her admirers, and he and Bernhard, a member of the prominent Jewish Landauer family, who own a large department store, tiptoe around the idea of getting out of Germany together, yet both are reluctant to admit they are serious.

Underneath all of this is the gradual encroachment of Nazism, and a threatening aura seeps through, particular in the later stories. There are protests against Jewish shop owners, and Landauer's is boycotted (Christopher defiantly goes in to buy a pair of socks anyway). In the final story, Christopher documents an overheard conversation in which two men discuss how some people have simply started to 'disappear'.

This is really a snapshot of history, a picture of Germany's capital on the verge of something monumental. The fact that it was written in 1935, and published four years later, demonstrates how German society was prior to World War II, from the perspective of someone who lived through it. A lot of the remarks made in the book are quite chilling now in their prescience. There is a lot of talk from different characters in the book about how they are living in a 'post-war' period, without realising that they are not so far from another.

"She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the 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." (255)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.


  1. Hi there!

    I hope you're having a great day. I just wanted to let you know I’ve nominated your blog for the Liebster Award.

  2. Great review, Kit. I'll have to read this one.


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