#19: The Berlin Stories (1945), by Christopher Isherwood

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought, of Natalia: She has escaped — none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.

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Christopher Isherwood, born in 1904 to a prosperous English family, dropped out of medical school, renounced his middle-class upbringing, and followed his friend and mentor W.H. Auden to Berlin in 1929, a place synonymous with decadence, where the public attitude toward homosexuality was far less restrictive.

His four-year sojourn produced a pair of “documentary novels” that Otto Friedrich in his history of pre-Nazi Berlin Before the Deluge called “a matchless portrait of the city.” Eight decades later, those novels have retained their potency and historical value.

Even after Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, he seemed to know his window for capturing his experiences was closing and began writing with no little urgency, as Brian Finney notes in his biography of the author:

Prompted by…alarming predictions, Isherwood lived throughout most of the 1930s quite sure that war would break out at any moment. He begged [Virginia’s husband] Leonard Woolf to publish Mr. Norris Changes Trains earlier, convinced that by 1935 it would ‘no longer have any meaning whatever’ because, as he wrote to [his friend, poet Stephen] Spender in November, ‘what with Yugo-Slavia and the Saar, I have the gravest doubts whether my novel will ever see the light at all.’

It is in this context that the reader encounters this next title on the Time Magazine list, the omnibus volume The Berlin Stories, which collects the two novels almost solely responsible, according to Friedrich, for “[creating] the image we have of Berlin in the 1920s”: Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935; later published in the U.S. with the weaker title The Last of Mr. Norris), and Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

Each novel individually has its merits, but it’s when taken together that Isherwood’s achievement comes into focus, portraying with great sympathy (and, as we’ll see, a disciplined and occasionally troubling lack of authorial judgment) a motley crew of characters who believed they could, for a time, dance and drink away the inexorable horror that awaited them.

Of the two, Mr. Norris Changes Trains is by some distance the lesser book, a clumsily-executed spy novel that Isherwood barely commits to, with a frustratingly elusive protagonist at its center. Beginning with their meet-cute on a train, the narrator’s relationship with the garrulous Norris never really evolves past the discovery phase.

Goodbye to Berlin, told in six distinct sections spanning Isherwood’s four years in Germany, is more confident, more mature, and boasts more finely-drawn characters, none more than Sally Bowles, the promiscuous ingenue later portrayed with Oscar-winning panache by Liza Minnelli in the film adaptation Cabaret.

Sally is the best thing about either book, a much-needed energy infusion, and her brief reunion with Christopher toward the end of Berlin turbo-charges what had become an increasingly dour narrative (which, to be fair, had good reason to be dour).

About Isherwood’s prose, I submit that it is the least distinguishable of all the authors I’ve written about so far. If someone were to produce an excerpt from one of these books a couple years from now, I’m not certain I could identify it as Isherwood’s without some context clues. His style is neither ornate nor minimalist, offering instead a detached, impressionistic retelling of events around him, an approach he prepares us for in Berlin’s most quoted passage: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Adding to the intrigue is Isherwood’s decision to name the two narrators of these books, respectively, William Bradshaw (the author’s two middle names) and Christopher Isherwood, though in a disclaimer preceding Goodbye to Berlin, he warns against looking too much into that; the ‘Christopher Isherwood’ character, he claims, is “a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more.”

This approach, while allowing Isherwood to portray his friends and associates with no hint of judgment whatsoever, also renders the two narrators completely forgettable and strangely emotionless to the seismic political change swirling around them until the final stages of the book.

Late in the novel, Christopher is sitting in a Prague restaurant when he overhears a man talking about Bernhard Landauer, the cousin of a young woman he had tutored, who was not able to make it out of the country with her; newspapers say he died of “heart failure.”

“There’s a lot of heart failure,” the man continues, “in Germany these days.”

It would still take more than a coy author’s note to dissuade a reader from viewing these novels as thinly-fictionalized autobiography. Analogues abound: The titular Arthur Norris was based, all parties agree, on Gerald Hamilton, once described as “the wickedest man in Europe.” Isherwood confirmed after her death that the inspiration for Sally Bowles was British singer Jean Ross. And the Landauers —both Bernhard and his cousin Natalia — were based on two unrelated people: one of them, Wilfrid Israel, was an instrumental figure in the Kindertransport, the rescue mission that sent some 10,000 Jewish children to Great Britain beginning in 1938.

It is the Nowaks and the Landauers who linger longest in memory and haunt the reader after the book is finished. The four most “distinctive” characters in The Berlin Stories (Norris, Sally, and the two narrators) are foreigners; by the time the Nazis took over Berlin, they managed to find their way out. How poignant it becomes then to read about those native Berliners who are forced to accept that their city has irrevocably changed and must adapt in spite of it, as Christopher discovers about his mercurial landlady:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime…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 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.

The Berlin Stories will not end up near the top of my favorites list when this project is done; the first novel is too uneven, and as I wrote earlier, Isherwood’s prose doesn’t stand out enough. But its inclusion in this list is justified for its evocation of a time and place that threatened to be lost to history, and for Isherwood’s clear and all-accepting love for the people he met along the way.

——

Invaluable source for this piece: Christopher Isherwood: A Critical Biography, by Brian Finney.

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