Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin
Isherwood originally intended to write a huge episodic novel of pre-Hitler Berlin called The Lost. He never completed it but this novel, which is, in fact, six linked but separate episodes, and Mr. Norris Changes Trains are all that remains of his scheme. As with Mr. Norris Changes Trains, much of the novel revolves around Fräulein Schroeder’s rooming house and its occupants. Of the six stories, by far the best known is Sally Bowles, not least because it has been transposed to the theatre and the cinema, first as John van Druten’s play I Am A Camera (the second paragraph of the story reads I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking, a statement that turns to be quite inaccurate) and the film adapted from the play and then as the stage musical, Cabaret and the film of the musical.
Sally Bowles is probably Isherwood’s greatest creation. She was based on Jean Ross, a Scottish woman who would become Claud Cockburn‘s second wife and her surname came from the writer Paul Bowles, whom Isherwood had recently met in Berlin. In the story, the hero/narrator, called Christopher Isherwood, though Fräulein Schroeder insists on calling him Herr Issyvoo, meets her through a mutual friend. He is clearly in love with her, though she has a succession of affairs, primarily with rich men. She is what Isherwood called gay (in the old sense of the word), lives for the moment, is totally straightforward, massacres the German language, lives on prairie oysters and just wants to enjoy herself. She treats Isherwood as a friend or, perhaps as a brother, calling on him when he is needed. Her affairs often end badly as the men have their fun and then move on, leaving her, in one case, pregnant (Isherwood helps her get an abortion). After this things cool off and, though he does see her again, the relationship fades away and, eventually, she moves away. He gets a postcard from Paris and then Rome and then nothing.
The other stories are less interesting, only because there is no Sally Bowles. We do get to see the Berlin of the time and the rise of the Nazis, as in Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Indeed, we see both sides of the coin. In one story, Isherwood, who is temporarily broke, stays with the Nowaks, a not very well-off family. The father is a drunk, the younger brother, whom Isherwood had met in a previous story as a hustler, is lazy and always feeling sorry for himself and Frau Nowak ends up in the sanatorium. The other side concerns his friends, the Landauers. They are a rich Jewish family that owns a successful department store. Isherwood has a letter of introduction to them but does not use it, till Fräulein Schroeder makes a gratuitous anti-Semitic remark. He becomes friends with them, particularly the daughter, Natalia, a gracious and shy young woman, and Bernhard, the nephew and manager of the store. Not only do we follow the relationship between Isherwood and the two Landauers but we also see the rise of the Nazis and what that means for the Landauers. It is not, of course, good.
The stories are more episodes than plot-based stories. They give a picture of Berlin as Hitler is on the rise and give portraits of the very different people of Berlin. For Isherwood, the working people are key and the Nazis and anti-Semitism come to the fore despite the working people not because of them. While Sally Bowles is his major achievement, Isherwood’s affection for the Berliners is genuine and well worth reading.
First published 1939 by Hogarth Press