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4.0 out of 5 stars The road to Berlin, 10 Jun 2013
By 
Bob Sherunkle (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
In his preface, Isherwood states that this is not an autobiography "in the ordinary journalistic sense of the word" (whatever that means). His intention is to write a quasi-novel which describes "the first stage in the lifelong education of a novelist". Unless he was worried about any lawsuits, he may as well have written it as a conventional biography; W H Auden and Edward Upward, for example, are unmistakable despite their thinly disguised names ("Weston"/Wystan!)

The story starts with Isherwood in the sixth form, one of a history set being coached by their teacher in the black arts of gaining entrance to Oxbridge. (Sound familiar?) He then proceeds to Cambridge, where his sole occupation is a continual and feverish literary dialogue with "Chalmers" (Upward). Isherwood says: "Never in my life have I been so strongly attracted to any personality." ( Their relationship produced the elaborate Gothic English fantasy world of "Mortmere", born from their obscure literary tastes and an urge to seek out the odder aspects of Cambridge, whether town or gown. See the complete Mortmere Stories or Upward's The Railway Accident.) This liaison is purely platonic, but absorbed Isherwood so much that he completely neglected his studies and eventually engineered an early exit from Cambridge.

Isherwood then describes his dilettante life during the mid 1920s. He feels that he would never pass "The Test", being the weak antithesis of "the truly strong man". Finally he decides, apparently quite quickly, to join "Weston"/Auden in Berlin. (He doesn't admit what the attraction of Berlin was for him, but it's common knowledge now.)

Much as I love this book - first read 40 years ago after seeing Cabaret - I have to say it is good, but not great, for two reasons. One is its constant affectation of tone; Isherwood frequently comments on this, but it doesn't stop him. The other is the absence of any political conscience, an example of the attitude which led towards Orwell's hate of the group he called "the Nancy poets". (Although the book is written about the 1920s, it wasn't published until 1937, by when any intelligent person who had lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933 must have been aware of Hitler's agenda.)
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