on 17 March 2005
"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking," wrote Christopher Isherwood, at the beginning of "Goodbye to Berlin." "Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed." In the six portraits of Weimar Berlin that comprise "Goodbye To Berlin," Isherwood chronicles his life among the demimonde in this gloriously decadent capital city. He lived there, off and on, between 1929 and 1933. These marvelous stories are a fusion of fact and fiction. With each tale, and the passing of time, the sense of foreboding and the author's prophetic imagery intensifies, as Germany prepares to embrace Adolph Hitler.
Berlin was still a charming city of broad avenues, parks and cafés during this period. It was also a grotesque metropolis of night-people, visionaries, political fanatics - a place filled with intrigue, where vice and virtue were found in abundance - more of the former than the latter. 1930s Berlin was a powerful city of mobs and millionaires. And it was one huge salon, a center of European intellectual life where the arts and sciences flourished. This is the scene which provides a backdrop for Isherwood's stories.
The six "Goodbye To Berlin" stories form a relatively continuous narrative. In "A Berlin Diary - Autumn 1930," Isherwood introduces the reader to his landlady, the infamous Fraulein Schroeder, "Schroederschen," who calls him Herr Issyvoo. She is able to recite a history of her former lodgers by looking at the spots, stains and spillages left behind on her furniture, carpets and linens. Fellow flatmates include: Frl. Kost, a young woman, plump, blonde and pretty, who makes a living at the world's oldest profession - extremely upscale, of course; Bobby, who is a mixer at a west-end bar called the Troika, has adopted an English Christian name because they are all the rage; a commercial traveler, who is out most of the time, lives in the tiny attic which Frl. Schroeder refers to as the Swedish Pavilion; and Frl. Mayr, with her enormous arms, bull-dog jaw and coarse string-colored hair, is a music hall singer - the best in all of Germany, Schroeder assures with pride.
"Sally Bowles" certainly is divine decadence, and her antics make for a wonderful story. I had a difficult time keeping the image of Liza Minnelli singing "Cabaret" out of my mind, however. I must say though, after reading about Isherwood's Sally, I have to laud Ms. Minnelli on her performance. Her characterization is indeed recognizable in this Ms. Bowles.
"On Ruegen Island - Summer 1931" describes the author's holiday and the two characters he becomes involved with at a summer resort, Otto Nowak and Peter Wilkinson. Otto is a working class German youth, who uses his attractiveness to freeload off of men and women alike, rather than earn an honest wage. Peter Wilkinson, an Englishman living in Berlin, is extremely neurotic and very attached to Otto, although the two quarrel and bicker constantly.
"The Nowaks," Otto, (of Ruegen Island), and his immediate family, take Isherwood in as a lodger. As money becomes more difficult to come by and the effects of hyperinflation take their toll on Christopher's pocketbook, he has to economize and temporarily leaves Frl. Schroeder's relatively luxurious flat, for the slum-like, working-class projects of Wassertorstrasse.
In "The Landaurers," a wealthy Jewish family is aware of what is in store with the rise of Hitler's Nazism. Natalie befriends Isherwood, and through her so does her family. In this story the perils ahead are obvious and the Landaurers make preparations to leave Germany.
And in "A Berlin Diary - Winter - 1932-33," Isherwood bids farewell to Berlin. He will not return until 1952.
These are well written and important stories which paint a picture of a never-to-be-forgotten time. The language and content give a real sense of the period, and Christopher Isherwood's taut and descriptive narrative is superb. Highly recommended!