Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

First published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin consists of a series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by the author’s time in the city during the early 1930s. Originally destined to form part of a large episodic novel focusing on the pre-Hitler era, Goodbye can now be viewed as a companion piece to Isherwood’s earlier novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Together, the two books form The Berlin Novels, published in the UK by Vintage Books. Given the fact that Mr Norris made my end-of-year highlights in 2016, I had high hopes for this second instalment – luckily it did not disappoint.

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Goodbye opens with A Berlin Diary, a series of vignettes taken from the autumn of 1930 when Isherwood was living in a room at a traditional boarding house in the heart of the city. It’s an interesting place, full of colourful characters, all of whom remain under the watchful eye of the landlady, the inquisitive but kindly Frl. Schroeder. Christopher – or ‘Herr Issyvoo’ as she calls him – is clearly her favourite. This chapter acts as an excellent scene-setter, giving the reader a brief flavour of some of the inhabitants of the house: there is the young lady of the night, Frl. Kost; the butch music-hall singer, Frl. Mayr; and the smartly-dresser mixer from the Troika bar, Bobby. It all makes for an eclectic mix, especially given the fact that Bobby and Frl. Kost are having an affair, a development that may well explain Frl. Schroeder’s jealousy over the girl.

Without a doubt, the standout piece in this novel is the second story, Sally Bowles. An English girl by birth, 19-year-old Sally came to Berlin with a girlfriend in the hope of finding work as a singer/actress. By the time she meets Christopher through a mutual friend, Sally is just about scraping a living, singing (quite badly) at one of the city’s bars, the Lady Windermere. Nevertheless, she makes quite an impression on Christopher, dressed as she is in black silk ‘with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head’. Here’s a brief excerpt from Christopher’s first encounter with Sally, a meeting which takes place at their friend’s flat – Sally has just asked her friend Fritz if she can use his phone.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’ Her mouth opened in a fatuously sweet smile. Fritz and I sat watching her, like a performance at the theatre.

[…]

She hung up the receiver and turned to us triumphantly.

‘That’s the man I slept with last night,’ she announced. He makes love marvellously. He’s an absolute genius at business and he’s terribly rich –’ She came and sat down on the sofa beside Fritz, sinking back into the cushions with a sigh. ‘Give me some coffee, will you, darling? I’m simply dying of thirst.’ (p. 269, The Berlin Novels)

I love that passage as it seems to capture the essence of Sally’s character – in particular, her alluring voice and provocative behaviour.

Fairly soon after their first meeting, Sally invites Christopher to tea at her lodgings a gloomy semi-furnished place presided over by a rather eccentric old landlady. Before long the pair strike up a somewhat unlikely friendship, spending time with one another on a fairly regular basis, much to the delight of Frl. Schroeder who imagines Sally as a potential partner for her favourite boarder.

The afternoon Sally came to tea with me, Frl. Schroeder was beside herself with excitement. She put on her best dress for the occasion and waved her hair. When the door-bell rang, she threw open the door with a flourish. ‘Herr Issyvoo,’ she announced, winking knowingly at me and speaking very loud, ‘there’s a lady to see you!’ (p.280) 

While she longs to be a famous actress, Sally never makes much of an effort to find any suitable work. Instead, she falls for a handsome musician, Klaus, the pianist from the Lady Windermere. In time, this relationship breaks down, but Sally soon gets over it. She gets by on a diet of cigarettes and Prairie Oysters, forever hoping that a rich lover might come along to keep her in the manner to which she aspires. It’s an utterly charming story, a wonderful tribute to this larger-than-life character from Isherwood’s past.

On Ruegen Island, the third piece in the sequence, tells of a summer Christopher spends by the Baltic Sea. While there he meets two other men: Peter Wilkinson, a rather nervous, uptight English chap of a similar age to Isherwood himself, and Otto Nowak, a 16-year-old working class boy from Berlin. Although Peter and Otto are living together, their relationship is far from solid. Otto, a gregarious, physical lad, is keen to go dancing most evenings, while Peter prefers to stay in their room (or to spend time with Christopher, with whom he seems to have more in common). Somewhat inevitably, Peter and Otto’s relationship comes to an end, and the two men go their separate ways: Peter back to England and Otto to Berlin.

Once he is back in the capital, Christopher re-establishes contact with Otto in the hope of finding a cheap room in his part of the city. As it happens, Frau Nowak (Otto’s mother) takes a shine to her son’s rather cultured friend, and Christopher ends up moving into the Nowaks’ crowded flat, a noisy, damp and smelly dwelling in one of the city’s dilapidated tenement buildings. What follows is a series of colourful vignettes as Christopher finds himself caught in the middle of the Nowaks’ antics. Young Otto proves to be a source of near-constant torment to his mother, forever lazing around the place and getting under her feet as she tries to manage the busy household. Otto, for his part, enjoys making mischief, winding up his mother in the process. It all makes for plenty of fun. Eventually though, Christopher finds life at the Nowaks too distracting; the time has come for him to move on.

At various points in the novel, Isherwood makes reference to the political climate in Berlin at the time. Here’s one of the earliest mentions, taken from the autumn of 1930.

One night in October 1930, about a month after the Elections, there was a big row on the Leipzigerstrasse. Gangs of Nazi roughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews. They manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians, and smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops. The incident was not, in itself, very remarkable, there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests. I remember it only because it was my first introduction to Berlin politics. (p. 409)

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, these instances increase in frequency. Berlin is changing, the atmosphere becoming increasingly uneasy and dangerous by the day, the Nazis more visible on the streets. The outlook is particularly uncertain for the Jews in the city, families like the wealthy and successful Landauers, the subject of the fifth section of the book. Natalia Landauer is a very forthright young lady, and Christopher strikes up a friendship with her by way of a letter of introduction to the household. Perhaps the most interesting character here is Natalia’s cousin, Bernhard, manager of the family’s upmarket department store in Berlin. There is something terribly tragic about Bernhard, a complex character who puzzles, intrigues and frustrates Christopher in fairly equal measure. Once again, the feeling of a world about to crumble is hovering in the background. In this scene, Christopher is at a garden party at Bernhard’s villa in the country. It is the day of a referendum to decide the fate of the Brüning government.

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 a dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch. (p. 453)

As the book draws to a close in the winter of 1932-3, there is a sense of people slowly acclimatising to the new reality of the city, Berliners like Frl. Schroeder who seemed destined to remain there forever.

I really loved this novel with its wealth of engaging vignettes and striking cast of characters. As one might expect, Isherwood’s evocation of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures a little of the book’s humour. It’s typical of some of the passages in the Berlin diaries that bookend the novel. This passage makes reference to a letter Frl. Schroeder has received from one of her former boarders, the singer Frl. Mayr.

Frl. Mayr has also had trouble with her colleagues. At one town, a rival actress jealous of Frl. Mayr’s vocal powers, tried to stab her in the eye with a hairpin. I can’t help admiring that actress’s courage. When Frl. Mayr had finished with her, she was so badly injured that she couldn’t appear on the stage again for a week. (p. 471)

My thanks to Max who persuaded me to read the Berlin novels in the first place – you can read his excellent review of Goodbye here.

26 thoughts on “Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for a wonderful reminder of what makes Isherwood’s Berlin novels so great. Writing the vibrant lives of characters who live at the edges makes for both joyful and sorrowful reading, knowing as we do, what was to come.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. And thank you for such a lovely comment – that’s nice to hear. The poignancy really comes through in the closing stages of the novel. As you say, a signal of things to come…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. You know, it’s funny. While I like the film, I’m not mad about it – something about the visual style doesn’t quite sit right with me (it’s a little hard to articulate, but there we are). Anyway, I much prefer the novels, so it’s interesting to hear your thoughts on Liza Minnelli’s Sally vs Isherwood’s creation on the page!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    The books are much richer, more subtle and poignant than the film, that’s for sure. Thank you for reminding me once more why I love these books so much. Berlin fascinates me as a city, there is a cloak of desperation and poverty hanging about it, no matter how trendy and ‘sexy’ it is supposed to have become now. Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper is actually all about Berlin of the 20s and 30s, rather than London, isn’t it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m completely with you on the comparison between the books and the film. In fact, I think my reservations about the style of Cabaret may well have prevented me from reading Isherwood for several years. It was probably Max’s review of Mr Norris that finally persuaded me to give the Berlin novels a try. I’ve only been to Berlin a few times in recent years, mainly for business rather than for pleasure, but I agree that there is something dark and terribly tragic about it. I was there not long after the fall of the Berlin wall at the end of 1980s, and the atmosphere was quite eerie and unsettling. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it…

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    Lovely review. I don’t know why I never even considered reading this, it sounds so good.
    I could really feel how it darkens towards the end. I think I was mixing this up with some mainstream historical novel. This clearly is a very fine novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I think you’d really like this one. It’s evocative, engaging and very distinctive. Isherwood has a very particular style, one that’s suited to capturing these characters to perfection. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading him.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked the film, but I didn’t love it. To be fair, it’s been absolutely ages since I watched it, so I should probably give it another go now that I’ve read the book. Something about the style of the film didn’t particularly appeal to me at the time, but I’m struggling to be more specific!

      Reply
  4. hastanton

    I must reread these . I read them as a teenager most probably after seeing Cabaret ….they made a huge impression on me , I’d never read anything quite like them before. Great review as ever .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Helen. I think these books would stand up to a reread for sure. They’re actually quite layered, full of little vignettes that come together to paint a vivid picture of a certain time and place. Let me know what you think if you do get a chance to revisit them. :)

      Reply
      1. hastanton

        I definitely want to revisit them . They were something I picked up randomly then and at the time I found them a little weird as I’d never quite read anything like them before. The memory of them has stuck though ( unusual these days!) and I’m sure I’d appreciate them much more now.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I can imagine. Isherwood’s style is very distinctive, and I’m not sure what I would have made of them as a youngster. They definitely strike me as being rich enough to stand up to a re-read. Let me know what you think when you do revisit them – I’d love to know.

          Reply
  5. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui; it sounds like Isherwood is becoming a firm favourite. Those excerpts show how engagingly he writes and also how adept he is at capturing characters with sharp and precise observation. This sounds like a wonderful read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, he is. He made my reading highlights in 2016, and there’s a good chance of him being there again at the end of this year. His style is very engaging and personal, almost as though he is relating these stories and anecdotes to a close friend. I’d like to read more of his work in the future, maybe A Single Man which I’m somewhat familiar with via the Tom Ford film.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Excellent review. This the only Isherwood I have read so far and I thoroughly enjoyed it and you remind me why. I think I enjoyed that opening section the most though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. If you enjoyed the first section the most then I would definitely suggest that you read Mr Norris at some point. It has a very similar feel and style to the first chapter here, plus the inimitable Frl. S. appears in both.

      Reply
  7. Alice

    I loved Goodbye to Berlin, I don’t think I even realised it was a collection of stories rather than a whole novel. I also didn’t realise there were other Berlin novels, what luck!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does have the feel of a novel as the individual pieces seem quite closely connected to one another, almost as though we are observing different ‘chapters’ from Isherwood’s life in Berlin. Mr Norris Changes trains is an absolute delight, If you loved Goodbye, then there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy its predecessor too!

      Reply
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  10. Max Cairnduff

    I’m delighted, though not surprised, that you liked this so much.

    Structurally it’s interesting isn’t it? I think I described it as a short story collection but it’s not quite, it’s sort of half way between short stories and a novel with repeating characters but each bit standing up pretty well on its own.

    I do like Cabaret. It’s surprising here to see how much less talented Sally is in the book. She’s still fascinating and charismatic, but as you say not actually very good on stage. She gets by on personality rather than talent, to the extent she gets by at all.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I enjoyed it just as much as Mr Norris, possibly even more so due to the variety of stories. It does have an interesting structure – as you say, somewhere between that of a novel and a set of interlinked short stories where some of the characters flow through from one story to the next. I’ve been trying to think of another book with a similar format, but nothing springs to mind.

      I ought to give Cabaret another shot at some point. As you’ll have gathered from my earlier comments, it was the film’s style that put me off as opposed to the storyline or the characters. Maybe I’ll see things differently now that I’ve read the book. You know, it’s funny – as I was reading the Sally Bowles section, I didn’t see Liza Minnelli in my head at all even though she is so closely associated with that character. I imagined a slightly different girl instead, one with softer, less angular features. My vision of Sally seemed much younger than Minnelli too…

      Reply

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