Category Archives: Isherwood Christopher

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.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

While working as a private tutor in Berlin in the 1930s, the English author Christopher Isherwood wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains, a novel set in the city during the final years of the Weimar Republic. Despite the troubled times of its setting, Mr Norris is a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train.

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The novel is narrated by William Bradshaw, a young Englishman living in Berlin. As the story opens, Bradshaw is returning to the city from Holland by train. Faced with the prospect of a long and tiresome journey, he strikes up a conversation with the man in his carriage, Mr Arthur Norris, a gentleman of ‘independent means.’ Right from the start it is clear that there is something a little odd about Mr Norris. His features are somewhat out of kilter, not least his chin which appears to have slipped sideways ‘like a broken concertina,’ plus he’s wearing a wig. And then, as the train approaches the border with Germany, Norris becomes visibly agitated, even more so once the passport officials board the train to begin their rounds.

He was extremely nervous. His delicate white hand fiddled incessantly with the signet ring on his little finger; his uneasy blue eyes kept squinting rapid glances into the corridor. His voice rang false; high-pitched in archly forced gaiety; it resembled the voice of a character in a pre-war drawing-room comedy. He spoke so loudly that the people in the next compartment must certainly be able to hear him. (pg. 8)

After a tense and lengthy examination of Norris’ passport, the border officials seem satisfied with his credentials and move along to the next carriage. Mr Norris is most relieved. Bradshaw, on the other hand, is left feeling rather protective of his companion. He imagines Norris to be guilty of nothing more than a little petty smuggling, a line of silk for his wife or a box of cigars here and there, certainly nothing more sinister. As a thank you for the provision of some much-needed moral support, Norris invites Bradshaw to join him for lunch, and by the time the train pulls into the city station the two men have struck up a rather unlikely friendship, agreeing to meet for tea at Norris’ flat the following Saturday. Little does he know it at the time, but the feeling of affectionate protectiveness Norris inspires in Bradshaw that day is set to characterise their relationship over the next three years…

On his arrival at Norris’ flat, Bradshaw soon discovers that his new friend runs an import-export business. Although it’s never quite clear exactly what is being imported or exported, whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be entirely above board. This feeling is only heightened when a client comes knocking at the door, an action which prompts Mr Norris to go into hiding in the hope that the caller will go away. At one point in the novel, Bradshaw reflects on his impressions of Mr Norris, a very telling passage as it turns out.

Certainly, I rather enjoyed playing with the idea that he was, in fact, a dangerous criminal; but I am sure that I never seriously believed it for a moment. Nearly every member of my generation is a crime-snob. I was fond of Arthur with an affection strengthened by obstinacy. If my friends didn’t like him because of his mouth or his past, the loss was theirs; I was, I flattered myself, more profound, more humane, an altogether subtler connoisseur of human nature than they. And if, in my letters to England, I sometimes referred to him as ‘a most amazing old crook’, I only meant by this that I wanted to imagine him as a glorified being; audacious and self-reliant, reckless and calm. All of which, in reality, he only too painfully and obviously wasn’t. (pg. 44)

One of the many delights of this novel is the character Isherwood has created in Mr Norris. He is a rather delicate and fussy individual, used to the finer things in life even though he seems to have little money of his own to indulge in such luxuries. (His daily grooming regime is very precise and elaborate, not unlike that of a grande dame with lotions and face creams aplenty.) That said, when he is flush, he is more than generous to his friends, buying them little presents whenever he can. As he gets to know Bradshaw, Norris reveals a little of his childhood and the years he spent travelling around Europe with his adoring mother prior to her death. I loved this description of how Mr Norris frittered away his inheritance in the space of a couple of years, in the days of his early twenties when he didn’t know any better.

It disappeared with magic speed into the mouths of horses and the stockings of ballet girls. The palms of servants closed on it with an oily iron grip. It was transformed into wonderful suits of clothes which he presented after a week or two, in disgust, to his valet; into oriental knick-knacks which somehow, when he got them back to his flat, turned out to be rusty old iron pots; into landscapes of the latest impressionist genius which by daylight next morning were childish daubs. Well-groomed and witty, with money to burn, he must have been one of the most eligible bachelors of his large circle; but it was the Jews, not the ladies, who got him in the end. (pg. 50)

In addition to his business interests, Norris also has links with the Communist Party, an activity that brings Bradshaw into contact with one of the movers and shakers in the group, a certain Ludwig Bayer. As the novel progresses, Bradshaw gets drawn into one of Norris’ schemes. At first it appears as though Bradshaw must travel to Switzerland in order to facilitate a meeting between a mutual friend, Baron von Pregnitz, and Mr Norris’ business contact from Paris, a man known as ‘Margot’. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, there is more to this connection than meets the eye, and the somewhat naïve William Bradshaw is all set to get caught up in it!

I really loved this novel. The two central characters are superbly drawn. Even though it’s abundantly clear that Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. Alongside Bradshaw and Norris, the novel also features a cast of colourful characters, all of whom are drawn with great care and attention to detail: there is Mr Norris’ menacing secretary, Schmidt, a thug and a bully, a man who seems to show scant regard for his employer at the best of times; there is Baron von Pregnitz (known to his friends as ‘Kuno’), a man with a penchant for boys’ own adventure stories; and finally there is Bradshaw’s landlady, Frl. Schroeder, a motherly type who takes quite a fancy to Mr Norris with all his charms.

Set as it is in the Berlin of the early 1930s, the novel takes the reader to the restaurants and nightclubs of the city, the atmosphere heavy with a mix of dust, perspiration and cheap perfume. There is the occasional decadent party or two, most notably a New Year’s Eve bash where Bradshaw meets Norris’ lady friend, Anni, a dominatrix complete with black jacket, black skirt and knee high boots to match, a kind of uniform of sorts. As the novel progresses, the mood in Berlin darkens quite visibly. The city can be a dangerous place as is made clear in the following passage.

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared. (pgs. 107-108)

Ultimately, Mr Norris is a portrait of pre-war Berlin, a story that is by turns charming, witty and tragic. The character of Mr Norris was inspired by the memoirist, critic and internationalist, Gerald Hamilton, a friend of Isherwood’s from his Berlin days. I’ll finish with a short quote that sums up Mr Norris’ approach to business – he is speaking to Bradshaw at this point.

‘I think,’ he continued at length, ‘I may safely claim that in the course of my whole career I have very seldom, if ever, done anything which I knew to be contrary to the law….On the other hand, I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself. I hope you’re with me there?’ (pg. 48)

My copy of Mr Norris Changes Trains was published by Vintage Books in an edition which also contains Goodbye to Berlin, Together the two books are known as Isherwood’s Berlin Novels. Max has also reviewed this book, and you can read his excellent review here.