Book of the Month: “Goodbye to Berlin” by Chris. Isherwood

Book review by Femke Boom

The book of the month this time is Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood is one of my favourite authors, and is, in my opinion, somewhat underrated when it comes to British literature. I stumbled upon his work a couple of years ago through having seen an adaptation of his novel A Single Man, which is a lovely work of fiction as well. I have, however, picked Goodbye to Berlin in the light of the Dutch Remembrance Day as well as Liberation Day in early May.

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” 

Isherwood lived in Berlin in the early 1930s; he tried to make a living as an author, but mostly had to get by through tutoring English to German citizens. Goodbye to Berlin contains a set of short stories about Isherwood’s time there. Each short story is about one of the persons Isherwood met, what their lives in Berlin were like and how it intertwined with his own. All of this is set against the background of Hitler’s rising influence in Germany. If you are unfamiliar with the author, try to keep in mind that Isherwood was homosexual and how, especially in a 1930s Germany, this was a dangerous time for him. It does not come quite forth in the stories, aside from his reluctance to meet young ladies (or he evades the topic), and his openness towards a queer couple.  

The tale about Sally is probably the most popular one of Goodbye to Berlin. It is about an English starlet who hopes to rise to fame in Berlin. She has troubles trying to make a living, and mostly sings in a dingy club in order to do so – she is, however, reluctant to go back to her family as she was so set on the idea of becoming famous. She is a mix of remarkable and naive; both modern and foolish when it comes to her sexuality. She switches her charm on and off in order to get what she wants, which is rising to stardom. 

“But seriously, I believe I’m a sort of Ideal Woman, if you know what I mean. I’m the sort of woman who can take men away from their wives, but I could never keep anybody for long. And that’s because I’m the type which every man imagines he wants, until he gets me; and then he finds he doesn’t really, after all.” 

Isherwood befriended her in the aforementioned dingy club, and one of the things he talks about is how Sally got pregnant. Getting an abortion was a huge taboo, and it was hard to find a clinic that would do so. Isherwood’s landlady, Fraulein Schroeder, knew of someone. It all becomes rather hush-hush, as they make up excuses as to why Sally is gone to a clinic and why Isherwood visits her there. This is one of the events that ends up putting a strain on their relationship – whereas Isherwood does not quite seem to mind what had happened, Sally appears to be embarrassed. While she throws herself into another romance, she pulls away from their friendship. I thought this story was intriguing. I was simultaneously interested in her liberating demeanour, while thinking ‘how can you be so terribly naive?’ as hers is the typical cautionary tale of a failed Hollywood career. Her story is also juxtaposed to Isherwood’s struggle with trying to become a writer, which was, as we know now, successful in the end. 

“ ‘There’s a lot of heart failure,’ said the fat man, ‘in Germany these days.’ 
The Austrian nodded: ‘You can’t believe all you hear. That’s a fact.’ 
‘If you ask me,’ said the fat man, ‘anyone’s heart’s liable to fail, if it gets a bullet inside it.’ 
The Austrian looked very uncomfortable: ‘Those Nazis…’ he began.” 

There are a few other short stories, but I am only going to briefly discuss one more, which is my favourite: the Landauers. Isherwood meets a wealthy Jewish family, as he is going to tutor one of them. He frequently visits them in order to speak in English to Natalia, the daughter of the family. They do not really talk about politics in the Landauers’ house, but the further the book progresses, the more it becomes clear that they live increasingly in fear. Simultaneously with this progression, Isherwood’s friendship shifts from Natalia to her cousin Bernhard. This is partially due to Natalia’s jealousy with regard to Isherwood’s acquaintance with Sally (for Sally is not exactly a ‘proper lady’ in her eyes). The family’s anxiety becomes clear through one of the parties they held for their family and acquaintances, which ended up being rather tense. Bernhard eventually shows Isherwood notes he had been receiving, that all consisted of threats. The man contemplated fleeing, and asked Isherwood whether they would go together the following day: to leave for another country in Europe. The author, assuming it was one of Bernhard’s jokes (and only having gotten a day’s notice), refuses to go, but comments ‘maybe another time’. He does not hear from Berhard again, only to find out through gossip that his friend had, most likely, been executed. This moment felt very poignant to me, especially knowing what would happen during the war.  

“This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” 

Isherwood ends up leaving the city, as he finds its environment too dangerous – this was already around 1932-1933. Most of what we learn now about the second World War does not quite discuss all the tension in Germany in the years leading up to it, which feels like an important part as well. Goodbye to Berlin was Isherwood’s ode to the city as well as a goodbye to all his friends there. This book was fictionalised; some names were changed at the very least. If you wish to read a more accurate account of Isherwood’s time in Berlin, I would suggest reading his autobiography Christopher and His Kind. He goes more in-depth with regard to his sexuality, and even mentions visiting Hirschfeld’s institute for sexuality (before it got raided by Nazis). It is also interesting from a (British) literature point of view, as some of Isherwood’s friends were also famous (queer) authors, like E.M. Forster and W.H. Auden; his publisher was even Virginia Woolf.  

“Today the sun is brilliantly shining; it is quite mild and warm. I go out for my last morning walk, without an overcoat or hat. The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city. The sun shines, and dozens of my friends – my pupils at the Worker’s School, the men and women I met at the I.A.H. – are in prison, possibly dead.” 

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