Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Why I read it: I’m interested in this time period of German history, but read it mainly because the musical film Cabaret is based on Goodbye to Berlin. The play and movie I Am A Camera is also based on this novel.

I love musicals. My first exposure to them was listening to my parent’s albums and 8-tracks. The show I listened to the most by far was Camelot. My parents had both the Broadway cast LP featuring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton and the movie version featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris.

The only show that came close to touching Camelot in my listening routine was Cabaret. My parents didn’t take me to see the movie as I was only seven when it was released, but they did buy the soundtrack which I listened to over and over again. They also had a Liza Minnelli Live on Broadway 8-track that I adored. To this day I can’t hear the woman’s name without hearing “Its Liza with a Z not Lisa with an S” playing in the background of my mind. When Liza Minnelli’s tour came to Chicago I BEGGED my mother to take me, but I was deemed too young and out of luck. (Looking back I think my mom also needed a night out with her bestie.)

I had no idea back then that Cabaret was based on the writing of Christopher Isherwood or I’d have read him much sooner. Isherwood is an English writer who lived in Berlin from 1929-1933, during the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party. He later became an American citizen.

Goodbye to Berlin is fiction. It is a painful book to read not just because of its content, but because of its tone. It is one of the most unsentimental books I’ve read. Much of the writing that I’ve read set in or from the Wiemar era and the rise of Hitler have a sentimental or romantic quality, a wistfulness that laments what is soon to be lost and/or the horror that will soon be unleashed. There is, usually, at least one hero who struggles against the oppression. This novel is offers no such hopeful respite from the suffocation of the growing intolerance. Even the narrator is shown in all his ugliness. The Germans are presented as dumb pigs in sheep’s clothing and the expats are irresponsible, selfish alcoholics who can’t see past their own noses. People are “adapting” as if to some “natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter.”

This book is on my Classics Club list

The wealthy and the poor all live miserable lives. The rich people living in the Grunewald neighborhood, such as the Landauers, a Jewish family who own a large department store and refuse to sell guns and toy soldiers, live in “terror of burglary and revolution” which has reduced them to a “stage of siege.” Their once private and sunny district is now a “millionaire’s slum.”

On the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum are those living in Hallesches Tor. The five adult members of the Nowak family live here, in a cramped and leaky tenement apartment. They share one toilet with the occupants of three other apartments. I was intrigued by Father Nowak, a World War I veteran who drinks too much and goes on about how people are all equal. He says to the narrator, Christopher, “we’re all equal as God made us. You’re as good as me; I’m as good as you. A Frenchman’s as good as an Englishman; and Englishman’s as good as a German.” His sons sit at the table with him as he tells a story from the war, but they dismiss him as an old timer. One son is a Nazi, the other is a Communist. The lessons learned from the Great War find no root in the younger generation.

There is humor here, but it is a mean humor. Why read such a novel? For one, to get a sense of the time period, at least from one man’s observations. And his observations and insights into human nature are beautiful even if they show some of the less noble traits of humanity. During the course of reading this novel I saw a Tweet that plugged a book for writers about character traits. I actually harrumphed out loud when I saw it. What happened to writers taking the time to observe other humans and trying to understand them? Here’s one of my favorite character observations. Otto and Peter are young lovers, and Otto has just physically humiliated Peter:

If Otto wishes to humiliate Peter, Peter in his different way also wishes to humiliate Otto. He wants to force Otto into making a certain kind of submission to his will, and this submission Otto refuses instinctively to make. Otto is naturally and healthily selfish, like an animal. If there are two chairs in a room, he will take the more comfortable one without hesitation, because it never even occurs to him to consider Peter’s comfort. Peter’s selfishness is much less honest, more civilized, more perverse. Appealed to in the right way, he will make any sacrifice, however unreasonable and unnecessary. But when Ottto takes the better chair as if by right, then Peter immediately sees a challenge which he dare not refuse to accept. I suppose that–given their two natures–there is no possible escape from this situation. Peter is bound to go on fighting to win Otto’s submission. When, at last, he ceases to do so, it will merely mean that he has lost interest in Otto altogether.

I highly recommend this novel to those who are interested in the time period and those who appreciate clear, crisp prose and unflinching characterization.

Goodbye to Berlin
Christopher Isherwood
Originally published: 1939
Edition read: New Directions, 2012
Source: own it (purchased at the Unabridged Bookstore 9/27/12)

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