Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Whilst in Berlin recently we went to see Cabaret in German in a spiegeltent. Splendid. Naturally I was looking forward to reading about the very same Sally Bowles in this book, but it turns out that Sally Bowles is a complete English Arse. Utterly unbearable. I think it would be fair to say she’s been thoroughly fixed up for the musical and bravo for that decision. Certainly this book improves on the pages in which she is not to be found.

There is much to separate this book from Kästner’s Going to the Dogs. Partly it is a matter of style – Isherwood’s humour, when it arises, is entirely ordinary, whilst Kästner’s is odd to say the least. Then again there is the care Kästner has for his subject, the ruination of his country and his continent. One can equally feel, as Isherwood himself acknowledges, that he, in contrast, is an outsider, floating in a flotsam sort of way through his German period, knowing he can and will leave when it gets too tough. Probably, as others have said, Kästner’s book is the better written of the two, but this is not to damn it with faint praise.

If there are points of departure, there are, of course, similarities. Not least, that they are slim volumes, episodic in nature. Both authors intended to write something grandiose about Germany, something as spralling as their actual works are spare. I wonder if it reflects on the men themselves, or on the utter horror of the period, that neither did so.

For this is another something the books share. They are story books about Berlin in the late twenties/early thirties. And an integral detail of the day-to-day humdrum is Nazis. When you read a history book of this period, the fact that it is looking back and knows what it is looking at and knows what it is looking for, will give Nazism a predominant position. But the horror here is that it isn’t predominant, it is just a fact of life, not really any different from any crazy group now clashing on the fringes of normal social life. I don’t really know what that means, but after a while this crazy group wasn’t a crazy fringe collective any more. It was Germany. The same people who had looked at these despicable people and expected them to fade away, became them. That makes me think that actually, in the first place, they weren’t crazy outsiders either. They were just people who had families and jobs and histories and gardens who did some sort of Avon Calling on all of Germany and don’t people just love that Avon ring at the door?

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3 thoughts on “Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

  1. It’s disgraceful how most people just give them a free ride. I should have know you’d be principled in your approach.

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