Review of ‘The Berlin Novels’ by Christopher Isherwood

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Christopher Isherwood himself
Christopher Isherwood himself

Well, Dear Reader, I have now finished ‘The Berlin Novels’ and ‘A Flight Delayed’ by K C Lemmer, and visited Berlin over the course of the last month. I am now on holiday again, in Vietnam, and I wrote the reviews for both books yesterday on the plane, using Pages and with the iPad in ‘airplane mode’ so I’m now copying the first review into the blog, using the wifi available in the lobby of the hotel in Hanoi (or Ha Noi as the Vietnamese call it). Here goes!

The Berlin Novels by Christopher Isherwood

‘The Berlin Novels’ consists of two novels, ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ and ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, as Hitler and the Nazis were rising to power, amidst reports of violence in the street, these works never feature any historical figures directly and only refer to historical events in passing. They nevertheless contain some priceless vignettes of life in the Weimar Republic, as, for instance, when two Jews try to pick up two prostitutes and the Nazi SA drags the men out the car and beats them up. They refer to the effect of rocketing inflation and grinding poverty on the lives of ordinary people in those times and how many of them came to believe that the democracy ‘experiment’ had failed. This is surely the perfect angle for a historical novel.

The author does however favour the Communists in a sentimental 1930s/Spanish Civil War way, particularly in ‘Mr Norris’. What is surprising is that ‘The Berlin Novels’ were published in England immediately after the war, when the general public still hated Germans and was starting to fear Soviet Communism. Many of the German characters were written sympathetically, even though the author refers to people who share Hitler’s vision and values and become embroiled with the various arms of the Nazi Party, not all of the bad people by any means. Fraulein Shroeder, for instance, reviles their noisy neighbour because she is Jewish, yet, before that, we have read about her poverty and isolation.

Both novels feature an upper class Englishman who earns a living teaching English language. In Mr Norris he calls himself ‘William Bradshaw’, whereas in GTB Isherwood – unusually – uses his real name for his main character, although taking great pains, in the introduction, to state that the work is fictional and does not reflect his own experiences. However, we see strains of the real Christopher – because he is writing a novel, for instance.

Both books are episodic, in that they don’t follow a plot in the way we understand plots, nor is there any defined beginning, middle and end, where characters are developed, hooks laid and issues resolved. This is less the case with ‘Mr Norris’ because this is concerned with the same set of characters and there is a vague plot line in that Arthur (Mr Norris) is at first in thrall to his demonic secretary, then evading him and in the end fleeing to South America.

GTB is really three stories, the first of them concerning the famous ‘Sally Bowles’, the dissolute wannabe singer, about whom the film ‘Cabaret’ was made, although, in the book, Sally is very much English, the daughter of a Lancashire mill owner. (I suppose they had to make her American in the film, so that they could squeeze Lisa Minelli into the title role, in the same way Renee Zellweger was shoe-ed – disastrously – into the role of very English Bridget Jones). The significant thing about Sally Bowles was that, in a more proper age, she was sexually incontinent and proud of it, frequently boasting of fictitious sexual exploits, in a very twenty-first century way. Of course, Sally was the product of a male author’s imagination, literary porn, but clearly someone wanted to read it in 1948. Did they, I wonder, want to reinforce their view of the Weimar Republic as a decadent place full of fishnet stockings and suspenders… or did it happen the other way round? Did we gain this view only in the 1970s, when Cabaret was in the cinemas?

Sally disappears from the pages of GTB very suddenly, in a way that is unsatisfactory from a literary point of view, but which reflects real life and the nature of Sally as a character. The remainder of GTB ( just under 40%) concerns, firstly, Otto and his impoverished family (who still had enough to send him on an extended holiday to the Baltic Coast) and, secondly, the Jewish poor little rich girl, Natalya Landauer and her cousin Bernhardt. All these characters are well-developed, with that defined, leap off the page quality which I had, by now, come to expect of Isherwood, even though Otto was particularly vile!

I would recommend the Berlin Novels wholeheartedly, not an easy read and, to get the best out of them, you would need some knowledge of the history of Germany in the 1930s. It’s the level of detail makes these works, the way in which the author builds up suspense by describing every scene and every character’s action and every nuance of feeling.

I’ve decided it’s not fair to the book, or the author, to review ‘A Flight Delayed’ in this same post, so I will post it later. (It’s all written – honest!). Meanwhile, here are some photos (all mine) of Ha Noi.

Street seller with panier
Street-seller with panier in Ha Noi.
On the rickshaw.
On the rickshaw
Motorbikes with inappropriately placed laundry sign.
Bikers’ laundry
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6 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Berlin Novels’ by Christopher Isherwood

  1. I’m impressed with your mastery of the techie stuff!

    Sounds like an interesting read. Hope your holiday is equally interesting.

  2. I can’t believe you had the dedication to write this book review en route to your next holiday destination… you globe trotter, you! Sounds mighty interesting, if a bit heavy. Was it? Hope you have a great time in Hanoi. You should have enough material to complete a collection of short stories by the time you’ve finished your travels.

    1. I wrote the last two book reviews on the plane from London to Hanoi, Julie. Eleven hours, it was. Very boring! Then I had to wait until I could get on the Internet again to upload them.

      Vietnam holiday is very interesting. Yes, we are getting bombarded with lots of information all the time, but these days I’m through with beach holidays. One thing I’ve discovered is that you can’t come to this part of the world with any emotional baggage. A lot of the stuff we are seeing is very critical of the French (who colonised Vietnam for a hundred years) and the Americans, of course. Several of the women on our trip were rather put out when we visited the ‘American Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, saying it was one-sided. Of course it was, but who built the museum? As always you have to weigh your sources very carefully.

      And, yes, I will write at least one story about Vietnam, when I have properly got my head around what people here really felt.

  3. I feel the same way about beach holidays… not my cup of tea, anymore. Don’t think they ever were really. I know what you mean about the bias, though. Visited Krakow and Auschwitz a few years ago – very emotional, but a distinct leaning toward a particular sect with less said about the other interns. Same in St Petersburg, Russia, (or Leningrad, as it was then) when I visited as an exchange student at the age of 16. The museum guides were positively prostrate with grief remembering the victims of World War II. Very interesting, but left one feeling emotionally drained.

  4. Been to Auschwitz, Krakow and St Petersburg too! And I agree with you about how interesting the stuff the guides say is. It’s like in Vietnam too. The fathers of our guides in Da Nang and Saigon were both in Re-education Camps and their families are designated ‘bad families’. One thing you certainly can’t do in Vietnam and Cambodia is come in with preconceived ideas!

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