Goodbye to Berlin was the first book I read written by the celebrated English-American novelist and diarist Christopher Isherwood.
Published in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, it was the inspiration for the Bob Fosse movie ‘Cabaret’ , released in 1972, and starring Liza Minnelli as the flamboyant night club singer Sally Bowles. (Isherwood also wrote A Single Man made into the 2009 movie by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth).
The highly autobiographical novel is set in Berlin in the early 1930s as the city’s famed reputation for art, music, design, drink and decadence had begun to fade, as economic ruin started to descend on everyday lives, and as Nazi violence starts to assert itself on the streets whilst Hitler began his march to become Fuhrer.
Beginning in Autumn 1930, we find Isherwood living in a “large, dingy flat” above a busy street of shops, where prostitutes gather beneath his window. The flat is owned by Fräulein Schroeder, who was once fairly well off but like so many other Germans has fallen on hard times.
She calls Isherwood “Herr Issyvoo” and takes a keen interest in his life, and that of her other lodgers.
Such is her poor financial situation, that Frl Schroeder has had to take in five lodgers, leaving her without a room of her own. Instead, she “sleeps in the living room, behind a screen, on a small sofa with broken springs”.
Frl Schroeder is just one of the many eccentric and colourful characters Isherwood brings to life on the page. Another is fellow lodger Frl Mayer, a musical hall yodler, actress, proud Bavarian and “ardent Nazi” whose natural enemy is Frau Glauterneck, the Galician Jewess who lives in the apartment below theirs.
Another is the flamboyant American singer and wannabee actress Sally Bowles whom Isherwood meets one evening, early in October, dressed 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”,
Isherwood notices her emerald green nails, her nicotine tainted hands and “very large brown eyes”.
Bowles was based on the 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross. Whimsical, flamboyant, stylish, promiscuous and dreamy (and not overly talented despite her ambitions), she is symbolic of the free-spirited Jazz Age in Berlin that flourished in Weimar-era Germany before the Nazis snuffed it out.
Isherwood is immediately drawn to Bowles, and she to him; their platonic friendship a sharp contrast to Bowles’ many lovers.
It is not hard to understand why Isherwood moved to Berlin. A gay man from a wealthy and conservative family from the north west of England, he would have found the German city’s plethora of gay bars, cabaret and experimental theatre alluring alongside its acceptance of homosexuality.
But he arrived there as this tolerance and acceptance was about to crushed by the Nazi regime, and as anti-semitism and intolerance becomes part of the chatter of everyday Germans looking for scapegoats for their economic woes.
Indeed many of the people Isherwood formed close relationships with during his time in Berlin, would have been prime targets for the Gestapo such as the gay couple Otto and Peter, who we find the author living with in a beach house on Rügen Island in the summer of 1931.
Then there are the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family, who own a Berlin department store. Isherwood befriends their precocious 18-year-old daughter Natalia, whom he accompanies on outings where they discuss art and literature He also forms a friendship with their cousin Bernard, a gay man, and a target for the Nazis.
Indeed Isherwood himself would have been in great personal danger had he chosen to remain in Berlin after the Nazis rose to power. He fled Berlin in May 1933 spent some time back in London and China, before emigrating to the US in 1939 and living in California.
I enjoyed being taken into this now long gone, but exotic world that Isherwood brings so vividly to life with his stories and anecdotes. He was a gifted storyteller with an ear finely tuned to the nuances of speech and character and well worth checking out for those looking for a fly-on-the-wall journalistic literary experience, that warned of the horrors to come.
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