Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

by ken-mckellar , May 1, 2019

Book Reviews

I first visited Berlin in 2009. Berlin is the kind of city that resonates very well with people who grow through arts. Berlin is quite peculiar and I thoroughly enjoy it.

As for the author, Christopher Isherwood. He was a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, autobiographer, and diarist. He also intended to make (his) homosexuality a theme of some of his writing.

In the mid ‘20s, the author was asked to leave Cambridge University. He was delighted by the dismissal. It freed him from his mother’s ambitions.

This is the review of his most famous book by my friend, Ken.

For many of my friends in their ‘20s and ‘30s,  today’s Berlin is one of the coolest cities in the world to visit and enjoy. For decades, its artistic, alternative lifestyle has been a magnet for people from all over the world. Berlin is one of my favourite cities, ever since I rode my motorcycle from West Germany into West Berlin through a special autobahn corridor across East Germany.

Fifty years before my visit, the lure of Berlin was as powerful for Christopher Isherwood, when he moved there to teach English between 1930 and 1932. Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939, is a series of closely- and wryly-observed portraits of different people who came into contact with Isherwood and the way their lives were increasingly constrained by the rise of Hitler’s National Socialism. Despite his love for Berlin, Isherwood was no Nazi though. On the contrary, he was highly critical, in his own reflective, understated way, of the way his Jewish and gay friends in particular were treated, as well as people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Each chapter of the book focuses on one of Isherwood’s relationships: how it developed and what became of it. Characters from previous chapters drift in and out as extras in later chapters.  His most notable relationship was with Sally Bowles whose life there inspired the 1972 film Cabaret starring Liza Minelli. Like Isherwood, she was drawn from provincial England to Berlin by its brittle glamour. She sought fame and fortune but instead became a butterfly socialite, small-time night-club singer, jobbing actress and occasional high-class prostitute. Unlike Sally Bowles and the other characters he describes, Isherwood is much more realistic in his assessment of people and situations.

He is also very funny, describing his regular encounters with landladies and would-be English students from different backgrounds. Fluent in German, he describes their linguistic faux-pas in English with hilarious and waspish precision.

Yet despite the humour and levity of his daily life, Isherwood’s descriptions of his relationships convey a sense that, little by little, things were only going to get worse in Germany. Which of course they did.

Goodbye to Berlin teaches an important lesson for our times. Totalitarian regimes never burst on to the scene: they creep up stealthily, step-by-step, on a vulnerable population hungry for change. And before the population knows it, the dictator is in control. By the time Isherwood published his novel, seven years later, Europe was at war.

Who should read this book: Lovers of Berlin and those who appreciate the weight of history in one of the world’s great capitals

Why you should read this book: To being entertained by perceptive, witty writing

Book genre: Fiction, novel

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