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Book Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood


Drew Payne

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It is 1930s Berlin and “Christopher Isherwood” is enjoying the notorious nightlife and culture of the city. Isherwood is an upper-class Englishman, surviving by teaching English to different citizens of the city, as he explores a life very different to his previous one, that opens him up to a diverse cast of characters.

This book has become a modern classic, the basis of the musical and film Cabaret, but don’t expect a novelization of Cabaret here. The musical was inspired by this novel but the two are very different. This book is written in the form of a collection of novellas and diary entries. Unfortunately, this style does not help this book. Several of the novellas overlap in the time they cover. The Sally Bowls novella covers a long time period, causing Bowls to appear as a minor character in other novellas, which can make the reading confusing, you don’t know when a particular story is set.

Worse than its haphazard structure, is the feeling of dishonesty to this book. It was published in 1939, with all the social prejudices of the time. The narrator is called “Christopher Isherwood” which gives this book an air of honesty, that these events happened and Isherwood has only simply fictionalised them. “Christopher Isherwood” is such an edited character, he’s portrayed as so sexless, but the truth of the man bleeds through in places. At one-point Sally Bowls is being romanced by an American businessman who buys her and the narrator expensive presents, without explanation, though the subtext is that the narrator is also sexually involved with the American businessman. Later the narrator lodges with a working-class Berlin family, though it is never mentioned about his desire to be closer to the family’s bisexual son Otto. Later still the narrator is pursued by a rich Jewish man, with almost constant invitations to spend weekends at his lodge, though the sexual nature of their relationship is never mentioned. But, in one section, the narrator spends a holiday as the houseguest of a gay couple, though it is a very negative and stereotyped portrayal.

The most disappointing element of this book is its politics. A Jewish young woman is characterised as shallow, only interested in clothes. But the worst is how this book largely ignores the rise of the Nazis. It is set between 1929 and 1932, when the Nazis were rising to power, but they only appear in the last quarter of the book. There is such a varied cast of characters and it would have been fascinating to have their reactions to the rise of the Nazis. But this is such a wasted opportunity.

Even with the constraints and prejudices of 1939, this book could have been so much more honest, even for a work of fiction. Isherwood was there and experienced Berlin life but he diluted it here. This book has been given the reputation as the great novel of pre-war Berlin life, unfortunately it just isn’t.

 

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Zuri

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Worse than its haphazard structure, is the feeling of dishonesty to this book. It was published in 1939, with all the social prejudices of the time. […] he’s portrayed as so sexless […] though the subtext is that the narrator is also sexually involved with the American businessman. Later the narrator lodges with a working-class Berlin family, though it is never mentioned about his desire to be closer to the family’s bisexual son Otto. Later still the narrator is pursued by a rich Jewish man, with almost constant invitations to spend weekends at his lodge, though the sexual nature of their relationship is never mentioned. But, in one section, the narrator spends a holiday as the houseguest of a gay couple […]

I wouldn't be quite that harsh here. It's similar to how The Picture of Dorian Grey has a noticeable homoerotic subtext, though, Oscar Wilde was prohibited from going into further detail and even had to tone it down a bit.

I became aware of Christopher Isherwood and this book, I stumbled upon the movie "Christopher and his kind" on YouTube, which wasn't very shy about him being gay and his male encounters. This is the opening narration:

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It's 40 years since I first wrote about my time in Berlin. And the book I'm now writing is perhaps an attempt to set the record straight, well as straight as it's possible to be. I destroyed my Berlin diaries, you see, so I've had to rely a good deal on memory. As to why I went in the first place, my friend Wystan Auden was there and encouraged me to join him. I could also say I went because of what was happening politically. But in fact I went because of the boys. To me, Berlin meant boys.

So, when I was in a gay bookstore in Hamburg, I bought a copy of "Goodbye to Berlin" and was surprised when these encounters never went farther than being subtly implied, sometimes being blatantly obvious, yet not talked about.

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The most disappointing element of this book is its politics. […] But the worst is how this book largely ignores the rise of the Nazis. It is set between 1929 and 1932, when the Nazis were rising to power, but they only appear in the last quarter of the book.

In the movie adaption—one can argue about their realism—Christopher, when ask about his political views, states, that he doesn't care much about them, as he's only there for "the boys", and as a foreigner, he just conveniently leaves Germany when it becomes too dangerous.

However, there's one scene from after the war, where Christopher meets his love interest, whom he lost contact with during the war, again, who now is in a heterosexual marriage, indicating that he has moved on, but is still closeted.

Edited by Zuri
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I stand by my criticism that Goodbye to Berlin was dishonest, that Isherwood “straight washed” so much of this narrative. I’m not alone in that criticism. Isherwood wrote Christopher and His Kind to tell the real story of what happened to him in Berlin, to counteract the self-censorship of Goodbye to Berlin.

Goodbye to Berlin isn’t Christopher and His Kind. They are two very different books. My review and criticism is of the former.

I still stand by my biggest criticism of this book is that, for the majority of its text, it ignores the political situation playing out in Berlin, at this time. Isherwood did say, many times, that when he first went to Berlin he wasn’t a political animal, but could he have missed the rise of the Nazi party? This wasn’t like the change of a Prime Minister or President, this was a very big and loud political sea change. Even someone as apolitical as Isherwood says he was then could not have failed to see what was happening and experience the change in the culture of the city and Germany as a whole. This isn’t just my opinion; it is based on reading an awful lot about this time.

Even if he had still straight washed his story (which he didn’t do very well), Isherwood had the chance here to tell a story about what really happened in Berlin at this time, how the rise of Nazism took hold and affected the people living there. He was a first-hand witness to it. But Goodbye to Berlin misses this on so many levels. I was so disappointed in it.

This is my personal review of this book, but I didn’t set out to just give my opinion, I wanted to justify that opinion by referring back to the book. It is no good just saying, “I didn’t like this book.” I need to say and show why I felt that, and justify my stance. Which I hope I did.

I do find it very strange that you relate almost all your criticism of my review back to the TV movie Christopher and His Kind when my review is of the book Goodbye to Berlin.

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Just now, Drew Payne said:

Isherwood did say, many times, that when he first went to Berlin he wasn’t a political animal, but could he have missed the rise of the Nazi party? This wasn’t like the change of a Prime Minister or President, this was a very big and loud political sea change. Even someone as apolitical as Isherwood says he was then could not have failed to see what was happening and experience the change in the culture of the city and Germany as a whole.

I mean, how many Germans looked the other way when people were deported and claimed, they didn't know what was happening afterward?

1 minute ago, Drew Payne said:

Even if he had still straight washed his story (which he didn’t do very well), Isherwood had the chance here to tell a story about what really happened in Berlin at this time, how the rise of Nazism took hold and affected the people living there.

Well, he still published "Christopher and his kind". Took him a while, but he realized, he had to do it.

2 minutes ago, Drew Payne said:

I do find it very strange that you relate almost all your criticism of my review back to the TV movie Christopher and His Kind when my review is of the book Goodbye to Berlin.

Yeah, it's a bit weird that he published essentially the same story (or "stories" if you count the separate storylines as such and consider them independent enough) multiple times. I guess, it looks strange from the perspective of the works (1st novel, 2nd novel, movie adaption of the 2nd), but I looked at it from the story-perspective. It's in all three works (and perhaps even more), but each time told from a different perspective—sorry that I looked at it differently than you.

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I think, at the end of the day, many late 20th-century gays just can’t identify with the, to me, ghastly upper class “homosexuals” of an earlier age.   I too shared Drew’s reaction when I read Isherwood’s canon in the 1980’s.  Frightful snobs, users of working class boys, there is a concise word to describe them and a lesson to those who seek to impose a “gay” label on those who would have loathed it. 
Thank you @Drew Payne for a brutally honest critique.  

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