Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Berlin Stories is made up of two novels, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1939).

I've always had it in my head that Christopher Isherwood was unapproachable and difficult.  Not true. I wouldn't call  Mr. Norris Changes Trains an easy reader, but it wasn't stream of consciousness or punctuated strangely, or literarily verbose or anything like that.  Essentially, this English guy named William living in Germany in the early 30s (a stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, I assume), who meets Mr. Norris on a train, and becomes entangled in his wild, criminal life.  Norris is into S&M, which is described in light detail, something I thought sort of eye opening, risque and shocking for 1935.  I don't know why, but I thought everything written before Valley of the Dolls was Victorian literature.  I guess not.  A baron makes a pass at William at one point, which Norris orchestrated, leaving William amused.  His sexuality is never made clear, but reading between the lines, everyone in the book is gay (I guess that was still verboten in 1935).  A very humorous book, but the end is really dark; the final pages have  Hitler and his gang taking over the country, and there are definitely darker times ahead that Christopher Isherwood probably couldn't even fathom happening (or perhaps, having lived there, he could).  Really quite enjoyable.  Mr. Norris seems so familiar, and I think every young gay man either has had a Mr. Norris in their life at one time or another. He says stuff like this:  “I always say that I only wish to have three sorts of people as my friends, those who are very rich, those who are very witty, and those who are very beautiful,” which to me marks him out as stylishly gay.  Maugham had a similar character in The Razor's Edge, only he was good (albeit a snob) rather than decadent and deliciously bad.   Those young gays who never knew a Mr. Norris missed out on something.  

“I put my genius into my life, not into my art.”   

I loved this one:  “I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself.”  

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood.  So "William Bradshaw" is Christopher Isherwood.  Duh.


The latter half of The Berlin Stories, Goodbye To Berlin, features the more familiar novel that is the germ of Cabaret.  Taken together a whole, the entire book was quite good.  Knowing at least something about Christopher Isherwood in advance meant that the scent of homosexuality that pervades the whole book is much more than just a hint; once you are on to it, there is no more reading between the lines; rather, between the lines becomes the entire story.  I'm not sure a blatant gay gay gay pride parade sort of story would have been nearly as interesting or fascinating, and certainly not a period piece.  I wonder what they thought of the book in the 1930s?  Was the homosexuality as obvious to them back them as it is now?  We have hindsight about Isherwood's life that they did not; but it seemed to me that the relationship between Peter and Otto was obviously a homosexual one, and that Christolph and Otto had a similar relationship (they were naked together in bed several times).  Note:  Otto was 16 years old; at the oldest 17, and quite aware of what he was doing.  Boys will be boys, huh?  Sally Bowles is a great character, and it's not wonder she became the star of the later play and musical - she couldn't not be.  

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pleasantly surprised at how fun these stories were and how much I liked them; Isherwood’s seedy, dirty, sexy Berlin is still as crisp and witty today as I’m sure it was when he first published these two novels in the 1930s.  Of course, Isherwood was prescient about what was to come, and the doom of the Holocaust swings back and forth over the book like a pendulum.  We have the hindsight of 75 years and know what’s coming for the Nowaks and Landauers and the prostitutes and Frau Schroeder and the pretty boys.  I think if this book were written today, that pendulum would be more of a sledgehammer, knocking Nazism into our face; in The Berlin Stories, the Nazis are more ambiguous (as they probably were in the early 30s), and all the more scary for being so ambiguous and unknown and stealth.    Another sledgehammer today would be the homosexuality of Christopher and his friends, which would be spelled out for us.   Isherwood is still hardly subtle and the lines are pretty easy to read between (in fact, that’s where the entire story lies for much of the book, between those beautifully and carefully written lines).  I’m sure Isherwood had to be careful back then, and you know what – that’s sort of what made this book fun to read.  It certainly lent some romantic mystery to the book, allowing some several “eureka” moments regarding the sexuality of various characters.

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