Artizan Street reading group discuss Christopher Isherwood’s
Goodbye to Berlin
This time we had a classic social document, Christopher Isherwood’s diaristic fiction of the last days of the Weimar Republic, Goodbye to Berlin.
Who is speaking please? Rory wanted to know. Well, Isherwood makes it clear in the preface, as Janet pointed out, that the Christopher Isherwood of the book is a fiction. Pull the other one. It was too immediate to be fiction. And then there’s the name!
Speaking of names, here’s a good one: Jean Ross. Perhaps the best known of all the characters in the Berlin Novels is Sally Bowles, the English northern ‘county’ girl turned super-promiscuous artiste. Jean Ross was the real-life English singer whom Isherwood knew in Berlin, Jenny reported. She had not been impressed by what he had done with her. When the book was used to make the stage musical Cabaret in 1966, she was tracked down by journalists but refused to watch the production.
The book is split into six parts, beginning with Isherwood’s account of his fellow lodgers in the rooms of Fraulein Schroeder, who affects a condition of impoverished gentility. Isherwood himself is a private English teacher. Bobby is a cocktail waiter. Fraulein Kost is a hooker. Fraulein Mayr is a pro-Nazi music-hall yodeller. [If you don’t know about this Bavarian tradition, check out Jodlerin on YouTube and retire to a safe distance.-Ed.] Next, the intrigues of Sally Bowles. Then Isherwood’s holiday to Ruegen Island where he meets up with a neurotic gay Englishman and his lumpen young boyfriend. Then Isherwood returns to Berlin and moves in with the boyfriend’s family, sharing his bedroom. The boy turns out to be a bisexual gigolo. Next Isherwood teaches the daughter of a Jewish department store magnate and becomes close to his heir, Bernhard. Last, a series of scenes around the time of the complicated collapse of the Weimar regime and the success of Hitler. Throughout, Isherwood drops details of recognisable historical events, bank runs, funerals and killings. His ethic is that he does straightforward reportage. He is quoted as saying he is like ‘a camera with its shutter open’.
Was there, Rory wondered, something mysogynistic in his treatment of the many women in the book? Certainly Janet hadn’t liked the way they were depicted. And, after all, his biographer makes it clear that Isherwood, a conventional public-school homosexual, went to Berlin principally for its attractive young boys, Sara supplied. Sara also thought the neurotic gay Englishman whom Isherwood describes shacked up in a Ruegen Island hotel with his young German boyfriend is in fact Isherwood himself, re-cast.
References to boys are notable and Isherwood doesn’t disguise their role. Berlin’s ‘Boy-bars’ had been celebrated in 1926 by John Henry Mackay in his novel Der Puppenjunge. Isherwood had read that and finds such a place in what he calls the ‘Alexander Casino’, the venue of rent-boys, pimps and thieves.He also makes a point of describing the plight of homeless boys in Berlin’s Tiergarten. To Malcolm’s mind there was something almost predatory about Isherwood’s interest here. He may have been these boys’ most kindly and sympathetic customer, but probably a customer nonetheless.
Sara thought he was best at charting the insidious rise of the Nazis and the predicament of the Jews. But it had been an eye-opener for Malcolm to pick up on the regular items of factual news in the text to see how complex the demise of the Weimar regime was. His first is the funeral of Hermann Muller, the Social Democrat ex-chancellor. His last is the resignation of General Schleicher, a militaristic schemer who had tried to use the Nazis for his own ends and was finally bumped off by them. In between he mentions ‘the shooting on the Buelowplatz’, referring to the murder of a senior policeman who had been the scourge of all street protests, by members of the German communist party, the KPD. These things are happening before him or are in the newspaper. His venture into dramatising one of them is merely to put into his landlady’s mouth the news that a major bank, the Darmstadter und National, has collpased. That was the final trigger for the bank-run and hyper-inflation of the German economy.
And how immediate were the descriptions of street fights and beatings to which the public response was typified by the expression ‘Allerhand’, the equivalent of a helpless shrug -‘What can you do?’ There is something, according to Malcolm, very straightforward in Isherwood’s account of the eruption of chaos and the rise of the right, but he could be taken to be rather simplistic in his diagnosis of the problem. Take the example he gives of a staged fair-ground boxing match in which the audience is carried away by clearly rigged fights. His conclusion? ‘These people could be made to believe in anybody or anything.’ Not the most conclusive analogy for the German electorate, fair-ground boxing enthusiasts, you’d think.
The department store family of rich Jews had probably been based on the Tietz business, whose enterprise, the Kaufhof, had been the equivalent of Zola’s Parisian ‘Ladies paradise’. Sara could attest, it was still there in Berlin, Das Kaufhaus des Westens or KaDeWe.
So. Cabaret. Where had all that decadent stuff come rom? Malcolm thought he had found it all in one paragraph, the description of the Salomé night club: A few stage lesbians and some men with plucked eyebrows lounged at the bar…the whole premises are painted gold and inferno red – crimson plush inches thick, and vast gilded mirrors… We went out half-way through the cabaret performance, after a young man in a spangled crinoline and jewelled breast-caps had painfully but successfully executed three splits.
Rory thought it had been a great success, very readable got straight to the point. Very impressed.