Monday, August 22, 2016

Reading group: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

I suggested this book as a classic I had never read even though I found brilliant the film Cabaret, which is based on a section from it. Influenced by Isherwood's reputation as right wing and reactionary (prior to his rehabilitation as a gay writer in the 70s), and understanding that the film took great licence with the book, I had never been attracted to read it, or any of his other work.

As I said to the group, I was delighted to find my prejudice overturned.

Based on Isherwood's own experiences in Berlin, but flagged in an author's foreword as fictional - 'readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical' - the book consists of six loosely linked sections, not all of them following in chronological order, and spans the period from Autumn 1930 to Winter 1932-3 during which Berlin became transformed by the rise of the Nazis, and its licentious underworld culture attracting young men like Isherwood was swept away. During the course of the book, writer and English teacher 'Christopher Isherwood' settles into his new accommodation with his landlady Frl Schroeder, once genteel but now down on her luck (other occupants include a prostitute and a female Nazi); meets and becomes friendly with the garrulous and incorrigible nightclub singer (and unofficial prostitute) Sally Bowles (on whom the film Cabaret is centred); spends a period on a Baltic island sharing a house with Englishman Peter and his young working-class German lover Otto; back in Berlin, stays for a time with Otto and his family the Nowaks, and experiences the cramped conditions of the Berlin working classes; becomes involved with the Landauers, the wealthy Jewish family whose eighteen-year-old daughter, Natalia, he teaches; and finally, as SA men beat people up in the street, knows sadly that it is time for him to leave.

I said that I was hugely impressed by the quality of the prose and the insights into people and the way they are depicted - the affectionate depiction, for instance, of the bossy but naive and ultimately vulnerable teenager Natalia. On their first meeting, she makes Christopher tell her about the book he is writing (although he can see that she isn't really following his English):
When I had finished, she asked at once: 'And when will it be ready - how soon?' For she had taken possession of the story, together with all my other affairs. I answered that I didn't know. I was lazy.
'You are lazy?' Natalia opened her eyes mockingly. 'So? Then I am sorry. I can't help you.'

The first and last sections of the book take the form of a diary and are indeed titled thus (Berlin Diary Autumn 1930 and Berlin Diary Winter 1932-3), and the second paragraph of the book is the narrator's famous statement:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, and fixed.
 This is often taken as declaring a refusal to judge, but the point about a camera of course is that you can choose where to point it, and not only is there implicit judgement in the cool way Isherwood depicts characters, letting them reveal themselves, the book is a masterpiece of careful and telling selection. I said I loved the counterpointing that Isherwood thus creates: the two diary sections framing the book with vividly and sadly contrasting pictures of Berlin; the counterpointing of the louche and money-grubbing Sally Bowles and the pampered and naive Natalia, representatives of  contrasting social milieux; and most importantly of all, that of the good-hearted but politically naive Gentile Nowaks, vulnerable to Nazi propaganda, and the Jewish Landauers whose wealth and safety is doomed. Such counterpointing creates of itself a judgement on the overall social and political situation. The fact that the sections do not run entirely chronologically, and that as a consequence we discover that other events and friendships have been running alongside the ones we have been focused on, creates a kind of yearning sense of missed connection which I found very moving, and it seems to me that this, formally, is another comment on the social breakdown of the era. The endings of books are of course of prime importance, and the fact that Isherwood ends with descriptions of the growing Nazi violence he witnesses, however coolly he describes it, left me in no doubt about a fiercely left-wing authorial stance. The book was, after all, first published by notably left-wing publisher John Lehmann, and it is known that Isherwood held in great importance Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war and anti-establishment novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which we discussed here.

Everyone present agreed enthusiastically that the book was beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing, Mark in particular saying that he read it at a gallop in a couple of sittings. People elaborated on the things I had said, and amazement was expressed that Isherwood could have presented such a clear-eyed and politically acute picture of the rise of the Nazis, with even the mention of concentration camps, so early on before the war, and that such a book should have been published as early as 1939. Everyone was especially taken by the episode (near the end) picked out by Ann, where, as the Nazis take over the streets and the life of Berlin, Christopher attends a boxing match that the audience takes 'dead seriously', placing bets even though it is abundantly clear that the match is fixed, so that Christopher comments: 'The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything'. Impressive too is the depiction of the normalisation of Nazism in the minds of the populace, the muggings of suspected Jews presented by the narration with cool yet savage irony as 'not, in itself, very remarkable; there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests', and the harmless and even likeable landlady Frl Shroeder coming to talk 'reverently about "Der Fuhrer" to the porter's wife.'

Doug said that he did find something missing: a sense of the precise nature of Christopher's relationships with each of the other young men in the book, as it was clear that, writing in the early 30s, Isherwood would have had to suppress any explicit homosexuality. I quickly agreed, remembering that I'd had the same problem: for instance, when on the island of Reugen Otto abandons his lover Peter each evening to go dancing with women and Christopher and Peter end up spending the time together at a cafe, does this mean that Christopher is stepping in merely on the level of friendship, or in a more involved way? And, after the relationship between Peter and Otto breaks down, what is the precise relationship between Christopher and Otto when Christopher moves into Otto's cramped family home, and indeed shares his sleeping quarters? What indeed was his relationship with the nephew of the Landauers, Bernhard, with whom he is fascinated but who seems ambivalently to hold him at arm's length? Mark thought it was obvious that all of the relationships would have been physically sexual. I said, but even so, because of the suppression, we can't know the emotional level. For instance, later Christopher is apparently wistfully arrested when someone mentions a Peter (who will turn out not be the same Peter): does this mean he was unrequitedly in love with him, or not? As was agreed generally, it's a reading problem created by our contemporary hindsight: at the time of publication readers would generally have accepted the surface representation of the relationships.

John said that he thought this suppression was closely linked to the camera conceit at the beginning. A photographer records, and in the way he records interprets, but leaves himself out of the picture. The only way for the narrator to suppress his own homosexual involvement with characters would be to excise himself from the story as active participant, and place himself in the role of observer. This is indeed movingly codified on the first page where Christopher, newly arrived in his lodgings, listens to the young men in the street below whistling up to their girls:
Their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad ... soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the venetian blind to make sure that it is not - as I know very well it could not possibly be - for me.
a statement of longing and exclusion that blew me over before I had hardly begun the book.

And then, to my surprise, Mark, who had stated the most robustly that he'd found the book a compulsive read, said that nevertheless he did disagree with me about its left wing stance: he thought that it was after all fundamentally right wing and racist. Christopher makes a conscious political point of getting to know the Landauers after hearing anti-Jewish sentiments expressed, but Mark said that there is exoticism in the portrayal of Bernhard: with his Oriental furnishings and dressing gown Bernhard is portrayed as mysteriously exotic. I objected that the exoticism was surely that of Bernhard himself and of the time, Orientalism being a fashionable obsession of the 30s. I have to concede that Bernhard does come across as fundamentally unknowable, ambiguously fascinating and repellent, but feel on reflection that that's a matter of suppressed homosexuality rather than racism, since the attitude to the other Landauers is straightforward and affectionate. Mark pointed to the statement that a gang of Nazi roughs 'manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians' as evidence of racial stereotyping on the part of Isherwood. I read that, on the contrary, as Isherwood's ironical comment on racial stereotyping by the Nazis - note that these pedestrians are not identified by the narration as Jews; they are people, not necessarily Jews, who because of certain physical characteristics are assumed by the Nazis to be Jews. It's also significant that the passage comes at the very start of the section on the Landauers, prefiguring the fate in store for them that will be a matter of great sadness.

For Mark, I think, Isherwood's position as a privileged upper-class young man slumming it with a family like the Nowaks as a matter of curious writerly choice and observing the coming political storm from a position of safety (he can return to England while Bernhard Landauer remains to suffer a horrific fate), weakens his observations. It is also a matter of fact that Isherwood left England for America with W H Auden just before the war, declaring to his publisher John Lehmann that Europe was no longer of concern to him, a matter about which Lehmann was still writing bitterly in the late 80s, and which clearly fuelled the reputation that had put me off Isherwood's work.

However, it seems to me that irrespective of Isherwood's ultimate political stance, close attention to the text of Goodbye to Berlin shows it to be a work of political acuity, humanity and integrity. The social status of author Isherwood and narrator Christopher cannot to my mind detract from the searing nature of the depiction of the poverty-stricken boys who come from the countryside to the city to seek unattainable work, and the cruel character of the city, the heart of political oppression:
the city, which glowed so brightly and invitingly in the night sky above the plains, is cold and cruel and dead. Its warmth is an illusion, a mirage of the winter desert. It will not receive these boys. It has nothing to give. The cold drives them out of its streets, into the wood which is its cruel heart. And there they cower on benches, to starve and freeze, and dream of their faraway cottage stoves

and the air of restrained longing and sadness infusing the whole creates a lament not just for oppressed homosexuality but for oppressed humanity.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

No comments: