The Berlin Stories

Considered a classic of twentieth century literature, Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories provided to the English-speaking world an outsider’s glimpse of Berlin between the wars. It inspired the play and movie I am a Camera, which in turn inspired the musical Cabaret. Those familiar with either will spot their origins in this book. A writer meets an enigmatic fellow on a train, a man involved with shady doings, who becomes the writer’s unreliable guide to Berlin. Through them we meet the characters and the inspirations for plots that would reach a wider audience on stage. "Sally Bowles" even features passages from which Cabaret’s “Don’t Tell Mama” number is drawn. The book is mild given the realities of Weimar Berlin, but harder-edged than its mass-media spin-offs suggest.

The Berlin Stories consist of two works, originally published separately. The Last of Mr. Norris (published in England as Mr. Norris Changes Trains in 1935) is a conventional novel, and the least interesting of the two; Goodbye to Berlin (1939) collects stories connected by a common narrator. Norris and Berlin share characters, though the nearly-identical narrators have been given different names. The Last of Mr. Norris presents as protagonist an Isherwood stand-in, William Bradshaw. Goodbye to Berlin calls its narrator Christopher Isherwood, though we’re aware this is a fictionalized version of the author. Both narrators are British men teaching English in Germany and trying to write a novel, both rent a room from one Frau Schroeder, and both write with ironic detachment.

The Last of Mr. Norris

"I’ve been hearing some queer things about him"(2.35)

In The Last of Mr. Norris, Bradshaw meets an older man on the train to Berlin, a man with "the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules"(1.1). He becomes involved with the man’s intrigues, and later tires of them. He also likely fears for his own safety, though Isherwood rarely gives any direct indication of his narrators’ feelings. The story suggests, but never explicitly declares, a sexual attraction between the men. Certainly, Bradshaw takes a romantic view of the older man, one which does not last. The political situation in Berlin—which includes open battles between Nazis and Communists—and the consequences of Norris’s own shady dealings make it difficult for him to remain in Germany. Bradshaw helps the older man leave the country, and clearly plans no further involvement.

Goodbye to Berlin

I am a camera, recording with my shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking (2.1)

Goodbye to Berlin may be read as collected stories, but it has an overall movement in Isherwood’s increasing fear and dissatisfaction with Berlin as the Nazis grow in power.

"A Berlin Diary" (August 1930) presents a portrait of a time and its characters. Frau Schroeder, the landlady, has a lust for life, but proves a nastier character than we see in the earlier novel or in the later adaptations. After a mild disagreement with another woman over yodeling, Schroeder writes an anonymous letter filled with false accusations to the woman’s fiancé. The resulting row leads to injury and the end of the engagement. The story ends with a conflict between Schroeder and Kost, a prostitute tenant.

"Sally Bowles," arguably the best of the stories, introduces Isherwood’s most famous character. She’s nineteen, sexy and superficial, a gold-digging adventurer living off cocktails with raw egg, a tourist wannabee in the milieu that produced Marlene Dietrich and Anita Berber. She’s also more callous than her more famous Cabaret incarnation. Sally Bowles’ abortion becomes a major crisis in the musical; in the novel, she quibbles with the doctor over the fee. It’s never clear why Isherwood pursues a friendship with this woman. While he’s somewhat drawn to her sexually, he seems more fascinated by her potential as a character.

"On Ruegen Island" (Summer 1931), perhaps the most obviously homoerotic of the tales, concerns Isherwood’s friendship with two young men, Peter and Otto. The standards and laws of the times meant that Isherwood could not address his homosexuality directly. The characters date women, but their conflicts with each other only make sense if we assume, at the very least, an attraction among them.

This story continues in "The Nowaks" which addresses Isherwood’s relationship with Otto and his German family. Otto spreads photos of women he admires on his bed, and then refers to his relationship with Peter. Once again, we receive a realistic portrait of characters, treated with a distance that keeps us from really knowing any of them. Like the pornographic novels Bradshaw borrows from Norris in the first novel, Isherwood’s writing can become "irritatingly vague in the most important passages"(1.37)

"The Landauers" features the narrator’s relationship with another family, upper-class German Jews. Isherwood has a problematic relationship with the family’s teenage daughter, Natalia, and their intellectual cousin, Berhard. There’s a tension among these three which could have been explored further; the story draws its real power from the politics of the era, the sinister portents of history which Isherwood can now see unfolding.

"A Berlin Diary" (Winter 1932-3) has no specific plot but a good deal of power, as Isherwood describes the situation in Berlin that ultimately drives him to leave. He finds himself involved with communists and Nazi youth and the violence that engulfs the city. He also comes the closest to directly addressing his homosexuality, with a visit to a tourist gay bar, where we find "some stage lesbians" and "some young men with plucked eyebrows"(2.192)-- rather the sort of place a guided tour might visit in contemporary Amsterdam's red light district. Annoyed by sightseers, Isherwood admits to an American that he is "very queer" and leaves before the man can decide "whether he ought not to hit" him in the face. Reflecting on people he knew who may be in prison or dead, and on a man who may face torture and death because the Nazis "will take him on trust for what he pretended to be," Isherwood leaves, unable to "altogether believe that any of this has really happened"(2.207).

As with many of the earlier pieces, the final one draws more power with the awareness of where the Nazis would take Germany. Isherwood suspects what will follow, but could not know for certain when he wrote. This must be counted among the factors that have kept The Berlin Stories in publication for over seventy years. The era produced more memorable and readable books, but Isherwood’s best moments in Berlin should continue to find an audience.