I can’t believe it’s taken me 40 years to read Christopher Isherwood. Ok, maybe it’s only been 34 years because there’s no way I could have read this when I was 6. But I digress.
The Berlin Stories is a combination of two of Isherwood’s novels – The Last of Mr Norris (Mr Norris Changes Trains in this edition) and Goodbye to Berlin.
In Mr Norris, instead of Christopher Isherwood, the narrator is William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s middle names). Norris and Bradshaw meet on a train. Bradshaw can tell immediately that Norris is wearing a bad wig and carrying a questionable passport. He decides to keep talking to Norris and by the time they reach Berlin they’ve become acquainted. Their friendship continues in Berlin.
It becomes clear to Bradshaw that Norris is smuggling under the guise of selling antiques. Norris introduces Bradshaw to the underbelly of early 1930s Berlin – cabarets, S&M, Communists, and underhanded deals. Bradshaw gets wrapped up in a few of Norris’s plots and eventually finds out that Norris has been spying for the French. Norris eventually leaves Berlin and sends Bradshaw postcards from various places around the world, letting Bradshaw know that Norris is still being pursued for his involvement.
Goodbye is more a collection of vignettes documenting Isherwood’s life in Berlin from 1930 to 1933. This is the stronger of the two books. Isherwood’s writing is sharp and funny, but really stands out in this book. I mean, check this out.
Frau Karpf, Liebling, willst Du sein ein Engel und bring zwei Tassen von Kaffee?” Sally’s German was not merely incorrect; it was all her own. She pronounced every word in a mincing, specially “foreign” manner. You could tell that she was speaking a foreign language from her expression alone
Like Norris (because the two books actually overlap), there’s a lot of the cabaret life, Communists, and questionable goings-on.
There’s also the rise of Hitler. Isherwood mentions conversations he overhears and the attitudes of the people around him slowly starting to change. When his landlady (who voted Communist in the last election, he tells us) starts referring to Hitler as “Mein Führer” he know’s it’s time to go back to England.
It makes the book a little hard to read as it gets closer to the end, because it feels like history’s repeating. “Blood must be spilled” one Nazi tells his girlfriend. Nazi rallies that start small with more police than Nazis participating. And then the increasing violence.
The Nazis may write like schoolboys, but they’re capable of anything. That’s just why they’re so dangerous. People laugh at them, right up to the last moment . . .”