The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
The Berlin Stories, published in 1945, is actually two short novels together. The first being The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) and the second Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Inspiration for The Berlin Stories is said to have been drawn from Isherwood’s experience as a British expatriate in Berlin in the 1930’s and is often described as semi-autobiographical. The main character in Goodbye to Berlin is indeed called Christopher Isherwood and this second story is described as autobiographical in a number of discussions. The first story’s main character is William Bradshaw, however, both Bradshaw and Isherwood in these stories have the same landlady, Frl. Schroeder. The same article that points out this detail, Mimsy Review: The Berlin Stories by Jerry Stratton, talks about how The Berlin Stories was classified as gay fiction. This label comes from a time when homosexuality was illegal in England and this is important because the novel does deal with homosexuality but in an ambiguous way so he may have wanted to tell his story but without coming right out and saying he was gay for fear of being arrested. Mr. Norris in The Last of Mr. Norris is said to have been based on Isherwood’s friend Gerald Hamilton who later published his memoir entitled Mr. Norris and I in 1956. The novel is set in pre-Nazi Germany but the the situation devolves within these stories as a number of Bradshaw/Isherwood’s friends are Jewish and/or Communist. His Jewish friend and her mother leave for France when it becomes too dangerous for them to stay and this excerpt from the above article together with an excerpt from the novel describes the tension of the novel for communists:
One of the most interesting facets of “The Berlin Stories” is that it takes place, and is written, in Germany and in England before World War II. The Nazis and the Communists are literally fighting in the streets. Many of William/Christopher’s friends are communists; the character Christopher calls himself a communist in “Goodbye to Berlin” and he watches the Communist party (the K.P.D.) descend into irrelevance.
“There were rumours that the K.P.D. would be forbidden; soon, in a few weeks. Otto was scornful. The Government would never dare, he said. The Party would fight. All the members of his cell had revolvers. They hung them, he told me, by strings from the bars of a cellar-grating in their Lokal, so that the police shouldn’t find them. The police were very active these days. Berlin, we heard, was to be cleaned up.”
The Berlin Stories seems to me to be an interesting glimpse into a particularly dangerous time especially for people who held values and lifestyles contrary to the restrictive laws of the time and the developing indoctrination of Nazi Germany. However, and in spite of the belief that the novel was semi-autobiographical, Isherwood later condemned his story The Last of Mr. Norris saying, “that he had lied about himself through the characterisation of the narrator and that he did not truly understand the suffering of the people he had depicted”. In an introduction to a version of Hamilton’s Mr. Norris and I Isherwood wrote:
“What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The “wickedness” of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. … As for the “monsters”, they were quite ordinary human beings prosiacally engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.”
I am interested in reading this novel made up of two stories purely because of the controversy of the themes in that time. Whether the novel was autobiographical or not is irrelevant to me, I read to be transported to another time or place, to see through another’s eyes, and I believe this novel will do just that. Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you thought of it.