Christopher Isherwood, Berlin’s Last Eulogist

In the curious and often random universe of world literature there are certain combinations of places and authors that carry an uncanny and frankly unfair dose of mystic. I’m not talking of natural associations, such as Victor Hugo and Paris, Dickens and London or Borges and Buenos Aires—no, there is plenty of logic to those marriages, indeed there’s almost a sense of inevitability to them. Instead, I’m talking about a form of chemistry that is perhaps unexpected, certainly unwarranted, and for that very reason all the more blinding: think of Bolaño in Mexico, of Cortázar in Paris, of Hemingway in Cuba. The mutual feedback these authors achieved with those places is so complete that our mental image of both—the writers and the destinations—is actually shaped by their input. That, precisely, is what Christopher Isherwood managed to find in Berlin almost ninety years ago—though the legacy of that relationship remains alive and well to this day.

Isherwood arrived in Berlin round about the time of the greatest economic meltdown the capitalist system has ever known: in 1929, in the immediate prelude to the Wall Street Crash. He was twenty-four years old, had studied history for several years at Cambridge and started a degree in medicine, though he dropped out before long. Isherwood had just had his first novel, All the Conspirators, published the previous year by Jonathan Cape in England—a rather dramatic narration of a domestic power struggle in a household where an excessively domineering mother psychologically oppresses her two grown-up children. Despite the somewhat austere theme, Isherwood’s prose keeps the story moving at a quick pace and his inventive descriptions and beautiful turns of phrase make the reading experience enjoyable. Nevertheless, in Goodbye to Berlin, a novelized transcription of his diary, Isherwood claims—humorously, certainly, but not without the sting of commercial failure—that All the Conspirators had only managed to sell fifty copies.

Be that as it may, after dropping out of medicine school Isherwood resolved to visit his childhood friend W. H. Auden in Berlin. He would spend the best part of the next four years in the capital of Germany’s so-called Weimar Republic, until Hitler’s rise to power came to fruition in 1933. By then Isherwood had gathered sufficient material to produce one great novel—The Lost, he intended to call it. Alas, the grand scheme resisted creation, so over the years Isherwood used his diary to conceive and publish a couple of less ambitious works which nonetheless were enough to cement his reputation and earn him a small fortune.

mr-norris-changes-trainsThe first of these is the novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains, published in 1935 in England and later distributed in the USA under the title The Last of Mr. Norris. The third of Isherwood’s novels (in the meantime he had published The Memorial in 1932), Mr. Norris Changes Trains is in some way everything All the Conspirators is not: Full of excitement and unpredictable turns, the novel revolves around an explosive friendship between the narrator, William Bradshaw, and the mysterious Arthur Norris, whom he meets fortuitously in a train bound for Germany. Erratic, extremely nervous and constantly scheming, Norris sets the tone to his relationship with Bradshaw when he almost collapses from a nervous breakdown during the border control in the first scene. Ostensibly a merchant, Norris turns out to be a swindler, an ex-con, a staunch supporter of various communist cells, a bon vivant, and a double-crossing spy. He also happens to be a mainstay of the sexually fluid Berlin scene, to which Bradshaw feels immediately attracted. Therefore, despite all the intrigues and the conflicts, against the advice of his closest friends and even some official organisms, Bradshaw remains close and faithful to Arthur Norris till the end—which inevitably turns out to be more bitter than sweet.

Mr. Norris Changes Trains is not a “serious” work of literature—nor is it meant to be. Instead, it is what Graham Greene used to describe as an “entertainment”, a work not particularly interested in tackling profound moral or even aesthetic notions but instead focused on the creation of a deliberately complex story with enough twists and turns to guarantee the reader a fun ride. At that, Mr. Norris Changes Trains is a delightful success. But if Isherwood failed at conceiving a novel that would incorporate all his Berlin experiences into a vast and meaningful plot (which was meant to be The Lost), he also understood that Mr. Norris Changes Trains was too closely bound to its storyline to allow the wealth of secondary characters around the two protagonists to flourish. That is how Goodbye to Berlin came about in 1939.

Structured as a series of intertwined episodes in the form of a personal diary, Goodbye to Berlin reproduces all the madness and the spontaneity that characterizes the life of the young and reckless (not only in Berlin in the early 1930s). Revolving around Isherwood himself, the stories come alive with a vividness that undoubtedly would have been lost had they been part of a greater fictional plot. Recounted as life experiences, with no ulterior motive beyond illustrating the peculiarities of Berlin’s different social layers at a time that turned out to be instrumental in the twentieth century, they are allowed to shine in all their splendor. Wide-eyed, Isherwood provides us with a candid account of the loose morals and curious disposition of a whole roster of wonderful characters, from the singleton Frl. Schroeder, whose boarding house mirrors the downhill spiral of her looks as the years take their toll, to the sinister von Pregnitz and the cast of politically committed debauchees in Berlin’s demimonde, to the remarkable Sally Bowles, immortalized in the unforgettable Cabaret—which in turn immortalized both Isherwood and Liza Minnelli.


LIsa Minneli in Cabaret. Photo:

As Goodbye to Berlin moves forward the stories are progressively less concerned with the permissiveness that dominates the early portions of the diary, focusing instead on the growing tension between political factions when the Nazi party gains adherents and relevance. Indeed, to a large extent it is here, in the unfiltered impressions of a young left-leaning foreigner witnessing a momentous transition, that Isherwood’s work hits upon its more powerful, more lasting, insights. As Berlin’s seemingly perpetual orgy is displaced by a popular frenzy, the city’s ordinary routine in the dying days of the Weimar Republic provides us with an X-ray of the dynamics that enable the rule of terror to take control of an otherwise perfectly normal society. Through Isherwood’s eyes—still wide, though not so much with admiration as with horror—we see how thuggery emerges as the most efficient weapon in the battle for supremacy at the top of Germany’s barren political establishment, we see how impunity emboldens a gang of criminals to intimidate the masses, and we also see the most extreme consequences of apathy as the vast majority of people look on, too frightened or too busy trying to survive, to stop the outrage.

Isherwood left Berlin early in 1933, when Hitler’s machinations finally landed him the position of Chancellor. No longer at ease in the city where he thought he would live forever, he embarked on a long journey that would see him reach China before heading for America with W. H. Auden in 1939—when British involvement in the approaching World War was both predictable and inevitable. Back in England his reputation suffered terribly from the perceived idea that he had forsaken his duty and escaped the conflict. In the United States, however, he thrived: The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin were published by New Directions in a single volume titled Berlin Stories in 1945. As it turned out, Isherwood had been at the right place very much in the wrong time—and while he had not been able to make his life in Berlin as he had expected, Berlin did, in the end, make his life, as the success of his stories from such politically-relevant times was all but guaranteed.

Isherwood became an American citizen in 1946. I Am a camera, the play adaptation of Berlin Stories, debuted in Broadway in 1951 and four years later it was turned into a Hollywood production. In the United States, Isherwood also discovered Hinduism, and he spent most of the remainder of his writing career translating and commenting Vedanta philosophy. His short novel A Single Man (1964) earned him renewed acclaim, and a Hollywood production recently resurrected the story with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. It would be, however, the musical Cabaret, first produced in Broadway in 1966 and then brought to the screen in 1972, which would turn Isherwood into a household name. By then he had been living in California for well over twenty years, first in Hollywood, then in Santa Monica, where in 1953 he had met Don Bachardy, a teenager aspiring painter with whom he would share the rest of his life. Isherwood died in 1986, thirty years ago, having pursued a dream that wasn’t really his—and yet, in his home in Santa Monica, surrounded by exquisite art, in the company of all kinds of celebrities, from Truman Capote and Gore Vidal to Montgomery Clift or David Hockney, who could say Isherwood had not created his own private special place?

Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday August 27, 2016.

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