The Berlin Stories is a semi-autobiographical account of Christopher Isherwood’s life in Berlin before the Second World War. Set in 1931, the English-born author chronicles his misadventures with the city’s most interesting characters. The novel is essentially divided into ‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains’ and ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. With both stories barely skimming 200 pages, the tales were combined in 1946 to become The Berlin Stories.
In ‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains’, Isherwood goes by his alias William Bradshaw (Derived by his full name, Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood). The novel opens with young William Bradshaw encountering with an nervous man named Arthur Norris, on a train from Holland to Berlin. Noticing Norris is a fellow Englishman, Bradshaw strikes up a conversation with the stranger. Norris’s hesitation reaches it’s climax when German police ask to see his passport. Bradshaw appeases the officer and helps to calm Norris down without making a scene. Originally intrigued by Norris’s mysterious nature (and overly aristocratic English demeanor) the two soon develop a friendship.
As the two begin to see more of each other, certain oddities of Norris’s stealthy life are revealed. Seeming to belong to an upper class, Norris actually is a member of the German Communist party. A dangerous sect to belong to in politically charged Berlin. It’s also disclosed that he is a masochist. (But it’s more fun to read about that than have me explain it…) Though both of these former clandestine facts are seemingly personal, Bradshaw (-er Isherwood) treats them as if they are commonplace. And judging by my knowledge of Berlin at the time, they are.
While some of Mr. Norris’s most intimate secrets are exposed, his profession is not. When the Reichstag is burned (reportedly by a Communist) the Communist party is being swatted away like flies by Hitler’s Nazis. Needless to say, Norris is not safe in Berlin. But apparently he wants to make one last shady business deal, and Bradshaw may be the perfect decoy.
‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains’ is throughly wishy-washy. The tension in the story is constantly convoluted by side characters. Saying that, after you digest Isherwood’s priggish style, it’s more enjoyable. Ironically, the most enjoyable scenes in the story appear in the author’s description of the rise of the Nazi party:
“Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from window against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the cafe in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’etat in Bavaria. Goring spoke from the radio horn at the corner. ‘Germany is awake’, he said. An ice-cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious, set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the cafe turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased.”
By the end of ‘Mr. Norris’ you feel exhausted by the story, but it’s the perfect primer for ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. The second story in the novel includes one of literature’s and cinema’s most iconic characters, Sally Bowles; the inspiration for Cabaret(1972). Dropping his pseudonym Bradshaw, Isherwood introduces the novel in an immensenly beautiful passage:
“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, fixed.”
With the appearence of Sally Bowles, we skim the surface of a reoccurring, but subversive theme in Isherwood’s work, his homosexuality. While it is clearly alluded to, the lack of romance with the notoriously promiscious Sally and our protagonist only leads us to one conclusion. Not to say all male protagonist engage with female characters, but written during the Nazi takeover, the openly gay author’s closeted allusions to his sexuality can be applauded.
While Sally Bowles is an important character in the second half of Isherwood’s novel, she is a side player rather than a main character. The story, or stories I should say, consist more of the author’s profession as an English tutor. The chapter that particularely touched me was ‘The Laundauers’.
The story opens with Isherwood tutoring a young Jewish girl named Natalia Laundauer. In her adolescence, the young pupil is awkward and tempremental with her teacher. Despite this, the two eventually develop a friendship that leads to the introduction of Natalia’s cousin Berhnard to Isherwood.
As I mentioned before, the author keeps his sexuality secret, but his “friendship” with Bernhard admits a more intimate side of Isherwood. I would include another passage, but feel that I have exceeded my limit and want to use another to close the review. Take my word for it.
The Berlin Stories is a confidential view of pre-war Berlin from a poetic author. Isherwood’s distance was never too impersonal for my taste because it’s further developed his always entertaining characters. The author’s dialogue is placed at the most touching moments, in particularly his impression of the Nazification of Berlin and the dedications at the end of each story. Though it’s bittersweet, I believe the best example of Isherwood’s sentiments are in his disavowel of ‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains‘:
What repeals me now about ‘Mr. Norris’ is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffereing 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-tag attached to them, but here the prices were drastically redued 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.”