The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
“Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs, bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.” (p. 86) William Bradshaw, narrator of The Last of Mr. Norris, describing Berlin in the early Thirties.
The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood
This book is actually two books for the price of one (although I think that’s kind of a flaw in the end), with both stories based on people and places Christopher Isherwood knew in Berlin in the early Thirties. The first short novel contained within is The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), which is a kind of comedy of manners-meets-crime novel type thing. The narrator, William Bradshaw (whose names are the middle names of the author) is a British expat making his living teaching well-to-do Germans the English language while putting off finishing a novel. On a train ride, he meets Mr. Norris, an exceedingly nervous middle-aged gentleman, whose sexual tastes run to the masochistic, and who may be engaging in a dangerous criminal endeavor pitting Communists against the growing fascist movement in Germany. The book follows Bradshaw’s on-again, off-again friendship with Mr. Norris, whose libertinistic tendencies are a continual source of entertainment.
The second mini-novel in this collection, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), is much better. This time the thinly veiled author substitute/main character actually just is Christopher Isherwood, charmingly called “Herr Issyvoo” by his landlord Fraulein Schroeder, whose English pronunciation is somewhat lacking. The book details various events that happened in the few years leading up to Isherwood’s departure from Berlin upon Hitler’s rise to power. There’s his friendship with Sally Bowles (who could potentially be in the running for the first fully-realized Manic Pixie Dream Girl in English literature), another Brit come to Berlin to make her fortune in the German film industry; odd couple Peter Wilkinson and Otto Nowak, who Isherwood meets on vacation on Ruegen Island (later Isherwood moves in with Nowak’s family in a tenement building); and the distinguished old money Landauer family, who each touch Christopher’s life in a different way before being caught up in the Holocaust.
The two books that make up The Berlin Stories are interesting from a few different angles. In one way, we see Isherwood getting better at writing between the two stories, with Goodbye to Berlin being miles beyond its predecessor. The characters and situations feel much richer in the second book, due to, I feel anyway, Isherwood’s better understanding of his own environment of Berlin with the benefit of hindsight (he’d just left Berlin by the time he wrote Mr. Norris, giving him four more years to ruminate on Goodbye to Berlin).
An interesting fact about Isherwood (brought up often in the book’s introduction, not to mention the back cover of the book) is that he was one of the first openly gay writers to be widely read in English. In his treatment of gay characters in the books, here again we can see Isherwood’s growth as a writer between them. In Mr. Norris, the character I’d most label as being gay, as he’s obviously never named as such in a 1930s novel, is Baron von Pregnitz, aka “Kuno”. The Baron surrounds himself continually with athletic young men at his estates and while on vacation, and he compares them to characters in an English children’s book about a shipwrecked group of boys. I found this character to be very stereotypical, although it’s a little difficult to pin that down exactly, as this is so early he may have been one of the stereotype’s originators.
Conversely, in Peter Wilkinson and Otto Novak from the Ruegen Island sequence in Goodbye to Berlin, we have a similar situation handled with much more depth and tact. Wilkinson is middle-aged and Otto is a young man, and they obviously are in a relationship with one another. Here though, Isherwood shows us what it’d be like for an older man to be in love with an impulsive 16 year old boy, at turns infuriating and lovely, with the Sword of Damocles continually dangling over their affair. Much more believable, to the point that I thought they were definitely based on real people, which is not a claim I’d level readily at Baron von Pregnitz.
The other big thing these books deal with is, obviously, the rise of fascism in Germany, personified by the Nazi Party. Again, we see the growth in Isherwood’s talent between both books. In Mr. Norris, Nazis are thugs engaged in a running campaign of street battles and op-ed columns against the Communist Party, which counts among its membership briefly both Isherwood/Bradshaw and the eponymous Mr. Norris. In Goodbye, though, in addition to the above-mentioned douchebaggery of the S.A. and Hitler Youth-types, we are shown an all-pervasive, yet perversely ambiguous anti-Semitism found in all the strata of German society that Isherwood meets. Jews are vilified as a matter of course, yet individual Germans don’t really seem to have a problem with the ones they know personally. Another good passage details the closing of a bank, and an angry mob’s seizing on an innocent young child playing nearby as a receptacle for their rage. Yet another vignette shows an S.A. man mocking book titles from a liberal book publisher they’d just shut down.
“‘Nie Wieder Krieg!’ he shouted, holding up one of them by the corner of the cover, disgustedly, as though it were a nasty kind of reptile. Everybody roared with laughter. ”No More War!” echoed a fat, well-dressed woman, with a scornful, savage laugh. ‘What an idea!'” (p 205).
These interludes with an encroaching fascist state of mind echo throughout the second book, lending it the “beautiful and the damned” allure that Weimar Republic stories tend to. These sorts of indicators are ever-important, especially today, when the political rhetoric in North America gets louder and more desperate. The Sally Bowles sequence from Goodbye to Berlin was eventually turned into a stage play, then finally the movie Cabaret in 1972. I can’t say that reading the book makes me want to rush out and watch the movie, though, as Bowles’ character was kind of an insufferable bitch. I suppose, though, that the only other thing I’ve seen Liza Minelli, who plays her in the movie, in was Arrested Development, so it’s nothing personal against her, because she was great in that.
“After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” Goodbye to Berlin (p. 207)
Total pages read since January 1st: 3053 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925)