Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Isherwood: The Berlin Novels

Christopher Isherwood (1999) The Berlin Novels Vintage, London; 490 pp.; ISBN 978-0-749-39702-9

This omnibus brings together two novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains (first published in 1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Both are set in Berlin in the 1930s as the economy was in collapse and the Nazis were pursuing their road to power. In eerie retrospect, we see people eking out their lives and enjoying their minor pleasures as they are swept along by events outside their control. While Mr Norris Changes Trains is a fully-fledged novel, Goodbye to Berlin is a miscellany, held together by locale and some common characters, most notably Isherwood himself.

Arthur Norris, whom we first meet on a train, is an affectionate portrayal of a very English character. He is a rogue who lives on his wits and who has few scruples, yet is sentimental about friendship and a coward at heart. He puts on airs of gentility and is fastidious about his clothing and appearance but the effect is sad and shabby, made comic by his affectation of wearing a wig. The narrator of Mr Norris Changes Trains, William Bradshaw, is young, English and educated, in Germany to teach and improve his language skills. He fools himself into thinking that he can see through Arthur’s machinations and pretensions, but in the end is fooled by the older and wilier man in a gamble of intrigue. William Bradshaw were Isherwood’s middle names and the character is largely autobiographical.

Isherwood evokes the down-at-heel atmosphere in Berlin at the time, and the political passions that divided the country. Berliners’ resentment of poverty and the focusing of blame on Jews, Marxists and foreign financiers is subtly conveyed, but is pervasive. In dire circumstances, people like nothing better than pointing the finger at someone else. Arthur Norris is forced to make a quick exit as dark forces close about him, a victim of his own scheming, but at the novel’s close there are glimpses of him wandering in the Americas, incorrigible to the end. We can’t help but feel a small cheer inside.

‘A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)’ is the first of six stories in Goodbye to Berlin. It provides more detail on the boarding house where much of Mr Norris is set, and includes a funny account of an English lesson, Isherwood’s main source of income at the time. ‘Sally Bowles’ follows and is a well-rounded picture of a young English woman trying her luck as an artiste and gold-digger in Berlin. The economy is collapsing about her and people do extraordinary things to stay afloat. But Sally’s optimism and utter lack of nostalgia, combined with her joy in life’s indulgences, makes her endearing despite her obvious flaws.

In ‘Sally Bowles’, Isherwood leaves Berlin for a break to try and work on a novel. ‘On Reugen Island’ describes that period and the relationship between his boarding house companions, Peter and Otto. Peter Wilkinson is a highly strung, wealthy young Englishman with no sense of purpose or direction in life. He is besotted with Otto Nowak, a German teenager who is an opportunist and manipulator. Their relationship contrasts civilisation and primitiveness in a way that is reminiscent of E. M. Forster’s depictions of class difference. Isherwood’s admiration, like Forster’s, lies clearly with the ‘animal’ primitive whose emotions are seen as closer to nature.

Short of money and back in Berlin, Isherwood moves in with Otto’s family. ‘The Nowaks’ describes their family life in a grim attic apartment, their poverty and their different responses to it. In the end Otto’s mother goes to a sanatorium, suffering from tuberculosis, but we see it is also her escape from a soul-destroying life that is increasingly consuming the German working classes. The penultimate story is about the Landauer family, prosperous Jewish emporium owners whose lives are in stark contrast to those of the Nowaks. Isherwood focuses on the daughter, Natalia, and the nephew and store manager, Bernhard. This is a cultured and cosmopolitan family, but its fortunes are threatened by the consolidation of Nazi power. There are options, but they are limited and the choosing of them is often driven by more than individual will.

Goodbye to Berlin ends with ‘A Berlin Diary, Winter 1932-3’. It is a series of sketches of life in the city as the Nazis take power and become more nakedly violent. For Isherwood, it all has a dreamlike quality, though he knows very well that some of the people he has known and befriended are now dead, victims of the new regime. His detachment in the end feels morally bankrupt.

Isherwood intended to write a sprawling novel about Berlin, called The Lost. Both novels in this collection are fragments of that greater ambition, and it is disappointing that The Lost never found its way to completion. Perhaps the whole enterprise was too ambitious for Isherwood, or perhaps he never really cared deeply enough about his life in Berlin to convey any meaningful message. Nevertheless, this omnibus edition brings together first-hand observations of life and decay in a European city ground down by poverty and unemployment, and seething with a deep anger. That alone makes it a parable for our times.

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