Arts & Culture

Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood3 min read

Isherwood’s novel is thought provoking, engaging, fuelled by confusing customs and traditions and wrapped in sentiment.

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Goodbye to Berlin is a semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood. He recalls the time he spent as an English teacher and aspiring novelist in 1930-1933 Weimar Germany. The book is divided into six distinct chapters. Each one tackles a different time-period of his life. It also usually introduces a new character into the story, a welcome development.

Isherwood sometimes comes across as a stagnant narrator. His views rarely change and one cannot detect any personal development. We can get this satisfaction from his introductions of new characters. What Isherwood does provide is a cynical look into pre-war Germany. He ignorantly jokes about the rise of Nazism and explores customs and traditions of the period.

His movements throughout cities and inconsistent financial situations mean that Isherwood connects with a diverse array of people. These include disgraced Frl. Schroeder, previously a respected socialite, now a disgraced Berlin landlady. The reader is introduced to cabaret singer and escort Sally Bowles. Her frivolous attitude to life and vulgar personality causes tension with Isherwood, a high-strung Englishman. Yet their friendship blooms throughout the novel. It becomes a point of reference to Isherwood’s loosening morals and acceptance of life’s inconsistencies.

Isherwood spends summer of 1931 with a gay couple named Otto Nowak and Peter Wilkinson, whose arguments entertain Isherwood as they struggle to accept their homosexuality in an ever-intolerant Germany. He continues his relationship with Otto as falling on hardship Isherwood is unable to continue renting from Frl. Schroeder and resides in the Nowak residence. Though the residence is no more than a leaky attic where five erratic family members live in poverty and disarray. 

This bleak contrast to Isherwood’s usual high society entourage sees him develop a relationship with Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer. Isherwood’s interaction with the Landauer family takes place throughout the novel. But the reader is only introduced to Natalia and later her uncle in the last two chapters. Isherwood’s official position in their household is that of a teacher, yet the relationship between him and Natalia develops into a friendship. Perhaps more as the reader can sense a type of disappointment when she leaves Berlin as Nazism continues to rise.

Overall, the variation of characters and the almost blank canvas who is Isherwood himself make this novel an interesting read. It provides an insight into the social, economic and cultural developments of Weimar Germany. As a history geek and lover of short stories compacted in singular novels, I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy it. It has been one of the highlights of my quarantine.

Isherwood takes in all these changes and relays them in a blatantly opinionated way – much like one would in a diary. The difficulty of this is that many of the linguistic references and terminology used by Isherwood is no longer common knowledge. Yet with hindsight in the form of historical consciousness on your side, Goodbye to Berlin is a book worth indulging, regardless of one’s interest in Nazism and history.

Paulina Utnik

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