“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.”

– (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 1)

With this passage Christopher Isherwood invites us into his novel Goodbye to Berlin. His modernist writing style is often described as “camera eye”¹ and “social documentary realism”². Isherwood himself however, challenged this notion of objectivity in interviews, accentuating that his feelings and “selfness” were clearly present in the novel. The author’s voice is channelled through the narrator-protagonist in Goodbye to Berlin. His personal revolts against family values and his homosexuality are evident in his writings³.

Christopher Isherwood was born on the 26th of August,1904, to a well-to-do Cheshire family. In 1929, he visited Berlin for the first time to join his friend and former schoolmate­—the poet W.H. Auden. During the Weimar period, Berlin was seen as Europe’s hotspot of artistic and bohemian culture. As Stephen Wade describes in his book about Christopher Isherwood’s life:

From its artistic community had come the theatre of Brecht, the vigour and freshness of Expressionism, cabaret satire, experimentation in the visual arts and generally a youthful, vital literature and art with a keen awareness of the context of mass unemployment and post-war depression.”⁴

In Berlin he experienced sexual liberation and encountered many of ‘his kind’ at Magnus Hirschfeld’s renowned Institute of Sex Research. In addition, he experienced financial instability for the first time. Although he had already published his first book, it had been a commercial failure.⁵ But the ‘education of the streets’ gave the novelist the material he needed. He left Berlin in 1933 bringing a large collection of notebooks and journals, which would later become the basis of his work. Although his time in Berlin was just a small chapter of his life, it is clear that the experience profoundly influenced Isherwood’s writing.

Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin is a collection of six stories that share a loose narrative, some of the stories having been published in earlier volumes. Christopher Isherwood had originally intended to publish a lengthy episodic novel of pre-Hitler Berlin, and there is a distinct episodic quality to Goodbye to Berlin. The stories provide insight into the daily lives of various characters, from the working-class housewife, the Jewish business family to the famous character of Sally Bowles—who became known to larger audience through Liza Minnelli’s portrayal of her in the 1972 film Cabaret.

Mr. Norris Changes Train

“What have I done to deserve all this?”

– (Mr. Norris Changes Trains, P.191)

The novel depicts the experiences of narrator William Bradshaw, who befriends a nervous-looking man named Arthur Norris on a train trip from the Netherlands to Germany. It is later revealed that Norris is a communist. Norris leaves Berlin very suddenly but subsequently returns with his fortunes restored, and Bradshaw discovers that Norris is also a spy. Since they are being followed by the police, Bradshaw persuades Norris to leave Germany. After the Reichstag fire, the Nazis eliminate one of the leaders of the Communists, Ludwig  Bayer and most of Norris’ comrades, while Bradshaw returns to England where he receives occasional notes and postcards from Norris, who has fled Berlin.

Would you like to learn more about Isherwood’s life in Berlin? Check out the Christopher Isherwood tours by Brendan Nash: http://isherwoods-neighbourhood.com/

Sources

1 Wade, Stephen. Christopher Isherwood. London: Macmillan Education, Limited. 1992. p. 12.

2 Ibid. p.10.

3 Ibid. p.1.

4 Ibid. p. 8.

5 Ibid. p. 10.