Star rating: ***
First published by Hogarth Press in 1939
Want to know what Germany was like pre WWII? Christopher Isherwood highlights the highs and lows of life in Berlin in his short biographical observations expertly put together within this novel.
Split into six short stories, all with inter-linking characters, we trapeze through 1930’s Berlin, getting a brief glimpse of what Germany must have been like before the imposing regime of Hitler embarked on his epic take-over.
“A Berlin diary (Autumn 1930)” helps to set the scene. Drawn from England to Berlin we read about the dwelling Christopher Isherwood has opted for and the characters he shares the space with. Unlike today where a house would be home to one family it was apparent that during this time maximising occupancy for rent was vital to survival. Choosing the right room was therefore key – imagine living in a house full of people you couldn’t relate to? Frl. Schroeder is head of this particular household, which alongside Christopher, included a Bartender, a “Lady of the Night”, a Jew and a Nazi supporter. Fast-forward a few years and the inhabitants of this house are all living very different, conflicting lives, but reading about their comradeship in this opening section you would never believe that these individuals would over time distance themselves from one another because of the choices they go on to make.
“Sally Bowles” appears in several of the stories within the novel but is introduced for the first time here. We read about the freedom a female has during the early 1930’s to make her own decisions about where she lives, who she sees and what she does for a living. Sally, also from England, is seeking her fortune in Berlin. She is a natural-born actress, although not necessarily very good on the stage, and turns her entire life into an act. Reading about the flippant nature of a female during this era makes her life sound quite seedy and undesirable yet when compared to the activities of females today they would hardly be noted. Christopher and Sally clearly have a connection, although not on a romantic level, leading them to have enjoyable experiences together and often at the expense of others. Both being strong characters there is clearly going to be a clash between the two and this comes towards the end of the story when Christopher reaches out to help her; supporting her during an abortion she clearly doesn’t like his frank talking and the cracks in their relationship begin to show. Whilst she does appear in later episodes their friendship has slumped into a downward spiral and nothing either of them do to try and repair things really works; they never truly fall out but a desire to out-shine one another causes tensions in their relationship to boil over every time they meet.
“On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)” describes a life completely different to one that would be lived in Berlin. Experiencing a summer relaxing by the sea, with the ideal expectation that he will be able to write a masterpiece, Christopher soon becomes a victim of his surrounding, falling into a routine that goes unchallenged for a sustained period of time. Living with two other gentlemen, Peter and Otto, we read about the antics of three grown men living in each other’s pockets until they can cope no more. Otto, a friend of Peters, is happy to tag along until one day he wants to do his own thing. Younger than the other two men, he wants to go off dancing and enjoy himself with the local female crowd. Peter, the possessive introvert, is against this and they end up arguing, neither is prepared to back down and the end result is that both leave the peaceful Island that was beginning to feel like home. With no-one to entertain him, Christopher also decides to head back to Berlin with a manuscript that is almost finished.
“The Nowaks” begins to highlight the demise of Germany and the impact that communism is having on the economy. Christopher can no longer afford the rent at Frl. Schroeder’s and is forced to take up residence with Otto and his family in a rather squalid part of the city. During this period, the exchange rate for the pound against the mark plummets and to save embarrassment Christopher tells people he has returned to England. Working as an English teacher, he spends all of his time in the company of seemingly rich, German females that like the idea of being able to speak a few words of English. The teaching itself seems unchallenging but trying to gain money at the end of each lesson often appears to be a struggle. However, at two marks an hour Christopher soon has enough money to move out of his cramped quarters and back into his old room; his roommates none the wiser. This is the first time we read about the contrasting lives of the rich and poor in Berlin; the luxury and the slums. At this point Hitler is still not in power but already the city is beginning to struggle – people have no money and therefore food is in short supply in many households along with basic working amenities. You have to wonder how some will survive in the later years when things get really tough.
“The Landauers” is where we begin to realise that life for some will very shortly change. The Landauer family own a department store, one of the most successful in Berlin’s history, there is just one problem they are Jewish. Christopher befriends firstly Natalia, Landauer’s daughter, and later Bernhard, his nephew and is welcomed into the family fold. A regular visitor at the house, Christopher is exposed to the luxury that a family of this statue can afford. Expensive lunches, a library full of books and garden parties along with intellectual discussions become a way of life for him. Later when things start to turn nasty and people begin to deny all knowledge of ever knowing them Christopher rushes to Bernhard’s apartment to make sure that he is ok; the once overzealous gatekeeper has resorted to denying all knowledge of Bernhard’s existence meaning that Christopher has to wait for the gossip mongers to start to find out what has happened to his friends.
“A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)” continues with several descriptions of persecution that start appearing across the city even before Hitler’s party takes full reign over the country. Reading about street riots, fights breaking out for no real reason and a rise in Jewish intolerance you begin to get a sense of the fear that must have been building in people. This chapter will start to invoke feelings within you that up until now have been missing in this narrative.
Interested in history? Want to read about events from someone who actual witnessed them first-hand? This could be a novel for you. For the most part this is a light-hearted account of an author’s desire to find the perfect place to inspire him to write. Whilst the atrocities of WWII are yet to be unveiled it doesn’t stop you from imagining what will happen to the real-life people that are referred to in this novel.