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The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

book 141:  The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

The Berlin Stories is composed of two related novels written by Christopher Isherwood during the 1930's set in post WWI and pre WWII Berlin:  The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin.  Both stories are named as novels, but considering the subject matter and that Isherwood himself appears as a character in both, I am not sure how much is fictionalized versus autobiographical.  The Last of Mr. Norris is more like a typical novel in which it follows Isherwood's relationship with a character, Mr. Norris, from first to last meeting.  Goodbye to Berlin feels more like a photoalbum, with snapshots of events and especially characters who may not relate to one another in any other way than all touching Isherwood's life and living in that tumultuous time in Berlin.  Some may recognize Isherwood's work in the character Sally Bowles (from Goodbye to Berlin) of I Am a Camera (played by Julie Harris) and Cabaret (played by Liza Minelli) movie fame.  I really liked Isherwood's writing style.  I felt swallowed by the stories even though it was about a place and time and people I know nothing about and really have no reference experience to help imagine.  With Mr. Norris I found myself anticipating the manueverings of a complex, sometimes likeable, probably not very good man in the extremes of his high life exploits and desperate schemes.  Goodbye to Berlin visits in turn the bars and cabarets to find sexpot Sally Bowles, an island retreat where the boundaries or non-sexual male love and jealousy are played out, the extreme poverty of the Nowaks who fit six in a converted attic and survive through subsistance until most of the family unravels when mother is taken away to a sanitarium as a temporary respite from her worsening tuberculosis, and the self-made wealthy Jewish family Landauer who live day-to-day knowing that riches are transitory and accepting the inevitability of their destruction and necessary rebirth in their individual private ways.  These things would be enough to carry many thoughtful novels, but these foreground images are stars flickering in an roiling sometimes overwhelming background of Berlin stricken with poverty after defeat and sanctions from WWI, with seething hatreds of the lower classes who find it increasing difficult to survive and are easy targets for the dual and violently contradicting political movements of Communism and Nazism.  The rise of Hitler is discussed as part of the background, and I think it is more powerful for it because it is the closest I've come to being able to see how someting like that could have happened.  Reading the books, I felt carried in a desperate world of agonizing poverty (economic, cultural, whatever) looking for some avenue to escape the suffering whether through debauchery, violent politics, or through acceptance of a scapegoat for their troubles.  I'm not sure how I felt reading about naive characters realizing the horrors that were still to come.  I think Isherwood had an inkling, and that's why he said "Goodbye".
Tags: fiction, history, holocaust literature, human spirit, international
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