Book Group, Books

Book 19: The Berlin Stories – Christopher Isherwood

The Berlin Stories brings together two of what Isherwood wrote while inspired by the city of Berlin. His most famous character (who I did not know), Sally Bowles, comes from this time of his life when he lived in Berlin. He lived here prior to and leading up to World War II. The two stories in this book are The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin.

I believe Armistead Maupin stated it perfectly when he was discussing Isherwood’s writing style and how he uses words sparingly and only says what he means to say and therefore the writing is something incredibly beautiful and impacting. I definitely remember this from A Single Man and it rung through in this novel, but perhaps not as much.

The Last of Mr. Norris
This story took a while to pick up and even once it did I wasn’t quite sure what occurred. We are in Berlin with an English teacher, Bradshaw, and the man he meets, Norris. We follow these two characters and the majority of the story is about Bradshaw’s interactions with and around Norris. I think the most poignant aspect of this story is the subtle hints of homosexuality that permeate the novel. I mean I know historically Germany was far ahead of the rest of the world when it came to sexual deviants, but it was interesting to see how things were from this perspective. It was very much don’t ask don’t tell.

I also appreciated the differentiation between the Nazi’s and the communists. I always forget that they were (and are) separate parties with different origins and goals and I feel like most people don’t fully understand this either. I mean I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with socialists and a few communists and needless to say they all run a bit parallel, so I thought it was a nice reminder.

Overall the story was a bit lackluster, but I enjoyed it and it was a quick read. I know I was trying too hard to read sexuality into it, but it was an interesting enough plot with politics and the not-knowing.

Goodbye to Berlin
This story was not much of an improvement on the previous one. Much of it was the same story told over again but from a bit of a different perspective and thus creating a lot of confusion, at least for me personally. I appreciated a couple of the characters (Natalia and her cousin) and found others even more obnoxious and annoying (Sally Bowles).

The best line of the entire book was in this short story and it sort of encapsulates how I feel about my personality which is definitely not a good thing, but an apt description:

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.

I also feel this quote sort of sums up why I liked Natalia and Bernhard as well, they weren’t quite part of the humanity of the story. They were both removed from human emotions and interaction for the large portion of their story and yet remained a vital part of the story. They were in direct contrast to Otto who was flimsy and quite flippant in his rent-boy type attitude moving throughout the world.

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