In terms of plot and atmosphere, Goodbye to Berlin is what I wanted The Teleportation Accident to be. It’s the story of a young English writer living in Berlin during the early-1930’s, just as things are starting to take a turn for the worst. The thin line that Isherwood takes, between depicting those of Berlin’s inhabitants most vulnerable to the rising threat, and at the same time making the growth of Nazism seem distant and detached, makes for an intriguing read.
The book is ostensibly semi-autobiographical, in that the main character shares a name with the author, who has admitted that some of the characters were inspired by people he met during his own time living in Berlin. Not really a novel, Goodbye to Berlin is more of a collection of short stories, presented in a not entirely chronological order. Some of the short stories take place before the end of a previous one, and at least one of them jumps forward a number of years, beyond the span of the others. This gives the book a rather disjointed approach, and the presence of the narrator as an observer, rather than an actor, in most of the stories, feels little a clumsy and I think detracts from the story he’s actually telling.
That said, I think one of the strengths is that with each story, Isherwood focuses on a different stratum of Berlin society, a theme that can be seen straight from the first story, A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930), which introduces us to the inhabitants of the fictional Isherwood’s boarding house. The aging spinster landlady fallen on hard times after the war and the disparate family she has adopted: the naïve bartender, the prostitute, and the Nazi concert hall singer. In later stories, we also meet Sally Bowles, the English expat trying to make her way, either in the cabaret halls or as a gold digger, Peter and Otto, the self-destructive couple trying to make sense of their own relationship at a holiday resort, and the wealthy Jewish Landauer family. For all of these character’s, stability is becoming increasingly threatened by the changes in Germany.
It is the penultimate story, that of the Landauers, which is the most affecting, though I don’t know if that’s just because of the fact that today the Holocaust weighs heavily enough on our minds to overshadow the troubles of others at the time. For example, we can imagine that life for Otto, the young working class gay man, would not exactly be comfortable over the next few years. However, there is also a greater urgency to their tragedy, since we find out at the end of the piece that the Landauer whom Isherwood related to the most died not long after their final meeting.
The final story, A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3), provides a harsh bookend to the book. Whereas in the opener, the only sign of Nazism was Frau Mayr and her attitude towards a Jewish neighbour, now, with Hitler’s chancellorship imminent, signs of Nazism are now all but omnipresent. What’s more shocking however, is the fact that the narrator Isherwood does not appear to be too fazed by this, despite his associations, reacting more with sorrow than with fear. Of course, it’s never stated explicitly that the narrator shares his namesake’s famed homosexuality, so perhaps that, combined with his British nationality, gives him an aura of protection against the horrors. Or then again, maybe he’s just a feckless layabout.
As a final note, Goodbye to Berlin was apparently the basis for the highly successful film Cabaret. Though I’ve never seen it, I decided to have a look at the Wikipedia page to compare notes as it were, between the two stories. There is, in truth, very little in common between them, as far as I can tell. There is a character called Sally Bowles, but she is really a fairly minor character in Goodbye to Berlin, rather than a lead, and though Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house is in both stories, very little else survived the adaptations. It turns out that Cabaret is in fact an adaptation of an existing adaptation, the dramatic production of I am a Camera, (taken from the book’s second paragraph by the way, which is an example of Isherwood’s way with words).
Isherwood freely admitted that the books is carved from the corpse of a longer novel he never managed to write, which may account for some of it’s failings. So as an outsider’s view of 1930s Germany, Goodbye to Berlin is brilliant. As a book to read for enjoyment (or worse, simply because you liked Cabaret), it’s perhaps not so good.