Monday, 19 September 2011

Two-Birds-With-One-Book-Review: Goodbye to Berlin

With the glorious sense of timing that only a Department of English can provide, I have finally been given my MA optional modules a whole week before term begins. I assume this is meant to provide us with a sense of excitingly Bohemian edge-of-our-seat living, as we frantically try to hold three books in our right hand while we scribble down notes with our left.

But amidst this hipster madness it does rather pleasingly turn out that many of the books I've been told to read for my 'Literary Biography and Autobiographication' (bonus points if you know what that last word means precisely, because I don't) course also appear in my nemesis the 1001 Books list, and most excitingly of all one of them is the very book I've been dying to have an excuse to buy since I watched Christopher And His Kind last spring.

This BBC drama, for a random one-off production about an author that most people my age have never heard of, was watched by an unusual number of my friends. This was, of course, because of its superior script and heartfelt political message, which is a polite way of saying that everyone wanted to see Doctor Who having gay sex in Nazi Germany. What I - and I think everyone - took from Christopher And His Kind was an hour and a half of staring at Matt Smith's alarmingly snow-white and icicle-like torso as it lounged in various locations with a variety of men (and sometimes women, platonically).

Goodbye to Berlin turns out to be, oddly enough, the inspiration for the film Cabaret. This is strange to me, because I've never seen Cabaret, but from what I know about it the resemblance seems tenuous. Sally Bowles does appear in it, but there's really not much singing and dancing in Goodbye to Berlin at all. When the characters do go to bars, they tend to sit around gloomily in an atmosphere of creeping unease and encroaching ruin. It's very proto-hipster, although with a political message, which redeems it somewhat.

The other thing that redeems it is Christopher Isherwood himself. Goodbye to Berlin is a very artistic-licence version of his own time in Berlin, during Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s, and luckily he makes a great narrator. He's wry and observant and writes in a snappy, deadpan style that I like a lot. He's the sane guy in the middle of a world that's fascinating and recognisibly similar to our own but also completely, terrifyingly crazy. In Isherwood's Berlin, Nazis aren't cackling maniacs, they're plumbers, or bar men, or professional yodellers, and when Isherwood walks down the street he's just as likely to see two SA men casually turn around and beat some random guy's eye out of his head as he is to come across someone selling scarves. It's easy to explain away Hitler as the result of about 80% of Germans going raving mad in 1933, but the mad thing about Goodbye to Berlin is that these people aren't crazy. They're normal. And they still think that Hitler is a good idea. Are you unsettled yet? You will be after you read this book.

If you did watch Christopher And His Kind, you'll find Goodbye to Berlin very familiar. Its writers pretty much boiled down and tidied up the stories of Goodbye to Berlin (it's made up of six vaguely-linked chapters, each one to do with some part of Christopher's stay in Berlin), and then, because they were making a big-budget TV drama, made the result heave with added sexiness. The sex in Goodbye to Berlin itself turns out to be more referred to than written about, which is hardly surprising - since it was originally published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood could hardly include sentences that finished with, "... and then I had sex with a man I picked up in a bar!" I assume the BBC writers got most of their source material for that from Isherwood's memoir (also called Christopher And His Kind, and written much later, after most of the interested parties were convieniently no more). I may have to read it one day.

But anyway, Goodbye to Berlin was great, and disturbing, and a real relief after all that critical reading I've been wading through. I am now all in favour of bringing Christopher Isherwood back into literary favour from the Wasteland of Largely Forgotten Writers where he is currently hanging out. Because he's a good writer, and also because knowing about Christopher Isherwood can sometimes be very handy to a person.

4 stars. And the progress meter is at 17.98%


  1. It's worth watching Cabaret, I think it might surprise you - but by now will also be very familiar.

  2. It's one of those things I've just never got around to - it's on the list! Maybe I can persuade myself it's research for my module.