Review: The Berlin Novels (Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin) Christopher Isherwood

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Collection of two previously published novels written by Christopher Isherwood, published in 1946. Set in pre-World War II Germany, the semiautobiographical work consists of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935; U.S. title, The Last of Mr. Norris) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). The Berlin Stories merge fact and fiction and contain ostensibly objective, frequently comic tales of marginal characters who live shabby and tenuous existences as expatriates in Berlin; the threat of the political horrors to come serves as subtext. In Goodbye to Berlin the character Isherwood uses the phrase “I am a camera with its shutter open” to claim that he is simply a passive recorder of events. The two novels that comprise The Berlin StoriesI Am a Camera (1951; film, 1955) and the musical Cabaret (1966; film, 1972) made Isherwood’s literary reputation; they later became the basis for the play

Review by Charlie Cochrane

Sometimes, when you look straight on at a small star, because of the way the eye’s constructed, you can’t see it. You have to look to one side and then it appears in your field of vision – elusive to the point that you begin to think you’re imagining its existence. That’s how I feel when I read novels by authors like Isherwood (or Forster), whose sexual preferences are now well known but who were writing at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and when they may well have been – to the public eye – in the closet. I don’t necessarily see the sexual references direct, they’re subtle and intriguing, and at times I wonder if they’re just wishful thinking.

So it’s hard to read Mr Norris Changes Trains ‘at face value’, knowing that William Bradshaw, who relates the story, is based on Isherwood himself and that Norris was inspired by Gerald Hamilton, himself a homosexual. The reader finds themselves looking for clues to a romantic liaison between the two, or with the other male characters in the story. They won’t find the former, but there are hints of the latter.

Norris himself is a marvellous anti-hero. Wig wearing, fastidious, of dubious morality, treacherous as they come (and with a passion for punishment), Norris is the sort of man the reader should abhor but, like Bradshaw, we fall under his spell. Even when we’re incredibly suspicious of what he’s up to – especially when he seems to be using Bradshaw as sexual bait for a German politician, Kuno. Set against the background of pre-war Berlin, the political intrigues of the Communists and the Nazi parties, the story deals subtly with truth, trust and the morality of those who simply do what they can to survive such times.

Worth reading? Of course; it’s a good story, well written (I like Isherwood’s no-nonsense style) and provides intriguing insights into a place and era I knew little about.

In Goodbye to Berlin, Bradshaw has reverted to Isherwood. An author’s note points out the overlap in characters and locations between this ‘book’ and Mr Norris Changes Trains; it also describes the volume as ‘this short loosely connected sequence of diaries and sketches’, although it emphasises that it is not an entirely autobiographical work. That description is important – if you come to this book thinking you’ll get the traditional story arc, you’ll be disappointed.

What you get are a delightful series of vignettes, some of which feature characters with whom the reader might think they’re familiar – although the Sally Bowles of these stories is a very different person from the Liza Minelli/Cabaret version. Not a very good singer, for a start… On Reugen Island is probably my favourite story, depicting the breakdown of the relationship of what might be a gigolo and his employer. Again, the depiction of gay relationships is circumspect, although there are more overt descriptions of the seamier underside of Berlin society, for example the short scene set in and around the Salomé club.

What strikes the reader is the sense of a society struggling to survive economic uncertainty and political turmoil – and we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that elements of this society are doomed. That sense of imminent disaster pervades the writing and adds a frisson and depth to stories that – in another setting and another era – might have worked less well. I’d also recommend that readers find out more about the real characters inspiring these tales; the real ‘Bernard Landauer’ – a marvellously complex character who appears to be trying to seduce Isherwood – is based on a man who helped many Jews escape Portugal and who died in the same plane as leslie Howard.

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3 Responses

  1. I really must read these stories. Thank you for reviewing them. Recently, quite by coincidence, I rented the DVD about Isherwood and Bachardy, titled Chris & Don: A Love Story, about the 34-year relationship between Isherwood and the much younger Don Bachardy, who, thanks to his own great talent, and the encouragement from Isherwood, became a successful painter of portraits. I recommend the film as much as you recommend the books. I detested the film version of Cabaret. So did Isherwood.

    • Hi Ruth (this is Charlie, despite what the ID says!)

      I’ve never seen Cabaret ad I do’n’t think I’ll hurry to do so. I will track that other DVD down, though. Must also get aroud to writing a review of A Single Man.

      C

      • YOU MUST watch Cabaret. It’s not very faithful to the books, but it’s excellent in its own way imho. Joel Grey is wonderful and they don’t miss out the homosexual relationship.

        Don’t worry about Single Man – that’s reviewed.

        Have fun! xxx

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