Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

Goodbye to Berlin is less a novel, though it classifies itself as one, and more a collection of four stories and two diary entries. All these tales are based around the underground and lower end of society in 1930’s Germany as the Nazi’s slowly come to power and there is a great time of change in Berlin. Though written from the perspective of Christopher Isherwood a young writer at the time these, the author clarifies in the introduction, are all works of fiction – I wasn’t sure if I believed that as the characters we meet are so vivid.

One of the stories in the book, which do all interlink, and possibly my favourites is Sally Bowles and was the story that inspired the film I Am Camera that then became the iconic Cabaret. Sally is a wonderful character living on the wrong side of town and hanging out with the wrong kind of people invariably getting herself into trouble. She moves into the same apartment as Christopher that we see in the first Berlin Diary where we also meet the wonderful landlady Fraulein Schroeder who is a wonderful motherly, yet incredibly nosey landlady who takes in the tenants other people wouldn’t rent to.

We also see how men who liked men coped with such a forbidden love in On Ruegen Island, and tales of poverty in The Nowaks and The Landauers before a wonderful final Berlin Diary as Isherwood, both the character and the narrator bid farewell to the city and the love affair they have had with it and the people who walk its back streets. Through all of these tales we meet the minorities and the rejects of Berlin who give an unusual insight into Berlin during its history that I hadn’t read the likes of before.

Actually I tell a slight lie as some of the characters that you meet in the wonderful The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin are part of the Berlin Cabaret set though maybe not so vivid and that in part is why I find it hard to believe that the characters we meet, emotions we feel and the streets we walk are purely fictional they come so fully formed and so full of life even in the most difficult of circumstances.

I really loved this book, I sadly really didn’t love the version of Cabaret that I went to see this week though but I shall say no more. I thought all the characters I met in this book were wonderful and think Sally Bowles may be one of my favourite characters of the year. I also loved seeing that period in history and the lead up to WWII and the Nazi Regimes rise to power through such a different perspective utterly enthralling. It’s also wonderfully written evoking the emotions of the people and the sounds and smells of the streets.

I already have the other of Isherwood’s Berlin books Mr. Norris Changes Trains and may have to read that very soon. I may break one of my reading rules as normally I like to hold off from another read by a wonderful author I have just discovered, does anyone else do this? However with my new ‘read whatever’ whim takes me on or follow whatever journey the books I read lead me on and I feel Isherwood’s Berlin has much more to tell. Has anyone else read these or any other of Isherwood’s non-Berlin based books?


~ by greatgayreads on November 17, 2009.

2 Responses to “Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood”

  1. Thank you for this review! Of many writers, I feel that Isherwood is underread in general. You should definitely check out Mr. Norris Changes Trains, as we get more explorations of the Berlin misfits and outcasts that make Goodbye to Berlin to fascinating. Moving beyond just “gay” characters, we also get delightful portraits of leftists, s&m enthusiasts, and some more pedestrian gay imagery, but very very subtle of course.

    If you enjoyed Goodbye to Berlin, do not hesitate to read Isherwood’s other works. While this novel is certainly a wonderful treatment of the subject material and the time period, some of Isherwood’s other novels are excellent for what we could call, “gay reading”.

    :: A Single Man — soon to be a Hollywood film, read this before seeing the movie! Maybe Isherwood’s most powerful work, and deals more openly and honestly with homosexuality.

    :: Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939 — if you read Goodbye to Berlin and loved it, then this is almost required reading! Dealing with the homosexuality openly and honestly, this books revisits Isherwood’s life during the 1930s and shows us the side he could never have written at the time.

    Have fun! Happy reading!


    • Thanks Octopoe for this comment, thats really helpful I haven’t been sire where to go next with Isherwood. I have a feeling it will be Mrs Norris Changes Trains and then A Single Man (before I see the film of course) and then have your other recommendations. Very helpful.

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