Goodbye to Berlin

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Read 25/09/2016-02/10/2016

Rating: 3 stars

This is the third book from my prize Willoughby Book Club subscription. I was thrilled when I unwrapped it. I have Mr Norris Changes Trains as yet unread on my Kindle (because it appears on the list of books David Bowie thought people should read and I’m a sucker for a celebrity recommendation), but I wanted to read Goodbye to Berlin first. Which is odd, because I’m usually obsessed with reading things in order of publication. I’m a bit weird, I know.

These are stories about life in the demi-monde of Berlin in the early years of Nazi rule. It made me think of Paul Auster in the way the narrator shares the author’s name but isn’t strictly the author. It made me think of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. It made me think of Nancy Mitford. It made me think.

The Isherwood of the stories is a writer, teaching English to anyone who will take him on, and trying to live an interesting life. He lives in a boarding house and hovers on the edges of seedy society.

My favourite story is Sally Bowles. I loved her more than I expected to. She is the person I wanted to be in my 20s but was too responsible to let out until my 30s. She is canny, naive, scheming and vulnerable all at the same time. Her self-awareness at times was illuminating. I could relate to a few of the things she said, but most of all this:

‘I’m the sort of woman who can take men away from their wives, but I could never keep anybody for long. And that’s because I’m the type which every man imagines he wants, until he gets me; and then finds he doesn’t really, after all.’

Sally is one of a number of people who exist outside polite Berlin society that Isherwood encounters and befriends. All live precarious lives, hand to mouth existences, and are vulnerable to the rise of the Nazis.

I thought the book would be sleazier, but it’s actually very touching. These are people who don’t want to accept the mundanity of conventional life. They want to test their boundaries, live differently, and know they can say they experienced life. There is an edge of sadness to all their stories. The desperation of wanting to be different but lacking the financial resources to do it properly. The falling in and out of relationships, never knowing what it is they want, never finding the thing that is lacking.

On Reugen Island is the most affecting in this sense. An observation on the decline of a relationship, it is full of small moments that happen to all of us at some point in our rubbing along with somebody else. Those obscure quarrels and perpetual little rows that happen because you’re growing bored by the familiarity and inevitability of your life together. The ugliness of wanting to humiliate each other. The games played to get a rise out of the other person. The wanting to leave but also wanting to force the other person to be the one to give up.

In The Landauers, Isherwood meets Bernhard Landauer, a Jewish business man of his own age. Bernhard takes an interest in Isherwood which he finds flattering and frustrating. I recognised the type of man Bernhard was. About a decade ago, I was found interesting by a man of his type.

He is not going to tell me what he is really thinking or feeling, and he despises me because I do not know. He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things that are important to him. And because I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him.

When you are like Isherwood, someone like Bernhard is intriguing. Their very remoteness coupled with their interest in you makes you want to find a way to get under their skin, the way they have got under yours. You want to crack them open, and make them express something in concrete terms. They never do, of course, because you aren’t anything real to them. You are an entertainment, a diversion, a distraction from their real life. Eventually, they grow bored of your willingness to share anything and everything. They don’t want to know you. In turn, you grow bored of their blankness, and stop pretending that you are friends. But they stay under your skin, a frustrating itch you never managed to scratch.

Sally Bowles puts in another appearance and, in discussion with Isherwood about why she bothers to paint her toenails when they are so rarely seen, she replies in a way that those of us who do things for ourselves rather than other people will cheer:

‘I know, darling … But it makes me feel so marvellously sensual …’

The final essay draws the arc of Nazi ascension to its zenith. Throughout the book, the fascists are slowly creeping towards their annexation of the heart of Berlin society. The people whom Isherwood knows are mostly the people that the Nazis want to exterminate. The public brutality of the system increases suddenly and is assimilated by ordinary people who live in fear of being brutalised themselves. As Isherwood says, it is depressing. He describes his landlady in Everywoman terms:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatising herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter.

Salutary stuff.

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