Book review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A snapshot of a city on the road to fascism

Goodbye to Berlin has been on my to-read list since Isherwood’s A Single Man became one of my favourite books a couple of years ago. This earlier novel, set in Berlin on the brink of Nazi coup, feels a very long way away from the ’60s California setting A Single Man, but the voice of Isherwood is very much the same.

The novel is made up of a loose collection of interlocking stories of a “fictional” Isherwood’s experiences living in Germany in the 1930s. I put “fictional” in quotation marks because, despite Isherwood’s disclaimer in the forward, it is quite hard to separate the character in the novel and the author who did in fact live in Berlin himself.

Through these stories, Isherwood gives a tour of a very foreign society. For the contemporary reader of 1939, it would have been an insight into life in Berlin during the end of the Weimar Republic – and you get hints of the almost funny differences the English Isherwood picks up on, like everyone’s shock at him not wearing a hat.

For readers today, it is hard not to see a society on the road to war and genocide. London in the 1930s would look very foreign to us today but Berlin is unrecognisable. Isherwood is clearly conscious of the monumental change the city was undergoing at the time as well, balancing societal strangeness with a more serious undercurrent of public unrest, poverty and building antisemitism.

Throughout the stories we meet an ensemble of characters that are increasingly out of place in pre-Nazi Germany – a gay couple, a wealthy jewish family, an English socialite, a couple of communists. If it was written today, these tropes would almost be a cliché but what’s interesting about this book is that facist takeover was by no means a forgone conclusion – a communist revolution seemed just as likely as a Nazi putsch. What is unspoken in this novel – although alluded to – is Isherwood’s own sexuality, and how it must have felt to be a gay Englishman living in a society that had crossed the line from intolerance to persecution. 

I’ve learnt almost as much about this book since reading it as I did when I was reading it. I didn’t actually realise that this was the source material for the musical Cabaret or that the character Sally Bowles was based on Jean Ross – a famous writer in her own right. I was disappointed to learn that Ross rightly resented her depiction by Isherwood, viewing it as a misrepresentation of her character. But it is such a fascinating snapshot of a country on the turn, and the inhabitants that were affected, that you can’t take this novel for anything less than a masterpiece of history.

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