Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories collects Christopher Isherwood’s two novels of the 1930s set in Weimar Germany, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), published in England under the superior title Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and the better-known Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which introduced Sally Bowles and made Weimar’s cabaret scene a pop culture paragon after being adapted for stage and screen.

Isherwood was a relatively young writer—in his late 20s—when he was having and first writing up his experiences as Berlin visitor (or sex tourist, more of which below), so The Last of Mr. Norris is a slight, callow performance.

The novel is the first-person reminiscence of William Bradshaw, a visiting English writer who is only a barely-fictionalized version of Isherwood—William and Bradshaw were the writer’s middle names. But Bradshaw is not the novels’ focus: rather, the narrative dramatizes Bradshaw’s encounters with the eponymous Englishman Arthur Norris, a middle-aged habitué of the demimonde, who introduces Isherwood and us to Weimar Berlin’s panorama of prostitution, paraphilia, and radical politics.

Norris, with his badly-attached wig and his constant debt, comes off at first as a bathetic but compelling figure, a sad sadomasochist and well-intentioned naïf in the paranoid underworld of interwar communism, an aging dandy who possesses the glamor of a faded starlet.

As the novel progresses, though, we see that his campy tremulousness conceals a ruthless will to survive even at the price of selling out his ostensible friends; as he is manipulated by the various forces conspiring to control Germany, from the police to the Communist Party, he in turn manipulates everyone that comes to hand. Bradshaw looks into Norris’s eyes toward the end of the novel to detect if he is telling the truth and sees the man for who he is:

As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes. But no, this time-honoured process didn’t work. Here were no windows to the soul. They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shell-fish in the crevices of a rock. There was nothmg to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam. Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin. After three or four attempts, I gave it up. It was no good.

Norris is at first amusing, and then he is chilling, and Isherwood manages this slow transformation ably; but as the lead of a novel, he is too lightweight, just a grotesque, and I found Mr. Norris overly long. Better than its portrayal of the title character is its glimpses of Berlin as the political situation comes apart, given in Isherwood’s style of documentary fiction:

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.

The narrator, though, has very little character of his own, just a style of ironic and detached observation that eventually seems as frigid as Norris’s amorality. Over and over again, he tells us that he smiled at some vivid eccentricity of Norris’s, a gesture that casts a pall of frivolity over the whole novel.

In Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books, the critic John Carey speculates that Isherwood, understandably concealing his homosexuality and his real reason for his Berlin sojourn from the 1930s Anglo-American reader, in fact identified more with Norris than with the narrator:

But it seems that Isherwood also constructed Mr Norris out of parts of himself. He went to Berlin at a stage in his life when he was contemptuously dismissive of conventional morality, and cynical about political causes (‘All politicians are equally nasty’). In both respects, he resembled Mr Norris. Further, what attracted him to the city, as he frankly admitted, were the boy-bars where hungry youngsters would sell themselves to foreign homosexuals for the price of a meal. However much he might suppress it, it can hardly have escaped someone of Isherwood’s intelligence and upbringing that this was blatantly exploitative (and would have been equally so, of course, had the prostitutes been girls, not boys). He was using the misfortunes of the stricken city as an opportunity for his own hedonism, just like Mr Norris.

This speculation raises a question that might occur to contemporary readers, especially given Armistead Maupin’s preface to the 2008 New Directions edition of The Berlin Stories, which introduces these novels in the context of Isherwood’s own status as 20th-century gay icon: is Mr. Norris a gay or queer novel?

Hard to say: it takes place at a very different moment in “the history of sexuality” than our own. Its narrator, standing in for the gay author, represents himself as a rather hard-boiled, Hemingwayesque, masculinist 1930s narrator, and emphasizes several times that he resists the sexual come-on of the aristocratic pederast Kuno, and that he is, as ever, amused by Kuno’s boy-crazy ways.

Norris, on the other hand, is a heterosexual, a devoted sadomasochist, yet is he who speaks in the languid, campy tones of Wilde. His landlady reports to the narrator, “‘He’s so particular, Herr Bradshaw. More like a lady than a gentleman,'” and his beauty routine queers him in Bradshaw’s sardonic eyes:

Seated before the dressing-table in a delicate mauve wrap, Arthur would impart to me the various secrets of his toilet. He was astonishingly fastidious. It was a revelation to me to discover, after all this time, the complex preparations which led up to his every appearance in public. I hadn’t dreamed, for example, that he spent ten minutes three times a week in thinning his eyebrows with a pair of pincers. ( “Thinning, William; not plucking. That’s a piece of effeminacy which I abhor.” ) A massage-roller occupied another fifteen minutes daily of his valuable time; and then there was a thorough manipulation of his cheeks with face cream ( seven or eight minutes) and a little judicious powdering (three or four). Pedicure, of course, was an extra; but Arthur usually spent a few moments rubbing ointment on his toes to avert blisters and corns. Nor did he ever neglect a gargle and mouth-wash. (“Coming into daily contact, as I do, with members of the proletariat, I have to defend myself against positive onslaughts of microbes.”) All this is not to mention the days on which he actually made up his face. (“I felt I needed a dash of colour this morning; the weather’s so depressing.” ) Or the great fortnightly ablution of his hands and wrists with depilatory lotion. (“I prefer not to be reminded of our kinship with the larger apes.”)

Clearly, certain archetypes or stereotypes of gender and sexuality had not yet hardened by the time of this novel’s composition. Mr. Norris perhaps works better, then, as evidence for a cultural history of changing sexual ideas, than it does as a novel with its own artistic integrity.

Goodbye to Berlin, an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece, is much better. Here the narrator is named Isherwood without pretense, and if he doesn’t tell us about his personal life it is because he famously theorizes a new form of documentary fiction inspired by the objectivity of film and journalism rather than by the stream-of-consciousness subjectivity that marked the prior generation’s high modernist novels:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Divided into five freestanding sections, Goodbye to Berlin may be read as another instance, like Winesburg, Ohio, or Dubliners or Cane or Go Down, Moses, of the modernist story cycle or novel-in-stories. (On this note, it’s worth remembering that Isherwood famously championed this literary mode’s most notable use in science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.)

The first and last divisions are called “A Berlin Diary”—diaries being another documentary form—and they chronicle Berlin’s deteriorating political situation from 1930 to 1933, from the casual anti-Semitism of even otherwise sympathetic characters to open Nazi street violence. Isherwood’s quiet theme here, as he observes and reports, is the missed connection between public and private life (ironically exhibited by his own sexual diffidence, however understandable) that allows totalitarianism to thrive:

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 regime. 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 acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

But the novel is better known for its second section, “Sally Bowles,” than for these weighty political reflections. Sally is a 19-year-old English cabaret singer who escaped to Berlin from her stultifying rich family (her father is a mill owner and her mother an heiress of a landed lineage); Isherwood is charmed by her sexual frankness and artistic flightiness. The climax of “Sally Bowles” is a bittersweet description of her abortion, though we see her again in the novel a final time, when she seals a sense of her corruption with a vile anti-Semitic remark. Isherwood, camera though he affects to be, is plainly taken with Sally’s air of prematurely degraded eroticism, which he captures, in keeping with his documentary realism, by several times showing us her hands:

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. […] Sally lit another cigarette: she smoked the whole time. I noticed how old her hands looked in the lamplight. They were nervous, veined and very thin — the hands of a middle-aged woman. The green finger-nails seemed not to belong to them at all; to have settled on them by chance—like hard, bright, ugly little beetles.

The grotesquery in these passages, the imagery of dirt and insects, the confusion of age from “little girl” to “middle-aged woman” reminiscent of Isherwood’s treatment of the puerile but decaying Mr. Norris from the earlier novel, all suggest authorial disquiet over sexual disinhibition, not celebration of Weimar freedom.

But pop culture seems not to have noticed Isherwood’s ambivalence, and Sally Bowles, while she has ancestors in prior demimondaine fiction (George du Maurier’s Trilby comes to mind), helped to create a new archetype or sexual role model: the Bohemian girl. (My own swooning adolescent encounter with a much-desexualized version of the type occurred when I made the fictional acquaintance of Neil Gaiman’s cheery, black-clad Death from the Sandman comics.) Like Arthur Norris, though, Sally Bowles is too insubstantial to carry a novel, and I was more impressed by the sections that follow.

Both “On Ruegen Island” and “The Nowaks” dramatize Isherwood’s relation to the Nowak family. He meets their youngest son on a holiday on Ruegen Island, where the 16-year-old working-class boy falls into a flirtation or affair with an older Englishman, Peter Wilkinson. Isherwood here introduces a dreamy eroticism into his docu-style:

It is Peter’s will against Otto’s body. Otto is his whole body; Peter is only his head. Otto moves fluidly, effortlessly; his gestures have the savage, unconscious grace of a cruel, elegant animal. Peter drives himself about, lashing his stiff, ungraceful body with the whip of his merciless will.

The dream hardens to nightmare—a comic nightmare in the Dostoevskean style—when Isherwood goes to live with the Nowaks in their impoverished flat, where almost everyone sleeps in one room, and where Isherwood must dodge the flailing conflict of the drunken father, the tubercular mother, the Nazi older son, the puerile little sister, and the histrionic Otto. The whole section culminates in Isherwood’s avowedly nightmarish accompaniment of Otto to visit Frau Nowak in a tuberculosis sanitarium for women that strikes the narrator as a frightening epiphany of female sexuality:

Women being shut up together in this room had bred an atmosphere which was faintly nauseating, like soiled linen locked in a cupboard without air. They were playful with each other and shrill, like overgrown schoolgirls. […] They all thronged round us for a moment in the little circle of light from the panting bus, their lit faces ghastly like ghosts against the black stems of the pines. This was the climax of my dream: the instant of nightmare in which it would end. I had an absurd pang of fear that they were going to attack us—a gang of terrifyingly soft muffled shapes—clawing us from our seats, dragging us hungrily down, in dead silence.

If this unmistakable note of authorial misogyny disturbs or displeases, though, it is dispelled in “The Landauers,” wherein Isherwood befriends the wealthy, cultivated department-store owning Landauer family.

He visits the Landauers, to whom he has a letter of introduction, because they are Jews, increasingly threatened by the rise of the Nazis. He is especially enchanted with Natalia, the family’s daughter, a literate, witty, free-spirited 18-year-old anti-type to Sally Bowles, whom she despises. Isherwood also details his complex, perhaps homoerotic relation to Herr Landauer’s nephew and business partner, Bernhard, a reserved man tortured by his divided identity (he is Prussian, English, and Jewish) and by his complicity in crass commerce. When he upbraids the pseudo-objective narrator for his clear cultural biases, we might nod in agreement:

“You are a little shocked. One does not speak of such things, you think. It disgusts your  English public-school training, a little—this Jewish emotionalism. You like to flatter yourself that you are a man of the world and that no form of weakness disgusts you, but your training is too strong for you. People ought not to talk to each other like this, you feel. It is not good form.”

In the Landauers, we see an enlightened and brilliant world, however troubled, which the Nazi brutality incubated in the hothouse poverty of the Nowaks’ flat will pitilessly exterminate.

Isherwood’s idea, against the previous generation of British writers, that political and psychological insight could come from dispassionate reportage, an objective rather than subjective style, is borne out in the amplitude of Goodbye to Berlin‘s 200 tersely-narrated pages of description and dialogue. If Sally Bowles is overrated as a character—how many readers remember her anti-Semitic crudity, however unintentional, to Natalia Landauer?—the novel as a whole is perhaps under-studied for its artful montage arrangement, for its quiet play with time (events in its five sections are concurrent with one another), and above all for the way it only half-conceals behind the camera its author’s palpable passion.

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