20 classics in 2011 #1: The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
After seeing the elegant and moving film A Single Man (and falling for Colin Firth all over again) I learnt it was based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood – a rather famous gay writer who for some reason I’d never heard of. My Twitter friends recommended a few of his books, but most told me I’d enjoy The Berlin Stories.
When was it published?
It was originally published as two autobiographical novels: Mr Norris Changes Trains (or The Last of Mr Norris in the US) in 1935, and Goodbye to Berlin in 1939. They were published together in 1946. My copy is the 2008 New Directions edition (US, UK) with a great intro by Armistead Maupin.
What’s it about?
Isherwood lived in Berlin on and off (but mostly on) between 1929 and 1933. Of course, this was a time of great political upheaval and social change. But while the narratives here inevitably reflect that, the stories are more about the characters Isherwood encountered. These include the mysterious, only sometimes bankable but always spankable Arthur Norris (you’ll have to read it); Sally Bowles, whom you might know from the film Cabaret which was based on Isherwood’s story; and other friends he makes: lefty, Jewish, communist, slum-living, bohemian, queer, intellectual, mad and sometimes quite ordinary.
Tell us more about the author.
Isherwood came from England. He became a US citizen in 1946. He wrote several novels, plays and works of biography and nonfiction. There’s a full list on the wiki entry. Interestingly, in later years Isherwood edited two volumes of Vedanta philosophy and translated from the Sanskrit the Bhagavad-Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms, according to the book’s biography.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
I loved it. From the way our protagonist (called William in the Mr Norris story) romanticises the extravagant masochist Arthur Norris, to his analysis of the relationship between his friends Peter and Otto in the their time by the sea in ‘On Ruegen Island, Summer 1931’ there is such a depth of observation of others, and a curiosity toward their motivations. The protagonist himself is rather shadowy and passive, though he does let on when something another does had annoyed or delighted him. And he describes the scenery in detail, so you too can visit Berlin in the early ’30s (with mixed emotions). In the cold winter of 1932-1933 he writes:
‘Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.’
Of course there is another reason for the more passive approach. It would have been more difficult for Isherwood to be published back then, one imagines, if open about his sexuality. The William and Christopher characters are kind of asexual – they don’t commit or act either way. But he is still able to explore people on all scales of erotic interest and leaning, through the other characters.
The stories thus make for colourful, fascinating reading, but tinged with that cold that Isherwood mentions. For all the people he meets in the stories would soon be in great jeopardy. He captures an incredible point in time – where normal people, everyday people, were kind of flippant in many ways about the political situation, or were in denial. Worry often didn’t translate into action, and so many of them didn’t get away before the situation escalated. Isherwood opens the book with a piece about going back in 1952 – how much had changed (and also how much hadn’t). It’s educative, I think, to read about the time before, to realise how quickly a person’s (a city’s, a country’s, a continent’s) situation can change for the worse. And how some people become swept up in it as though it were just a change in season.
So it’s a book with many layers, and it’s also enjoyable to read. The prose is clear and elegant, the stories are filled with small details and larger contemplations, and certainly the characters are memorable. I think the story ‘Sally Bowles’ was my favourite. And I haven’t yet seen Cabaret. I must!
Next in the ’20 classics in 2011′ series is Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’m half-way through. After that, perhaps a little Treasure Island? I’m in the mood for some adventure. Feel free to read along with me.
Have you read The Berlin Stories or something else by Isherwood? What did you think?