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A Response to Goodbye to Berlin

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking (Isherwood 1). This phrase comes from the first page of Christopher Isherwood s most popular documentary styled novel, Goodbye to Berlin (1939). In this novel, Isherwood managed to establish a sort of matter-of-fact style by blending fact and fiction and achieving a na ve, honest style for the narrator. The phrase I am a camera often appears in his work indicating his belief that a narrator should serve the role of a simple recording device (Caudwell 2). By achieving this, Isherwood provides the readers with an unsurpassed portrait of Berlin, a city in the process of internal decay, in the turbulent years of Hitler's rise in power. It is as if Isherwood is masquerading as a war correspondent (Piazza 2). Isherwood is the outsider looking in, observing a war (holocaust) in which he is not involved; but he does show glimpses and portraits of characters that have been affected by it. He immerses himself in the world of prostitutes, living almost anonymously in shabbily genteel and working class areas of the city and translating his experience of the demimonde image of what would eventually become the definitive portrait of pre-Hitler Germany, in Goodbye to Berlin (Summers 1). Because Isherwood brilliantly recorded what he saw, Goodbye to Berlin is a valuable social document, which provides an insight into Isherwood s handling the theme of war. In this research paper, the main concentration is set on the effects (private and social) the introduction of war, by the Nazism movement, has on the individual portraits (characters) of Berlin. Against the bleak but garnish background of a falling city, Sally Bowles, Peter and Otto, The Nowaks, The Landauers, and other Berlin denizens shuffle through their shabby cabaret choreography (Bryfonski, Harris 283).

In the novel, As explorations of the ways in which public and private concern Intersect, they are politically engaged. The brooding specter of Nazism hovers in the background, finally to impinge even on characters as indifferent to politics as the landlady Fraulin Schroeder and the innocently naughty cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Summers 1). This statement proves to be true about all the characters, from the major to minor. Each one is effected in their own sort of way by this dramatic political change in the city of Berlin. The loosely connected sequence of diaries in the novel achieves unity, between the characters, as the result of the structural principles. One involves the deliberate balancing of economic, sexual, social, cultural, and political polarities in its various sections and among its disparate characters. Beneath such oppositions as rich and poor, homosexual and heterosexual, Jew and Gentile, Communist and Nazi is a shared reality of the deadened spirit that unites everyone in the book, even as it makes real integration impossible (Summers 1). The other source of unity is the continuing and developing presence of the narrator. His inability to connect meaningfully with any of the polarized characters, despite his open sympathy for them all, mirrors the state of Berlin itself. His personal failure to achieve intimacy is symptomatic of the social disease that blights the city and that culminates in the spiritual death represented by Hitler s triumph (Summers 2).

As the political situation deteriorates, Isherwood s portraits darken. There is an increasing sense of suffocation, a sinking of human consciousness, as people discover

themselves locked in hopeless situations, tapped by the approaching horror of Nazism (Piazza 3). But, contrary to the belief, not all of the characters experienced a dramatic change to this movement. Some were not greatly effected nor terribly concerned for various reasons.

Fraulin Schroeder is the first character that is encountered in the story. She is a landlady in around her mid fifties. The narrator describes this very colorful woman as

shapeless but alert with inquisitive eyes and pretty brown hair, and who usually has the tendency of peeping and spying on her lodgers. By hearing her story, it is clear that this woman has been terribly effected by the changes in Berlin, in an economic and also in a social manner. Long ago, before the War and the inflation, she used to be comparatively

well off. She went to the Baltic for her summer holidays and kept a maid to do the housework. For the last thirty years she has lived here and taken in lodgers You see, Herr Issyvoo, in those days I could afford to be very particular about the sort of people who came to live here. I could pick and choose. I only took them really well connected and well educated proper gentlefolk And now Frl. Schroeder has not even got a room of her own. She has to sleep in the living-room, behind a screen, on a small sofa with broken springs She has to do all the housework herself and it takes up most of her day. Twenty years ago, if anybody had told me to scrub my own floors, I d have slapped his face for him. But you get used to it. You can get used to anything (Isherwood 3). In the flat, there are small heavy objects scattered around the room that represent a time when life was different for her her age of plenty . But those objects are really the only things of hers that haven t been destroyed by the war movement.

She is hurt financially, having to give up her leisure way of living in return to sleep in her living room in a broken bed and cleaning all day. She s also suffered socially, no longer having rich lodgers who used to shower her with gifts. She s now considered part of the majority: low class. But even though this change might have been a low blow to her, she learns to accept it since she has no choice in the matter.

Even some of the lodgers in the flat, though minor, go through certain social changes due to the upcoming Hitler rein. Frl. Kost who is a call girl (prostitute) was once a servant girl. But probably due to the financial struggle in Berlin, she found prostitution to be a more profitable career. Frl. Mayr, the music-hall jodlerin, who considers herself a proud Bavarian, expands her nationalism to its limit by becoming a Nazi. Like her, many

Germans believed this conversion was the next logical step to show support to the new German rule. The early negative effects of this growing idea of superiority of Germans and hatred of Jews is clearly visible when we hear that Frl. Mayr gets old Frau Glanterneck beat up by a former-potential suitor, mainly because she s a Galician Jewess.

The next set of characters we encounter in the story are the Bersteins, a wealthy family who the narrator tutors their daughter Hippi. It s easy to see that the movement not at all affects Hippi. Hippi never worries about the future. Like everyone else in Berlin, she refers continually to the political situation, but only briefly with a conventional melancholy, as when one speaks of religion. Its quite unreal to her (Isherwood 17). Her parents on the other hand, are aware of what is going on in city but show only little concern because they don t realize the seriousness. They show more of a selfish, materialistic reaction towards the rioting. Herr Bernstein shows this side when he

refuses his wife to use the car to go shopping, but wants her to take the tram instead, ignoring the possibility of her getting hurt. You can go in the tram I will not have them throwing stones at my beautiful car If they throw stones at you, I will buy you a sticking-plaster for your head. It will cost me only five groschen. But if they throw stones at my car, it will cost me perhaps five hundred marks (Isherwood 18).

Sally Bowles is perhaps the most popular and interesting character in Goodbye to Berlin. The young performer, who comes from a wealthy English family, moved to Berlin to pursue her acting career. Her aspirations of becoming an actress are large even though she has little talent. She tries to live the live of an actress by showing off her promiscuity to everyone, thinking that s how they do it in Hollywood . Sally really doesn t show a dramatic change due to the new Hitler rule. Most of her problems have to with money and men. She depends on men to support her (even though she receives an allowance from her parents) and help her acting career in exchange for her companionship. But the majority of the time this partnership doesn t last long and Sally is on her own. The only noticeable time that she is truly experiencing hard times is when Sally finds out she s pregnant and makes the decision to have a legal abortion (which most people at that time were not fortunate enough to receive); and when she ends up sleeping with 16 year old con-artist who stole all of money. Overall, Sally wasn t greatly effected by the movement.

Peter and Otto are another colorful pair of characters in the story who are also not greatly effected by changes in Berlin. Since the two, including the narrator, are living on a vacation-like island in the nice home far away from the city, no changes occur in their

lives due to the rise of Nazism. The two, however, do experience certain personal problems of their own. For instance, Peter who comes from a wealthy family but who has always felt depressed and alienated from the world, still struggles with his inner demons and can never really be happy no matter what the situation. Otto s problems are much less instense than Peter s. Otto is a very young and lively character who is energetic and rebellious, which obviously can be a problem when it comes to his relationship with Peter. He can not handle always being tied down to Peter and this is mainly why the relationship ends and Otto goes back home.

On this island named Ruegen Island, peace and relaxation is still considered the common atmosphere. It still hasn t been contaminated by the terrible and forceful actions of the Nazis. It s described almost as a getaway place from the world s war-like ways. But even on this peaceful location, Nazism is starting to spread just like the city. This is proved when a doctor, who was staying on the island also, confronts the narrator with questions about Peter and Otto. He showed his Nazi beliefs by making comments about Otto. Your friend Peter is very generous and very meaning, but he makes a great mistake. This type of boy always reverts He has a criminal head I believe in discipline. These boys ought to be put in labour-camps (Isherwood 89). The narrator questioned his beliefs by making remarks, but the doctor ignored him and repeated, I know this type of boy very well It is a bad degenerate type. You cannot make anything out of these boys. Their tonsils are almost invariably diseased (Isherwood 90). This idea of Nazism and Hitler s rule was becoming more accepted, even by educated, professional people and in remote locations away from Berlin.

The Nowark family, of all the characters in the novel, are most greatly effected economically by Hitler s rein in power and his Nazi movement. The family lives in poverty, in a condemned attic of an old building located in the deteriorating city of Berlin. Frau Nowak, the hard working and caring mother who is suffering from an illness that seems to be more serious than she thinks. Otto is her ungrateful and unemployed son who she considers disrespectful, lazy, and smart-mouthed. The two have many loud but mostly amusing arguments in that little attic, and Otto always tries to make up with his mother at the end even though she does not buy it. The next child introduced is Grete, an overweight 12 year-old spoiled girl who tended to do a lot of singing, eating, and siting in the chair. She was the typical baby of the family, favored by the parents and picked on by the older brother. Lothar is the older son of the Nowaks who is barely ever home. He is only 20 years old but acts more like a man especially compared to Otto. He is currently unemployed due to the slow job market but attends night school and wants to study engineering. He and Otto are very different and Frau Nowak tends to favor him over Otto. She points this out many times, Otto s not a bad boy but he s such a scatterbrain. Quite the opposite of my Lothar there s a model son for you! He s not too proud to do any job, whatever it is, and when he s scraped a few groschen together, instead of spending them on himself he comes straight to me and says: Here you are, mother. Just buy yourself a pair of warm house-shoes for the winter . (Isherwood 106). The only problem with Lothar is that he attends Nazi meetings. Frau Nowak wishes he did not go mostly because of fear. I often wish he d never taken up with them at all. They put all kinds of silly ideas into his head. It makes him so restless.

Since he joined them he s been a different boy altogether Not that I understand these politics myself (Isherwood 109). The last and head member of the family is Herr Nowak. He worked as a furniture remover. He was a powerful, dumpy little man, with pointed moustache, cropped hair and bushy eyebrows (Isherwood 107). He s a drunk who tends to foolishly reenact past war stories during dinnertime when the topic of communism comes up. This type of behavior caused many arguments between Frau Nowak and him but he fazed it out and always tried to restore her good temper by sweet-talking her.

The overall situation of poverty in the Nowak family is a definite effect of the political changes in Berlin due to Nazism. They are so poor that they have to live in a tiny, dirty, condemned attic. This living condition worsens Frau Nowak s health, and since there s no money for doctor s visits or treatment she is finally sent to a sanatorium; but being part of her character she fights and struggles to survive for her family. Herr Nowak probably became a drunk because of the inferior feeling he gets by not being able to support his family. This, ofcourse, is due to the massive inflation and political changes. In this household, everyone suffers and the situation only becomes worse due to this new movement.

The final characters in the novel are the Landauers. They are most greatly effected personally by the Nazi movement and its increasing hatred. They are a wealthy Jewish family who has owned a large department store for many years. We encounter this experience in the beginning when Nazi gangs demonstrated against the Jews by ruffing up Jews and smashing the windows of all Jewish shops.

Once again, we view the growing Nazism of hatred Frl. Mayr has for Jews when she exclaims to the narrator, Serves them right This town is sick with Jews. Turn over any

stone, and a couple of them will crawl out. They re poisoning the very water we drink! They re strangling us, they re robbing us, they re sucking our life-blood. Look at all the big department stores: Weitheim, K.D.W., Landauers . Who owns them? Filthy thieving Jews! (Isherwood 140).

Natalie Landauer is one of the main characters in the Landauer family. She is the educated eighteen year-old daughter. Her and the narrator instantly become close friends. She is very in-tuned of what s going on in Berlin and realizes of what can happen to her family. She thinks differently from here parents. She knows what her family has had to endure in the past. I await always that the worst will come. I know how things are in Germany today, and suddenly it can be that my father lose all. You know, that is happened once already? Before the War, my father has had a big factory in Posen. The War comes, and my father has to go. Tomorrow, it can be here the same. But my father, he is such a man that to him it is equal. He can start with one pfennig and work and work until he gets all back (Isherwood 145). Because of this she has different aspirations of leaving Berlin to study art.

Bernard, Natalia s cousin, is the second main character in the Landauer family. This very intelligent man is her father s so called assistant in the family s department store business. He too, becomes an instant close friend with the narrator. Because of his being a Jew, he, not only the company, goes through many difficult and scary incidences

caused by the Nazis. For example, towards the end of the story, Bernard begins to receive life-threatening messages from the Nazi party. He confides this to the narrator by letting him read a letter saying, Bernard Landauer, beware. We are going to settle the score with you and your uncle and all other filthy Jews. We give you twenty-four hours to leave Germany. If not, you are dead men (Isherwood 178). Through worried, Bernard tried to ignore the threats and did nothing. But tragically, the Nazis did not stop at the letters. In May, the narrator left Berlin to Prague. There is where he overheard two men discussing the news. Seen the papers, this morning...There was a bit in about Bernard Landauer He s dead Heart failure There s a lot of heart failure in Germany these days If you ask me, anyone s heart liable to fail, if it gets a bullet inside it (Isherwood 184). The Nazis eliminated Bernard along with their business by taking it over. This tragedy showed that the Nazis were not going to go away any time soon, Berlin was a hostage of Nazism.

Goodbye to Berlin remains the most authentic and indelible portrait of the cold and crude and dead city that glowed so brightly and invitingly in the night sky above the plains (Summers 2). Because Isherwood brilliantly recorded what he saw, this novel is a valuable social document which provides an insight into Isherwood s handling the theme (introduction and effects) of war. Depicting Berlin in all its squalor and poverty, loneliness and despair, it captures the fullness of a society on the brink of disaster.

Works Cited

Bryfonski, Dedria. Isherwood, Christopher Contemporary Literary Criticism.

V9 (1978) : 291-293.

Bryfonski, Dedria and Harris, Laurie. Isherwood, Christopher Contemporary Literary

Criticism. V14 (1980) :283-284.

Caudwell, Sarah. Reply To Berlin New Statesman. V112, No. 2897, October 3, 1986:


Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin The Berlin Stories. New York:

New Directions, 1963.

Piazza, Paul. Christopher Isherwood: Response to Myth and Anti-Myth Columbia

University Press, 1978.

Riley, Carolyn. Isherwood, Christopher Contemporary Literary Criticism. V1 (1973) :


Scott-Kilvert, Ian. Christopher Isherwood British Writers. V5 (1973) : 311-312.

Summers, Claude J. Christopher Isherwood: Overview Reference Guide to American

Literature. V3 (1994) : 1-3.

The Berlin Stories: Overview Reference Guide to English Literature.

V2 (1991) : 1-2.


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