Mimsy Review: The Berlin Stories
Like a train which stops at every dingy little station, the winter dragged slowly past. Each week there were new emergency decrees. Brüning’s weary episcopal voice issued commands to the shopkeepers, and was not obeyed. “It’s Fascism,” complained the Social Democrats. “He’s weak,” said Helen Pratt. People said that the Nazis would be in power by Christmas; but Christmas came and they were not. Arthur sent me the compliments of the season on a post-card of the Eiffel Tower.
“The Berlin Stories” is often categorized as “gay fiction”, but that categorization is as much for the author as for the stories, if not much more so. In England at the time “The Berlin Stories” were published, being gay was still illegal. So it’s all oblique and at angles in his stories.
The Berlin Stories were written only thirty years after Oscar Wilde went to prison, and twenty years before Alan Turing’s prosecution and suicide. Isherwood reportedly did not hide his sexuality, but he seems to have found it expedient not to be completely open about that in these semi-autobiographical works.
This is part of what makes this book so interesting and still timely: he was forced to write obliquely about his own sexuality while writing about a repressive Germany because he ran the risk of jail if he came out of the closet in his own England. Homosexuality was only “legalized” in 1967, and then only partially.
Now, when I say oblique, I don’t mean that you can miss it, only that you couldn’t really legally accuse anyone of anything if these were real people—which, of course, some of them are. For example, in “Goodbye to Berlin” the character Christopher Isherwood goes to Ruegen Island where he stays in a house with two boys, Peter and Otto.
Peter was delicate, as a boy. [His] tutor was a very high-church young man who intended to become a priest. He took cold baths in winter and had crimpy hair and a Grecian jaw. Mr. Wilkinson disliked him from the first, and the elder brother made satirical remarks, so Peter threw himself passionately on to the tutor's side. The two of them went for walking-tours in the Lake District and discussed the meaning of the Sacrament amidst ausetere moorland scenery. This kind of talk got them, inevitably, into a complicated emotional tangle which was abruptly unravelled, one evening, during a fearful row in a barn. Next morning, the tutor left, leaving a ten-page letter behind him. Peter meditated suicide.
Isherwood occasionally speaks to the stereotypes and repression of the time. There is a doctor who comes up occasionally, mostly to speak with Otto. Peter is jealous of the doctor, and the doctor appears jealous of Peter. So Isherwood gets a double-play here: oblique sexuality and a satirical look at what people think should be done to gays at that time:
“My work in the clinic has taught me that it is no use trying to help this type of boy. Your friend Peter is very generous and very well meaning, but he makes a great mistake. This type of boy always reverts.... He has a criminal head!”
“And you think that people with criminal heads should be left to become criminals?”
“Certainly not. I believe in discipline. These boys ought to be put into labour camps.”
Within the book, he shows us hiding himself from his other friends and acquaintances. Natalia Landauer is one of his students who has become a friend, but then an acquaintance again when Natalia becomes jealous of his closer friend Sally Bowles. When Christopher and Natalia finally speak again, their friendship has faded:
Natalia was convinced, I suppose, that Sally had become my mistress, and I didn’t see why I should correct her mistake--doing so would only have involved a long heart-to-heart talk for which I simply wasn’t in the mood. And, at the end of all the explanations, Natalia would probably have found herself quite as much shocked as she was at present, and a good deal more jealous. I didn’t flatter myself that Natalia had ever wanted me as a lover, but she had certainly begun to behave towards me as a kind of bossy elder sister, and it was just this role which Sally had stolen from her.
As far as I can recall, Isherwood never tells us directly what part of that heart-to-heart talk would have shocked Natalia: that Christopher was gay. Isherwood is more willing to tell us that Christopher lives with prostitutes and that he is a Communist than to come out and say that William/Christopher is homosexual.
These stories are fiction, but the main character of the second work is Christopher Isherwood. The main character of the first work is William Bradshaw. But Bradshaw’s landlady and the fictional Isherwood’s landlady are both the same Frl. Schroeder.
The story involves people very much like the friends and acquaintances the real Isherwood met in Germany. In the introduction he mentions that for the movie he asked for the landlady’s name to be changed. Because the fictitious landlady of the book was being combined into multiple fictitious characters for the movie, and he didn’t want his real landlady whose name was different than either to be offended by the changes in her fictional counterpart.
Berlin was one of the centers of intellectual life between the wars. Cabarets flourished under the thumb of the Republic. Writers such as W. H. Auden lived there. After writing his own first novel, Isherwood moved there and joined his old friend Auden in 1929 and stayed there on and off until 1933.
I am a camera
The play based on these books was called “I Am a Camera,” and the title comes from the book itself. It is from the first page of the second book, “Goodbye to Berlin”:
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. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.
Isherwood is not a camera. He shows us the things the camera doesn’t see. In the introduction (and make sure any edition you get has his wonderful intro), he writes, about the rehearsals of I am a Camera:
As I watched those rehearsals, I used to think a good deal about the relation of art to life. In writing Goodbye to Berlin, I destroyed a certain portion of my real past. I did this deliberately, because I preferred the simplified, more creditable, more exciting fictitious past which I’d created to take its place. Indeed, it had now become hard for me to remember just how things really had happened. I only knew I would like them to have happened--that is to say, how I had made them happen in my stories. And so, gradually, the real past had disappeared, along with the real Christopher Isherwood.”
It’s an almost typical British children’s story way of looking at semi-true stories about others. He invokes Winnie-the-Pooh in an off-hand remark towards the beginning, at the New Year’ Eve party welcoming 1931.
The play was based much more on the books than the movie, Cabaret. Cabaret--a wonderful movie--takes several liberties with the characters, including the main character/author, and rewrites most of the dialog and stories.
Part of what Christopher the camera sees is the factionalism within Germany. One of the most interesting facets of “The Berlin Stories” is that it takes place, and is written, in Germany and in England before World War II. The Nazis and the Communists are literally fighting in the streets. Many of William/Christopher’s friends are communists; the character Christopher calls himself a communist in “Goodbye to Berlin” and he watches the Communist party (the K.P.D.) descend into irrelevance.
There were rumours that the K.P.D. would be forbidden; soon, in a few weeks. Otto was scornful. The Government would never dare, he said. The Party would fight. All the members of his cell had revolvers. They hung them, he told me, by strings from the bars of a cellar-grating in their Lokal, so that the police shouldn’t find them. The police were very active these days. Berlin, we heard, was to be cleaned up.
In the introduction Isherwood writes about returning to Germany in 1952 and finding out what a few of his old friends were now up to: Otto the communist had become a black marketeer.
Some of what his friends must have, in retrospect, gone through, is in a way tragicomic. When Germany becomes an unsafe place for Jews, Natalia Landauer and her mother go to France, where Natalia marries a French doctor. “They are very happy,” says her cousin Bernhard.
Bernhard has stayed behind to run the family business. He receives several messages a week along the lines of:
Bernhard 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 me.
Bernhard laughs at them, and doesn’t call the police because “My existence is not of such vital importance to myself or to others that the forces of the Law should be called upon to protect me. As for my uncle he is at present in Warsaw.”
Towards the end of the book, Isherwood repeats an overheard conversation about how so many Jews are dying under suspicious circumstances after being taken into police custody, and it turns out to be someone he knows. The newspapers called it heart failure, but, says one of the two people discussing it, “anyone’s heart’s liable to fail, if it gets a bullet inside it. Concentration camps. They get them in there, make them sign things... Then their hearts fail.”
This is a great book, and a fascinating glimpse at a very dangerous time. I recommend reading it, and I recommend finding the version with Isherwood’s short introduction.