When there’s grim news to give, delivering it like Isherwood’s portrait of 1930’s Berlin would be no bad thing.
First published in 1939, Goodbye to Berlin is an episodic foray into the city’s bohemian underbelly just as Hitler comes to power. Isherwood’s sleight of hand is so deft, in fact, that the evil about to be unleashed on the world is almost a footnote to gaiety: like the proverbial boiled frog, sometimes you don’t realise how far the world has fallen while the water bubbles around you. That means a rather haunting end to the book – but the way there is scandalous and sharp-tongued. Mostly this is a series of character portraits, of upperclass spendthrifts and well-spoken scoundrels. Principally there’s Sally Bowles, the temptress and con-artist later immortalised in Cabaret, but also warring lovers Peter and Otto, and then Otto’s family, The Nowaks. The other character of note is Berlin, which this book is really about. There’s no strong plot to speak of but, as with the cast of irrepressible and amoral characters, all can be forgiven.
“During the weeks that followed, Sally and I were together most of the day. Curled up on the sofa in the big dingy room, she smoked, drank Prairie Oysters, talked endlessly of the future. When the weather was fine, and I hadn’t any lessons to give, we strolled as far as the Wittenbergplatz and sat on a bench in the sunshine, discussing the people who went past. Everybody stared at Sally, in her canary yellow beret and shabby fur coat, like the skin of a mangy old dog.”
Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood. Vintage Classics, 1998
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