Wednesday, January 12, 2011

#27 - "The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood

I have finished my first book of 2011, or is it my first two books?  The Berlin Stories is two books combined into one; The Last of Mr. Norris  and Goodbye Berlin.  While the two are not directly linked, they do have a common narrator, boarding house and landlady (all the essentials to a great story).

The Berlin StoriesBook one follows the narrator (presumably the author) on a trip from his native England, on the train, to Berlin, where he shares a berth with the odd, yet intriguing Arthur Norris.  The story explores their relationship in inter-war Berlin where they become involved with the local communist party, while Hitler and the Nazis rise to power in the background.  Arthur Norris is simply a great character.  I liked him, but wasn't sure why, and I loathed him for the same reasons.  I found him inexplicably interesting and mysterious, and didn't know what to make of him until the end.  At times he seemed as if he would fit right into a Le Carre spy novel, while at other times he seemed as if he could double for Willy Loman.  Add a little political intrigue into the mix and you get quite a story.

The second book follows a bit of a different format.  While it still revolves around the same narrator, almost all the supporting characters are different.  The second book reads more like a diary or journal, with six different entries, each about people the narrator spends him time with in Berlin.  Most famous of these is no doubt Sally Bowles, who Liza Minnelli won an Oscar for portraying in "Cabaret," but there's also his relationship with Peter and Otto, a gay couple struggling with their relationship in a soon-to-be-Nazi-run Germany, and Natalia Laundauer, a wealthy Jewish heiress, who's family isn't prepared for the fate we all know now they must have met.  Like Arthur Norris from the first story, the characters in the second book are so well written and developed.  They all at times seem oddly likable, but strangely repugnant.

I'm torn as to what to think of this book.  When I finished reading, my first thought was no doubt that I had enjoyed reading it, but when I look back, I'm not exactly sure why.  The first story was quite interesting, especially as the two get more and more involved with the communist party, all while Hitler is rising to power, but the second story didn't really have any story, nor any conclusion.  That isn't to say I didn't enjoy the second half, it just didn't seem to have any real point.  As I mentioned earlier, it was more a series of diary entries, which when I think about it, is exactly how it was intended.  I've always thought that a great story is what make me enjoy a book, but here the story wasn't the best part, rather it was the characters and the setting, both so well written, I couldn't help but get wrapped up in the period.

But I think what I enjoyed the most was the writing style.  More Hemingway than Woolf, Isherwood writes more like a storyteller, and less like a psychiatrist.  Instead of 'philosophical introspection' (a term I once saw used to describe boring, modernist novels like To the Lighthouse), he uses a more direct style of prose; describing the character and their actions, instead of their inner thoughts about their actions or other characters.  Combine this with his interesting characters, and Isherwood gave me an excellent read.

It was also interesting to read this book, knowing what was to happen in Germany and the world in the years following its publication.  When published in 1935, although the Nazis were in power, the war was yet to start, the world was unaware of the atrocities that were to occur.  While many of the characters in both books doubt war will ever happen, the narrator is less certain, predicting not only war, but ethnic mass murder.  If only Neville Chamberlain had thought that way, things might have turned out very differently.

You can read TIME's original review from May 20, 1935, right here.  They only review The Last of Mr. Norris, as the two were not published together at the time it was written.

I've forged ahead into my 28th book, Infinite Jest.  I almost went with a smaller, less intimidating book, but realized that I'm going to have to read this sooner or later, so I might as well dive in right now.  It's going to take some kind of effort to finish this thing before the snow melts (in May).


  1. I was just curious...the second book, in my opinion, did not add anything to the story. I didn't quite understand why Isherwood wrote two books..what do you think?

  2. I agree, but then I don't think Isherwood intended it to be a sequel to the first story. Instead, I think it was intended to be a continuation of the character.