A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
I'VE MADE IT MY GOAL to read the entire oeuvre of late British-American author, Christopher Isherwood, over a twelve-month period. This profile constitutes the fifth in a series of twenty.
In Isherwood’s marvelous preface he delineates all the narratives that make up The Berlin Stories. Mr. Norris Changes Trains (known as The Last of Mr. Norris in America) comes out in 1935. Sally Bowles, a slim piece, is published in 1937. Berlin Diaries: Autumn 1930, The Nowaks, and The Landauers are issued by John Lehmann’s New Writing. Last in the book is A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3), in which Isherwood once again becomes Herr Issyvoo. Characters like Fraulein Schroeder reappear, as Isherwood realizes the cataclysm that is about to engulf Germany and takes his leave. Appearing in this order, these narratives comprise The Berlin Stories.
What are they, otherwise? Isherwood’s stories of early 1930s pre-Nazi Berlin may provide one of the most realistic views of Germany before it is changed forever by World War II. A sort of free-and-easy gay demimonde exists alongside laws that, for the moment, rather ignore squalid but important bars and restaurants, not to mention thugs of all kinds, as well as artists and writers living and observing the colorful life of the city. Isherwood himself says in his preface:
“From 1929 to 1933, [age 25-29] I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made up my mind that I would one day write about the people I’d met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course provided raw material for all my Berlin stories” (v). Isherwood later throws out these diaries, making these stories his diary. Much later, he regrets that he had acted so rashly.
This may be the third time I’ve read The Berlin Stories. The first reading, in 1987, after I buy my copy at the old Taylor’s Book Store in Dallas, I am thirty-nine, having just finished my MA in English. The gay novel, as it is understood, is making quite a bit of noise, and to read Isherwood’s work, comparatively, makes it seem more of a whisper. Yet, for its era, his work is an act of courage. Like many of the characters in the book, he could disappear at any time, removed by the SA (Sturmabteilung). About my second reading I can only recall that I read it to feed my soul. This, the third time, however, I’ve kept my pencil in hand, used Google Translator to get at the German phrasing, tried my damnedest to get a feel for what Isherwood is doing. I’m not sure I succeed after all. Reading The Berlin Stories is more of an existential experience. It’s difficult to subject to analysis.
I believe that writers, particularly if young, should always keep a diary. All of these narratives that fit together so beautifully, are freshly harvested from the pages of Isherwood’s diaries: an irascible landlady, Fraulein Schroeder; Otto Nowak, Bernhard Landauer, Sally Bowles. The lives of these flesh-like characters are what readers must concentrate on, allowing their essences to wash over them, so as to enhance their own humanity. When we see similar behaviors in our own people we won’t be tempted to fall asleep as the Germans do at this time. Had they known what was to come, what Isherwood so clearly sensed, they surely would not have allowed it to happen. BTW: if these narratives sound familiar it is because they eventually become the basis of the stage show and later the acclaimed film, Cabaret.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2015
Date of Original Post:
11/13/14 — Introduction to My Long-Playing Records
11/20/14 — "My Long-Playing Records" — The Story
11/27/14 — "A Certain Kind of Mischief"
12/04/14 — "Ghost Riders"
12/11/14 — "The Best Mud"
12/18/14 — "Handy to Some"
12/25/14 — "Blight"
01/01/15 — "A Gambler's Debt"
01/09/15 — "Tales of the Millerettes"
01/15/15 — "Men at Sea"
01/22/15 — "Basketball Is Not a Drug"
01/29/15 — "Engineer"
02/05/15 — "Snarked"
02/12/15 — "Killing Lorenzo"
02/19/15 — "The Age I Am Now"
02/26/15 — "Bathed in Pink"
Listen to My Long-Playing Records Podcasts:
03/12/15 — "A Certain Kind of Mischief"
03/26/15 — "The Best Mud"
04/02/15 — "Handy to Some"
04/09/15 — "Tales of the Millerettes"
04/16/15 — "Men at Sea"
04/23/15 — "My Long-Playing Records"
04/30/15 — "Basketball Is Not a Drug"
05/07/15 — "Snarked"
05/21/15 — "Killing Lorenzo"
05/28/15 — "Bathed in Pink"
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