The Berlin Novels

The Berlin Novels
By Christopher Isherwood
Vintage – £10.99

I’ve never really understood what all the fuss was about with regards Christopher Isherwood’s writing(s) on Berlin. I know The Observer has referred to The Berlin Novels as: ‘’masterpieces – funny, darkly innocent explorations of the world of Berlin in the thirties,’’ to which I can all but disagree.

Amid swathes of bohemian depiction, Goodbye to Berlin may well have been the inspiration for the elongated success that is Cabaret, while Mr. Norris Changes Trains could be considered mildly amusing – but neither, at least in terms of literary exploration and political wit, are remotely deserving of the term ‘masterpiece.’

Throughout the latter, there is admittedly an assortment of cracking one-liners; the trajectory of which remain as acutely cunning and entertaining today, as the day they were probably written: ‘’The tiny flame of the lighter flickered between us, as perishable as the atmosphere which our exaggerated politeness had created,’’ ‘’An unpleasant thought seemed to tease him like a wasp; he moved his head slightly to avoid it,’’ ‘’The cigarette between his fingers was burnt down almost to the end; his face wore an expression of well-bred boredom,’’ ‘’His face was as discreet as the menu, and as unintelligible,’’ ‘’His laugh was a curiosity, an heirloom; something handed down from the dinner-tables of the last century […].’’

But once read, these lines, entertaining as they are, silently slide away unto the slipstream of forgetfulness. It’s as if they appeared in a dream: a colourful, totally non-intoxicating dream, from which one nonchalantly awakes before getting on with one’s day. As if nothing happened. Nothing took place. Such is the feeling I had at the end of Mr Norris Changes Trains.

And while the second novel Goodbye To Berlin may well be something of a slightly more sinister, tougher read, it too, leaves the reader absolutely none the wiser for having embarked on a journey to 1930s Berlin. Again, its one saving grace is its liberal sprinkling of buoyant, brazen one-liners. Among them: ‘’The page-boy, spruce, discreetly grinning, swaying from the waist like a flower […],’’In the Bavarian café, where the band makes a noise like Hell unchained, Peter bawled into my ear the story of his life,’’ ‘’When she talked and became excited her hands flitted tirelessly about in sequences of aimless gestures, like two shrivelled moths.’’

The Berlin Novels read as if Christopher Isherwood occasionally hit upon profound moments of divine inspiration, before once again, returning to a place of semi-urban gloom and pastoral nothingness.

David Marx

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