A book of farewells: Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin

1930s-set autobiographical novel, full of memorable descriptions of a decadent era's death throes, is both an elegy and a warning of what is to come in Germany under the Nazis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 2:16pm

"No. Even now I can't altogether believe that any of his has really happened." In this way, Goodbye to Berlin bids farewell with a characteristic tease of fiction and real life.

Published in 1939, the novel that made Christopher Isherwood's name - and the 1966 musical Cabaret that ensured that it would be remembered forever - is an autobiography in fiction's clothing (or vice versa).

Isherwood spent four years from 1929 to 1933 in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic and describes what he saw in clear, precise and vivid prose. There are memorable descriptions of a culture in its last decadent throes, as personified by Sally Bowles, the blithe song-and-dance sensation.

If the book is an elegy for the end of an era, it also sounds the gravest of warnings as Isherwood's description of Nazi rallies and violence demonstrates.

Isherwood said hello to Berlin as a 28-year-old writer with three books (and two plays) to his name. His motivation was partly to find material for his art, but also to visit his friend, collaborator and occasional lover, the poet W.H. Auden. For both, Berlin offered the kind of sexual liberation that was denied them in Britain: "To Christopher, Berlin meant boys," Isherwood recalled years later. The use of the third person is characteristic Isherwood. As man and artist, he was at once frank and detached, given to revelation and also slippery re-invention.

Yet Isherwood's later frankness about his reasons for going to Germany - boys - is sublimated by the circumspect prose of his circumspect narrator. Goodbye to Berlin's famous opening promotes his skill for elegant and exacting literary reportage: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."

Goodbye to Berlin is full of last moments, and not only Germany's transformation from Bohemian idyll to obscene dictatorship. Isherwood himself was about to be altered - from the eminently English and European writer of that period into the expat American who would be accused of fleeing the war (not least by Evelyn Waugh), would convert to Hinduism and write many more autobiographical books including the late masterpiece, A Single Man.

Goodbye to Berlin endured, however, thanks to Cabaret and a new generation of disciples such as Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. Sometimes saying goodbye really is hard to do.

Goodbye to Berlin  by Christopher Isherwood  (Hogarth Press)