Book Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

You gotta love a good deal on books. On a recent trip to town I visited HMV where they had a two for a fiver offer, I picked up Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic which had been on my radar for a while, and decided to take a punt on this book as the blurb told me this had inspired the movie Cabaret and the setting of Germany as the Nazis begin to get a foothold sounded interesting.

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I’m glad I took a gamble as it made for quite an entertaining read, with Isherwood a keen observer of people and he creates vivid, believable characters, all clearly based on people he knew. The writing is clever and witty, with insight and provides little snapshots of life in the city. The political factions are largely in the background as the semi-autobiographical vignettes unfold. It begins with a few SA members on the street, debates in cafes and then builds to the final stages with mass rallies, assaults and the Nazis seizing power.

Isherwood, as a gay man, is perilously placed and a great number of those he encounters are similarly in danger as the Nazis grow in influence. There are the family friends the Landauers, a Jewish family who find themselves subject to boycotts and threats, actress Sally Bowles who thrives in the decadent society that the Nazis will seek to suppress and then there are the Communists he talks to in cafes. Their talk of revolution and civil war has a feel of adolescent posturing to it, yet the real thing is coming and many find themselves in trouble for the things they’ve said.

The early stages of the book are slow and meandering, but not without charm due to Isherwood’s wry observations and knack of sketching characters well. There is a lack of incident which hurts the book slightly as it stops it from being the book you rush back to, eager to know what happens next. But in the closing stages there is a pervading tension and a few episodes which show just how much the city has changed. The decadent, free spirited Berlin has become claustrophobic, tense and dangerous. Isherwood ends the book preparing to leave the city, and the reader knows that worse is to come.

I’d recommend this book as the writing is wonderful, and the sense of place, character and mood is brilliantly realised. A great read.

Verdict: A well written piece that may lack for drama and incident in places, but impresses due to the characters and tone that Isherwood captures. An interesting snapshot of pre-Nazi Germany. The building tension and sense of dread bubbling beneath the surface is captivating. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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