Book Review: Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin
Isherwood, Christopher
Vintage, 1998 ed, of 1939 original

Per the author’s introduction, this collection of loosely connected sketches featuring a first person narrative from a character sharing his name, his background, and many of his experiences is fiction and was intended to be something larger than it came out to be. It is a convenient, and perhaps accurate, approach to classify the gray area between autobiography, fiction, and reflection. It also makes it possible to write the stories an author anticipates for themselves but which may never have had a factual base.

The beauty of this book lies not so much in this format, nor it’s direct timeframe, but in the detailed and generally factual description of life as an English writer in Berlin as the Nazis came to power. With contacts ranging from a wealthy Jewish family where he works as a private english tutor, through the English ex-pat community with all it’s variations, the matron of his middle-class boarding house through to the working class family whose son invites him to move in with them when his finances take a turn for the worse, the fictional Mr. Isherwood sees a broad swath of humanity in one of the leading cities of Europe just as it’s light is about to be extinguished. From neighborhood dives filled with pick-pockets and prostitutes winding down their day to high end nightclubs, tenements to mansions, rural holidays to urban centers, the book slices a cross section of the society just as it is about to change in a way that would make these scenes unrecognizable for decades.

The book ends as the author leaves to return to England, having decided that it is too dangerous for him to stay in Germany any longer. The timeframe is approximately 1933, and while war is still a few years away the daily decline has already begun.

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