Review of The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 12: The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

The Berlin Stories is actually two books written based on the author’s time in Berlin from 1929-1933. The Last of Mr. Norris narrates Christopher Isherwood’s relationship with Arthur Norris and several other figures from his circle of acquaintances. Arthur Norris as a character is both charming and paranoid and is a complex collection of contradictory eccentricities and collaborations. Arthur can rally a communist rally or manipulate Arthur into entrapping a fellow friend Kuno (Baron von Pregnitz) in  a trip to Switzerland. The character of Arthur with his unappealing assistant Schmidt is always one step away from disaster and early 1930s Berlin is a dangerous place for a trickster like Arthur. The Berlin Diaries is a collection of shorter encounters with characters set in the same time period. The character of Sally Bowles, who would later be adopted to the stage in “I Am Camera” and the movies in “Cabaret” is the shining star among this collection as this young woman navigates the nightlife of Berlin as an aspiring actor and dancer in a cabaret. Peter and Otto, an older man and a younger man in an arranged relationship, form the second group of characters with Peter jealous of Otto’s other attractions. In a time when his finances are challenging Christopher Isherwood moves into the slums with Otto’s family in Berlin, the Nowaks with their sick mother, alcoholic father, two sons and one daughter. Moving in opposite directions Christopher also shows us into his connections with the wealthy Jewish family, the Landauers, where he has an initially friendly if formal relationship with the Natalia Landauer and is taken into the confidence of Bernard who runs the family business. Connecting the two stories is the landlady Fraulein Schroeder in whose house Christopher lives through much of this time.

The environment of early 1930s Berlin also plays a crucial role in these two books and it gives a window into this desperate time. Berlin is a place of conflict and danger where communists and fascists are vying for power, where poverty and depression are constantly present, where anything is available for sale and where people will do anything to survive. It does illuminate both the violence of the emerging Nazi movement but also gives a perspective why hopeless people would be drawn to it or its communist alternative. It is a dark environment to write a story within and none of the characters would be considered heroic, but they are survivors. Seeing the environment of pre-Nazi Berlin through the characters eyes helps make the time more vivid, but the understanding of the environment also helps the characters more understandable.

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