Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Ever find there are the books that take you try after try before you can get past the first page, until suddenly you become enveloped into the story? A majority of my favourite books have been slow starters; Persuasion, Parade’s End, Game of Thrones… They all begin with a hefty set-up before finally something brilliant happens and you struggle to put the book down even to go to the toilet. Thankfully, I have yet to wet myself, but who knows when that perfect book comes along to make even an urgent need to pass urine unimportant.

With my online book buying ban in full force – and all independent book shops in my area closing before I can get to them after work – I am forced to read the books I already own. Which as it turns out, is both helpful and problematic, as I have found myself far from in the mood to read any of them. In fact, over the past two weeks I have tried to begin Goodbye to Berlin four times. To wit, in the face of an urgent need to read and no new book to procure I finally forced myself past the first chapter of Goodbye to Berlin, and I am so pleased I did.

Goodbye to Berlin cover“First published in 1939, Goodbye to Berlin is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society in the 1930’s – the time when Hitler slowly starts his move to power. It is inhabited by a wealth of characters: the unforgettable and “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles; plump Fräulein Schroeder, Peter and Otto, a gay couple struggling to come to terms with their relationship; and the distinguished and doomed Jewish family, the Landauers.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Having only a passing knowledge of Cabaret, the film loosely based on Goodbye to Berlin, I had some misguided assumptions of this book. I had assumed I would follow Christopher and Sally as they watched Berlin transform from the economically reduced Weimar Republic to the the Nazi regime. While the latter is true Sally is but a small fragment of a wealth of characters Isherwood depicts.

‘”There’s a lot of heart failure,” said the fat man, “in Germany these days.”‘

That line is a conversation Christopher overhears in Prague concerning his Jewish friends. It encompasses the underlying discomfort within the book. Throughout Christopher’s experiences in Berlin is a string tying each together, the Nazi effect. Even those who are not supporters of fascism or the Nazi’s are still discriminatory or Anti-Semitic on some level. The conversion the sentence above comes from quickly turns into a joke about a Jew.

Goodbye to Berlin gave me the impression that prejudice was okay until someone went to far and it was deemed unacceptable. It’s never a suggestion that due to these attitudes all the characters are bad; although inexcusable, attitudes are a product of ignorance and upbringing. However, these attitudes can leave a  reader feeling somewhat off kiter to Christopher and his companions. It could not be suggested any of Christopher’s companions are either good or bad, they are too richly contradictory for that. A variety of eccentric personalities living in a country ravaged and humiliated by the after effects of WWI.

There is a lament for the loss of old Germany, a Germany of more decadence and fun. Equivocal to the 20s ‘Bright Young Things’ movement in England. It is an aesthetic hedonism that was never going to last, as it didn’t in any country beyond 1930 – it quickly became tiresome.

I never came to love the people Christopher encounters, and neither perhaps does he. Yet, there is such a sense of loss at the end of the book – he may not have loved them, but he will miss them.

“The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city. The sun shines, and dozens of my friends – my pupils at the workers school, the men and women I met at I.A.H. – are all in prison, possibly dead.”

14 thoughts on “Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

  1. It’s such a problem with buying books that your mood changes — what seemed like the most appealing book ever can suddenly lose all its interest for you. I’m glad that didn’t end up happening with Goodbye to Berlin! I’ve tried a few Isherwood books and gotten nowhere with them, but evidently persistence is the key. 🙂


    1. I’ve not read any of his other books, I’m not sure I’d want to I don’t think. It is definitely frustrating when your lust for a book dies, but I am definitely glad I persevered. I got more out of it than I expected.


  2. It sounds like a really interesting book to read. It is good to read the books that you own, I tend to go after new ones, rather then look at the ones I already own. xD


  3. I often find the false starts happen with the knowledge that the book is heavy going or epic. I want to read them but I know it’s going to need a lot of time and attention which I may not have at that point.

    It doesn’t sound very similar, but I had Gatsby in mind as I read your review. Either way, I like the sound of it and the exploration possibilities given the time and the cusp of war.


    1. Yeah, exactly. I’ve had that with a few classics, I start it a few times before I sort of give into the fact it will take me a while to read. Although, then I tend to relax into them and storm through them.


  4. I like the poignancy of this – the nostalgia for a way of life lossed but not necessarily missed. I’ve not read any of Isherwood’s work, but this sounds very interesting. I usually read British set books with regards to Wartime fiction, so this would be something new!

    Nell at And Nell Writes


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