Berlin: Down There on a Visit

Christopher Isherwood: Down There on a Visit, 1962.

We are all familiar with Isherwood’s depiction of 1930s Berlin, at least from the musical and film Cabaret if not from his stories in Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. One of my friends lives on the same street in Berlin where Isherwood lived for nearly 4 years, near Nollendorfplatz, and it is as popular now for its gay nightlife as it was in his time.

This novel, however, only refers tangentially to Berlin. It is in fact a collection of four novellas, each centring on a different period and character in the narrator’s life. Although the narrator is called Isherwood, we know from past experience that the material is only partially autobiographical. The author mashes up fact and fiction, and is prepared to make any changes to heighten the drama and the comic effect. Besides, as he points out, isn’t any memoir a highly selective account of impressions rather than facts?

The Christopher who sat in that taxi is, practially speaking, dead; he only remains reflected in the fading memories of us who knew him. I can’t revitalize him now. I can only reconstruct him from his remembered acts and words and from the writings he left us. He embarrasses me often, and so I’m tempted to sneer at him; but I will try not to. I’ll try not to apologize for him either.

The first part of the book features Mr. Lancaster, who owns a shipping company, is a distant relative or acquaintance of the family and invites Isherwood to visit him in Germany (not in Berlin but in an unnamed port town, most likely Hamburg). This is a coming-of-age story, with the narrator having a grand old time in Germany, making friends with the young people working for Mr. Lancaster and being somewhat cruel to the ‘old man’, whom he considers a fuddy-duddy. Just listen to his straitlaced opinions about notorious Berlin!

Christopher – in the whole of The Thousand and One Nights, in the most shameless rituals of the Tantras, in the carvings on the Black Pagoda, in the Japanese brothel pictures, in the vilest perversions of the Oriental mind, you couldn’t find anything more nauseating than what goes on there, quite openly, every day. That city is doomed, more surely than Sodom ever was. Those people don’t even realize how low they have sunk.

All of which makes Christopher even more determined to make his way to Berlin as soon as possible, of course! And, is it just me, or is Mr. Lancaster surprisingly erudite about where to find ‘shameless imagery’? The author is so good at poking fun at every one of his characters, and even cultural differences, just about steering clear of lazy cliches. Although I have to admit I giggled at this stereotype about the German language below:

Someone had once explained to me the technique of storytelling in German; you reserve, if possible, the whole point of the story and pack it into the final verb at the end of the last sentence. When you reach this sentence, you pause dramatically, then you cast forth the heavy, clumsy, polysyllabic verb, like a dice thrower, upon the table.

The ‘real’ Christopher Isherwood round about the time he was in Berlin.

In the second story, it is 1933 and Christopher has been living in Berlin for some time with one of the friends he made in the earlier story. That friend, Waldemar, convinces him to join him on a trip to Greece where a friend of his is working for an eccentric Englishman who is building a villa on an uninhabited island. Now that the Nazis have come to power, Christopher recognises that it is time to move on, but not before evoking once more the thrill of Berlin for expats then and now.

When I first came to Berlin, I came quite irresponsibly, for a thrill. I was the naughty boy who had enjoyed himself that afternoon at the flat of Waldemar’s Braut, and wanted more. However, having thoroughly explored the Berlin night life and begun to get tired of it, I grew puritanical. I severely criticized those depraved foreigners who visited Berlin in search of pleasure. They were exploiting the starving German working class, I said, and turning them into prostitutes. My indignation was perfectly sincere, and even justified… But have I really changed underneath? Aren’t I as irresponsible as ever, running away from a situation like this?

The more I read about foreigners’ perceptions of Berlin, the clearer it is to me that they consider it an Eldorado rather than a real city, a place where they can run away, start afresh, be more truly themselves or at least try on new personas.

The mad Englishman on his island is Ambrose, who gives his name to the second novella, and whom the narrator knew vaguely at Cambridge. He is surrounded by a gaggle of hangers-on, including the snobbish Geoffrey. The English and the Germans represent the obnoxious type of expats who complain about the local people while exploiting them (the author has them explicitly referring to the locals as ‘niggers’ and it is clear that he didn’t approve of this term even back then). No wonder that their Greek ‘friends’ use the ‘weapons of the weak’ (foot-dragging, insolence, laziness) to get back at them.

Mordant wit about the British in the third part, where Waldemar tries to find refuge in England in 1938 but utterly fails to do so. Isherwood obviously encountered some prejudice in his homeland, which is why he moved as far away from it as he could, so he is particularly acerbic about the ‘warm welcome’ you are likely to find in England.

How compactly the English sit, confronting their visitors: here we are, take os or leave us – this is where you’ll do things in our way, not yours… They are indomitable, incorrigible, and so utterly self-satisfied that they no longer have to raise their voices or wave their arms when they address the lesser breeds. If you have any criticisms, they have one unanswerable answer: you can stay off our island.

I did not finish the book – the American section dragged on too long and is the least interesting. I may well return to it at some point, but it didn’t fit in that well with my expat theme this month. Despite its unevenness, I enjoyed the book and Isherwood’s sharp observations of human behaviour and vulnerability.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to…

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. This month’s starting point was suggested by Annabel.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. I had no idea that comedian Steve Martin wrote novels, but apparently this one is a bit of a satire about life in LA, as well as a love story.

Lonely, depressed Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

So my second pick is purely picked for the title which sounds fairly similar. 1) Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. I haven’t read this one either and I can think of nothing less likely for me to pick up, as I hated that whole Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and ditzy single shopaholic chick scene which seemed so prevalent when I first started working in London in the late 1990s.

 

The third book is a bit of a leap, but bear with me… I’ll be taking you to 18th century Geneva and Paris, via the 2) Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an extraordinarily honest autobiography of one of the greatest minds – but also one of the greatest narcissists – of the Century of Lights. Here he lays out and examines, without too much artifice, his weaknesses and blind spots, his triumphs and mistakes, his way of life often contradicting his principles (abandoning his children when he wrote so eloquently about children’s better nature and the importance of education).

The next choice is obvious, because Rousseau’s greatest rival at the time was 3) Voltaire. The two men started off by admiring each other’s work, but then disagreed on fundamental philosophical and moral issues and became arch-enemies. The turning point was the horrendous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, when more than 60,000 people died. Rousseau said it should not make us doubt God’s kindness and that people brought it upon themselves by settling in cities with such dense populations. Voltaire was stunned by such heartlessness and produced in return the remarkable story of Candidea young man whose naive optimism and belief in God is sorely tested by earthquakes, syphilis, the Inquisition, murder and banishment. Mindless optimism, Voltaire contends, is stupid, unsustainable, a crime almost.

The two geniuses also fought about establishing a theatre in Geneva (Voltaire was for it, Rousseau against), so my next link is theatrical, a play which is somewhat linked to Candide, in that it presents scenes of life which test our belief in optimism and love.

4) Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (aka Liebelei, aka La Ronde) made a profound impression on me at the age of 13, when I saw it performed on stage. It’s brief scenes of ten couples (one of the couple linking to the next, like a daisy chain) before, during and after love-making and it is incredibly revealing about class and lifestyle in decadent, pre-war Vienna.

Speaking of decadence and pre-war jitters, I’ve recently read 5) Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which also mentions Vienna, although it features the period before a different world war. This slim yet powerful work is brilliant at dissecting how world events are perceived by different people and cultures, depending on how safe you consider yourself to be. It is also a biting satire of the film industry and features a semi-fictional portrait of Isherwood as a hapless scriptwriter.

 

Clearly, my final link has to be the film industry and so we move to LA once more together with 6) Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a vivid, poignant, epic reimagining of the story of one of the most idolised yet summarily dismissed and underestimated women of the film world, Marilyn Monroe.

So my journey this month takes me from selling gloves in a department store in LA to becoming an iconic film star in the same city, via London, Geneva, Paris and Vienna. You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Well-Spent Day in London Plus Book Haul

Back in the days when I used to work in London, my office was on Piccadilly, so I used to pop into the exhibitions at the Royal Academy quite frequently. This time I had to plan and travel to see the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition (as seen by Emma in Paris and associated with books of the time), which closes on the 4th of June, but I’m glad I did.

First, let me start by saying that it is rather small – only three rooms, making it at £12 entry fee for the exhibition – a high price/per room ratio. I have seen many more artists at the wonderful Phillips Collection in Washington DC. However, if you do not have access to American paintings, it is a good starting point, with a very informative guide in each room.

The exhibition was very popular and full of people of all ages, and I wonder if it is because the 1930s have such a resonance for us nowadays. Certainly I could detect many parallels:

a long drawn out economic depression and the decline of industry

Roustabouts by Joe Jones

admiring the dynamism of city life while bemoaning the loneliness it engenders

New York Movie by Edward Hopper

nostalgia for a glorious past and the ‘simpler’ country life

Cotton Pickers by T.H. Benton. Whose nostalgia?

Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, who is also the painter of that iconic American Gothic image. He’s not a man who flatters, is he?

but, above all, unsettling visions of dystopia

Jackson Pollock: Untitled (1928-41)

Death on Ridge Road by Grant Wood, for times of car crashes…

The Eternal City by Peter Blume, with visions of Mussolini smashing Roman art and civilisation into fragments.

Art born out of crisis and insecurity, art (and a nation) searching for its identity: it bears out the belief that art can remain after those troubled times have gone, and can offer a far better insight into all its fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, than mere historical description can ever hope to capture.

I then had a lovely, protracted lunch with two friends from primary school. We’d not met in 30+ years, but were not short of topics to discuss even after we’d gone through all the ‘remember that horrible teacher?’, ‘remember when that wonderful teacher took us to the ballet?’, ‘remember what ghastly clothes we wore in that class picture?’ etc. etc. It turned out that our lives featured some great parallels (we all went to Cambridge, for instance, although at slightly different times, we all travelled widely and ended up doing something very different from what we originally studied), but above all, we all had a very international, open, tolerant outlook. Which goes to show that exposing children to different cultures when they are very young is the only way to foster diversity, genuine curiosity and willingness to understand.

Vienna International School, from vis.ac.at

Two more brief observations about my day in London.

  1. The Romanian Consulate was absolutely heaving with people renewing their passports and preparing to go home or in another EU country. I’ve applied for mine now but the earliest appointment I could get for passports for my children would be end of August. Hmmm, I wonder why everyone is in such a rush to have a Plan B?
  2. Arranging to meet friends at Waterstones Piccadilly is a dangerous sport. Especially if you are slightly early. This is what happened.

Three Romanian writers (one wrote in German, one mainly in French and one in Romanian), an Italian and an Englishman with international connections. The 1930s theme of menace continues too, not just with Isherwood, but also with Benjamin Fondane, who died in a concentration camp in 1944, Paul Celan’s parents died in labour camps during WW2, and Tabucchi’s book is set in Lisbon in 1938m in the grip of Portugal’s fascist dictatorship.

I already read Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood last night. It’s a charming, if slight story about the time Isherwood was a script consultant for a film directed by an Austrian. Sadly, it does not take place in Vienna, but it describes a period of civil war in Vienna in February 1934, following the protests of socialist workers against Chancellor Dollfuss’ plan to create a one-party state, and huge uncertainty which led to an attempted coup by the Nazis and Dollfuss’ assassination in July 1934. An excellent indictment of British lack of interest in ‘Continental’ affairs at that time, particularly in this passage where an insensitive journalist asks the film director what he thinks of events in Austria and is surprised by the counter-attack of ‘Well, what do you think about it?’:

‘After all, Mr Bergmann… you must remember, it isn’t our affair. I mean, you really can’t expect people in England to care…’

Bergmann’s fist hit the table, so that the knives and forks rang. He turned scarlet in the face. He shouted, ‘I expect everybody to care! Everybody who is not a coward, a moron, a piece of dirt! I expect this whole damned island to care! I will tell you something: if they do not care, they will be made to care. The whole lot of you. You will be bombed and slaughtered and conquered. And do you know what I shall do? I shall sit by and smoke my cigar and laugh. And I shall say, “Yes, it’s terrible; and I do not give a damn. Not one damn.”‘

Patterson at last was looking a bit scared.

‘Don’t get me wrong, Mr Bergmann,’ he said hastily, ‘I quite agree with you… We don’t think enough of the other fellow and that’s a fact… Well, I must be toddling along. Glad to have seen you. We must have a talk, some day…’

Well, as you can see, even a day of leisure and admin in London ends up political at these times. I’m off to water the flowers, breathe in deeply and meditate.

 

 

The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…

From Fodors.com
From Fodors.com

Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

From bookpeople.com
Jill Alexander Essbaum, from bookpeople.com

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatriée (Singapore)