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.