I finished The Berlin Stories this morning on my way to work, turning my commute into the last days of freedom in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. I don’t know if this is a function of age, or simply of the thousands of hours I’ve spent with books, but I more deeply immerse in my reading material than I ever used to – text becoming image, image blocking out the rest of the world for that moment. The last days of Isherwood’s Berlin left me shivering as I stepped off the bus, wondering what degree of social chaos must exist for facism to seem like a reasonble option for order. (Given the state of Canada’s politics these days, can you blame me for thinking about it?)
The Berlin Stories are actually two novels – or one novel and a diary/short-story-collection really. Set in Berlin during the chaotic last days before World War Two, rather than deliver a grand political narrative, Isherwood examines the small characters in life – the bombastic landlady, the prostitute-cum-cabaret performer, the government official with a taste for boys books, the hustler, the communist true-believer, the naive heiress. Of course his best-known character is Sally Bowles and the film Cabaret is based on Berlin Diary.
Of all the readings I have done for grad school, this one left me with the least to say. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it seems rather straightforward to me – an attempt to click the shutter on the lives of everyday people in a tumultuous time – to capture the snapshot before those people and days are blown away in a haze of atrocity. (Isherwood lived in Berlin during the years he wrote about, though his novels weren’t written until the mid-forties, with the benefit of hindsight one living there wouldn’t have had in the moment.) There is a question I suppose of how people go on as normal, concerned about jobs-relationships-familyproblems while something as stark as facism is rising around them. But I’m not sure why we would ask that question of Germans in Berlin in 1938 without also casting it on ourselves in Canada in 2012. How is it that we turn a blind eye to cruelty, meanness, chaos, and the poverty of spirit that infects so much of our society? But we do. Because the jobs-relationships-familyproblems are so much more present than the politics.
Working people, feeling no stake in the world of government, mostly try to keep their heads down and unnoticed. These are the characters of Isherwood’s sojourn – those who exist on the margins and yet create their own centres of power and intrigue and scandal. They are real, these characters, even as Isherwood’s eponymous central character is a mirror of the others rather than any distinguishable self. When Isherwood makes the fatal mistake of introducing two female friends (Sally and Natalie) we understand how much he treasures his relationships – that he is willing to risk them to show one part of himself to another (as if that could ever work).
If I had more time to reflect on this I would, but I don’t and rather like that the Berlin Stories washed around me without encouraging a lot of highlighting or note-taking on the text. It strikes me as just stories of what was, a picture really, as Isherwood himself attested – “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”