Notes on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

Image is from Pixabay

The sun is shining and Berlin belongs to Hitler, is the almost final thought of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Christopher catches his reflection in a shop window and is horrified to see that he is smiling: sunshine is still pleasant, even under fascist rule.

A shudder to think. Easy to imagine gloom and night and the dark uniforms of the Gestapo. Harder to imagine the cloudless summer days that must have, occasionally, passed in Berlin between 1933 and 1945, sun shining on the blood red folds of the flags of the German Reich.

The world is no longer as it appears. As Christopher prepares to leave, Berlin still looks the way it did, more or less, like a photograph of the past. But he knows the evil lurks underneath: he has seen the brownshirts patrol the streets day and night. He has heard the news as his Jewish friends disappear one by one. The shops and clubs that defined his time here have closed down, the decadence of capitalism to be replaced by a new form of inhuman terror.

The body knows what is happening, even when the mind cannot comprehend. The mind does not like a contradiction. A smile and a warm spring day in fascist Berlin, the mind shudders. But the body knows two things can be true at once. It smiles and walks quickly and knows it is leaving this behind.

A German woman who voted communist in the last election but won’t admit that now. She smiles and is glad to drink coffee with an old friend and she knows she is leaving something behind.

Separation of body and mind. Christopher has arrived at the party with a bad toe, and it is this wound that protests, sending out signals of pain and envy, as a young woman, an old friend, walks away. In that moment his body speaks, since his mind cannot acknowledge such feelings.

A great writer’s skill is being able to present these contradictions as reality – because this is reality. No reality without contradiction. You know when a story doesn’t ring true: when it is one-sided, one-dimensional, when the hero is too perfect. Christopher is never perfect, although – no, because – he is a perfect Englishman. He is false, always has his armour up. It doesn’t do him any good. His real strength is not to be found in this defensiveness, but in his gentleness with others, and his lack of judgement. He got angry with her when she asked him if he thought she had any faults. “She’s fishing,” he thought. And he doesn’t like to assess people with a list of pros and cons. He becomes defensive and hard when his core of gentle acceptance is challenged. Another contradiction.

Christopher is English, therefore he is one way on the surface and quite another underneath. Only this is not quite true: the surface itself is complicated, not merely the outside but a multitude of outsides, reflecting and refracting the light of outside observation on its many different edges.

With his cool stone exterior, Christopher is not fully one thing or another. He’s not really a communist, he says. He’s not really a writer. He lacks consistency: he’s too lazy for that. You need enthusiasm if you’re going to be consistent, because consistency is a sign of wrongness: for things to fit together you have to force them, because really they’re a mess. An honest outlook can only result in laziness, indecision, and passivity. Christopher is honest, at least with himself, for all his pretence.

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1 Response to Notes on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

  1. Therese says:

    I love all the contradictions in this.

    Liked by 2 people

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