Read The Berlin Stories Online
Authors: Christopher Isherwood
The Berlin Stories
With a Preface by the author
First published in 1935
ABOUT THIS BOOK
From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made up my mind that I would one day write about the people I’d met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course provided raw material for all my Berlin stories.
My first idea, immediately after leaving Berlin in 1933, was to transform this material into one huge tightly constructed melodramatic novel, in the manner of Balzac. I wanted to call it The Lost. This title, or rather its German equivalent, Die Verlorenen, seemed to me wonderfully ominous. I stretched it to mean not only The Astray and Tne Doomed—referring tragically to the political events in Germany and our epoch—but also “The Lost” in quotation marks—referring satirically to those individuals whom respectable society shuns in horror: an Arthur Norris, a von Pregnitz, a Sally Bowles.
Maybe Balzac himself could have devised a plot-structure which would plausibly contain the mob of characters I wanted to introduce to my readers. The task was quite beyond my powers. What I actually produced was an absurd jumble of subplots and coincidences which defeated me whenever I tried to straighten it out on paper. Thank Goodness I never did write The Lost!
Just the same, all of these characters had grown together, like a nest of Siamese twins, in my head, and I could only separate them by the most delicate operations. There was a morning of acute nervous tension throughout which I paced up and down the roof of an hotel in the Canary Islands, shaping the plot of Mr. Norris and discarding everybody and everything that didn’t belong in it. This was in May, 1934. A few days later, I set to work on the novel, sitting in the garden of a pension at Orotava on Tenerife. The pension was run by a happy-go-lucky Englishman, who used to laugh at my industry and tell me I ought to go swimming, while I was still young. “After all, old boy, I mean to say, will it matter a hundred years from now if you wrote that yarn or not?” Relentlessly, at four o’clock every afternoon, he would start playing records at full blast through the loudspeaker on the patio, hoping to attract wandering tourists in for a drink. They seldom came, but the jazz tunes always put an end to my day’s work. On August 12,1 noted in my diary: “Finished Mr. Norris. The gramophone keeps repeating a statement about Life with which I do not agree.” I remember how I raced through that last chapter with one eye on my watch, determined to get finished before the racket started.
Mr. Norris was published in 1935. In England, the book bore its correct name: Mr. Norris Changes Trains; but the American publisher, William Morrow, found this obscure—so I changed it to The Last of Mr. Norris, a title which should be followed by a very faint question mark.
Next I wrote the story of Sally Bowles, and it appeared as a small separate volume in 1937. Three other pieces—The Nowaks, The Landauers and Berlin Diary: Autumn 1930—were published in issues of John Lehmann’s New Writing. Finally, the complete Goodbye to Berlin was published in 1939.
Goodbye indeed! During those years that followed, the Berlin I’d known seemed as dead as ancient Carthage. But 1945 came at last, and V-E Day. That summer, New Directions was getting ready to republish Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin in one volume, The Berlin Stories. While I was correcting the proofs, a letter, the first in seven years, reached me from Heinz, my closest “enemy” friend, telling how he had fought in Russia and later been taken prisoner by the Americans. After the fighting was over, the authorities at his POW camp had more or less allowed him, and a number of others, to run away, and had later forwarded his mail to his home address, marked “Escaped”! As I read and reread this letter, the feeling began to work through me painfully and joyfully, like blood through a numbed leg, that Berlin—or, at any rate, the Berliners—still existed, after all.
Then, in the summer of 1951, John van Druten decided that he could make a play out of Sally Bowles. His adaptation, I Am a Camera, was written with his usual skilled speed, and was ready for production that fall. When I arrived in New York to sit in on rehearsals, I had first to go to a studio and be photographed, for publicity, with our leading lady, Julie Harris .1 had never met Miss Harris before. I hadn’t even seen her famous performance in The Member of the Wedding.
Now, out of the dressing-room, came a slim sparkling-eyed girl in an absurdly tart-like black satin dress, with a little cap stuck jauntily on her pale flame-coloured hair, and a silly naughty giggle. This was Sally Bowles in person. Miss Harris was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book, and much more like Sally than the real girl who long ago gave me the idea for my character.
I felt half hypnotised by the strangeness of the situation. “This is terribly sad,” I said to her. “You’ve stayed the same age while I’ve gotten twenty years older.” We exchanged scraps of dialogue from the play, ad-libbed new lines, laughed wildly, hammed and hugged each other, while the photographer’s camera clicked. I couldn’t take my eyes off ner. I was dumbfounded, infatuated. Who was she? What was she? How much was there in her of Miss Harris, how much of van Druten, how much of the girl I used to know in Berlin, how much of myself? It was no longer possible to say. I only knew that she was lovable in a way that no human could ever quite be, since, being a creature of art, she had been created out of pure love.
As I watched those rehearsals, I used to think a good deal—sometimes comically, sometimes sentimentally—about the relation of art to life. In writing Goodbye to Berlin, I destroyed a certain portion of my real past. I did this deliberately, because I preferred the simplified, more creditable, more exciting fictitious past which I’d created to take its place. Indeed, it had now become hard for me to remember just how things really had happened. I only knew how I would like them to have happened—that is to say, how I had made them happen in my stories. And so, gradually, the real past had disappeared, along with the real Christopher Isherwood of twenty years ago. Only the Christopher Isherwood of the stories remained.
I’d never thought about this situation before, because it had never seemed to have any particular significance. If my past was artificial, at least it had been entirely my own—until now. Now John, Julie and the rest of them had suddenly swooped down on it, and carried bits of it away with them for their artistic use. Watching my past being thus reinterpreted, revised and transformed by all these talented people upon the stage, I said to myself: “I am no longer an individual. I am a collaboration. I am in the public domain.”
After the play had opened successfully on Broadway, I went to England. This was my third visit since the end of the war; and this time, I knew, I must go over to Germany as well. It was a definite obligation—but how I dreaded it! I dreaded meeting the people I’d known and facing the fact that there was practically nothing I could do to help them. I dreaded seeing familiar places in ruins. Though my mind was made up, my unconscious still protested: I developed symptoms of duodenal ulcer, and nearly broke my leg on a staircase. Throughout the flight from London, I expected a crash, and was almost disappointed when we landed safe at Tempelhofer Feld in a mild snowstorm—”a psychosomatic snowstorm, obviously,” one of my friends commented, later.
I had arrived prepared—overprepared—for a shock; and the drive through the streets wasn’t as depressing as I’d anticipated. As it was night, you couldn’t see much, anyhow, and it so happened that the houses along our route were less badly damaged than elsewhere. Indeed, the end of the drive brought a shock of a different kind; for I found myself among the new neon-lighted shops and bars of the Kurfuerstendamm, and entered a modernistic hotel where I was surrounded by thick-necked cigar-smoking businessmen who might have stepped right out of the cartoons of Georg Grosz. It was I, not these people, who had changed; for now I could afford to live with them. During my former Berlin existence as a down-at-heel English teacher, I used to know such places only from the outside, peering into them as I passed along the sidewalk with disapproval, moral superiority and envy.
But in those days ( February, 1952) the Kurfuerstendamm was one of the still few areas of relatively intact prosperity. At the end of it, the nineteenth-century-Gothic Memorial Church looked more Gothic than ever in its jaggedly pinnacled ruins. The Tauentzienstrasse beyond was like an avenue of shattered monuments. Through wide gaps between formless mounds of rubble, you got views over the great central desert of destruction, and saw the Sieges Saeule rising forlornly from the treeless, snow-covered plain of the Tiergarten, which was dotted with bizarre remnants of statuary: a uniformed general, a naked nymph on a horse. In the background, the skeleton of a railroad station showed up starkly; and against the blue winter sky, a red flag fluttered from the Brandenburger Tor, entrance to the Soviet sector. There was something doubly strange about this landscape. It is strange enough to see a vast city shattered and dead. It is far stranger to see one that is briskly and teemingly inhabited, amidst its ruins. Berlin seemed convinced that it was alive; and, after a few hours there, you began to agree that it certainly was.
The street where I used to live is behind the Nollendorfplatz, about ten minutes’ walk from the hotel where I was staying. I knew that my old landlady, “Frl. Schroeder,” was still there; we had been corresponding, but I hadn’t told her that I was coming to Berlin for fear of a last-minute disappointment. Even before the war, this was a decayed and forbidding district; but when I saw it again I was really awestruck. The fronts of the buildings were pitted with shrapnel and eaten by rot and weather, so that they had that curiously blurred, sightless look you see on the face of the Sphinx.
Only a very young and frivolous foreigner, I thought, could have lived in such a place and found it amusing. Hadn’t there been something youthfully heartless in my enjoyment of the spectacle of Berlin in the early thirties, with its poverty, its political hatred and its despair? I felt extremely middle-aged, that morning. The house next to ours had been hit: on the third floor, a handsome tiled stove still stood in the corner of a half-room which jutted out over the abyss. With reverent feet, I entered the deep dank courtyard, whose floor the sun never strikes, and climbed the musty stairs, dark even in the daytime, to Frl. Schroeder’s door. The scream she uttered on recognising me must have been heard all over the building.
She looked wonderful; better, now, in her seventies than in her fifties, and considerably slimmer. (Her only objection to my description of her in my stories was that I’d said she “waddled.”) Yet she had been through as bad a time as any average Berliner: serious illness, poverty—forcing her to move to this much smaller flat, where she nevertheless had to have one lodger in the only spare bedroom and another sleeping in the kitchen—then the war, and the last awful year of bombing, when she and the other tenants lived almost continuously in the cellar. “There were forty or fifty of us down there. We used to hold each other in our arms and say at least we’d all die together. I can tell you, Herr Issyvoo, we prayed so much we got quite religious.”
And then, with the fall of Berlin, came the Russian soldiers, searching the houses for arms. Frl. Schroeder thought she had nothing to fear until, at the last moment, she discovered to her horror that an Italian lodger, who had run away, had left a sporting rifle in his room. Caught with it, she would certainly have been shot; probably the whole building would have been burned down. So she and a woman friend took the I rifle apart, hid the pieces under their clothes and set out for the canal, into which they planned to drop them. This they finally succeeded in doing, but only after a hair-raising encounter with some more Russians, who chased them with erotic intentions.
“Every time I went out on the street, they’d be after me,” said Frl. Schroeder, not without a certain complacency. “So I used to screw up my eyes—like this—and make a hump in my back, and limp. You ought to have seen me, Herr Issyvoo! Even those Russians didn’t want me any more. I looked like a regular old hag!”
By the time she had finished her stories, we were both quite exhausted with laughing and crying, and had drunk a whole bottle of Liebfraumilch.
Frl. Schroeder could only give me news of two of my old friends. Bobby the bartender had come through the war without a scratch, and had gotten married. Otto Nowak, now a black-market operator, had shown up recently at the flat, wanting to buy some carpets.
“He hadn’t changed one bit. He was very well dressed—quite the fine gentleman. There’s a rich woman somewhere in the background, I shouldn’t wonder. Oh, you can rely on him to look after himself! And he’s as fresh as ever. I soon sent him about his business.”
As I listened to all this, I marvelled, as one always does, at the individual’s ability to be himself and survive, amidst a huge undifferentiated military mess. This was Frl. Schroeder’s History of World War II—and its only moral was: “Somehow or other, life goes on in spite of everything.”