Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 2008.
If we want to be technical about it, The Berlin Stories is actually two novels in one. The first, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (American title: The Last of Mr. Norris) is just under 200 pages while Goodbye to Berlin is just over (207). The Last of Mr. Norris contains the famous line, “I am a Camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” (p 1). Even though both stories are connected, I will review each story on its own.
The Last of Mr. Norris – Mr. Norris is a mysterious man. Wealthy one minute, impoverished the next. A sexual deviant with prim and proper manners. Shady friends. He is the focal point and the most developed character of The Last of Mr. Norris. Indeed, Isherwood wanted his readers to focus solely on the character of Mr. Norris throughout the entire novel. The subtleties of this complex character needed to be teased out somehow. Isherwood found that vehicle through the first person narrative of Norris’s English friend, William Bradshaw. From Bradshaw you learn there is something sinister and cunning yet beguiling about Norris. The only other “character” is Berlin in the 1930s. Hitler is beginning to gain power. Communism. Spies. Alliances. Blackmail. How Norris moves through this world is what makes the story interesting.
Goodbye to Berlin – Isherwood explained that in order to have the reader truly focus on Norris every other character needed to be culled from The Last of Mr. Norris. In Goodbye to Berlin those orphaned characters have found a home. Characters like Sally Bowels, Frl. Schoeder, Otto Nowak, and Peter —-. As an aside, the composition of Goodbye to Berlin is a little different from The Last of Mr. Norris. This time the chapters are titled: A Berlin Diary (1930), Sally Bowles, On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931), The Nowaks, The Landauers, and A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932 -3). Favorite lins, “With a mere gesture of wealth he could alter the whole course of our lives” (p 48) and “The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything” (p 90).
Author fact: Isherwood confessed The Berlin Stories was based heavily on the diary he kept during his four years in Berlin.
Book trivia: Armistead Maupin wrote the introduction to Berlin Stories.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “100 Good Reads, Decade by Decade: 1940s” (p 177). Also from Book Lust to Go in the chapter called simply, “Berlin” (p 36). I should note that I feel slightly tricked. Pearl mentioned The Berlin Stories was comprised of The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin but I thought she meant they were short stories. Oops! The good news is a result of this error I was actually able to cross three titles off my list because they were all listed in the index.