The Berlin Stories

Little less than a century old, Christopher Isherwood’s classic book still sheds light on the city that’s its star…

Aficionados of Slow Travel know that to get to the soul of a place you don’t necessarily have to explore its heart. Tourists gathering around London’s Trafalgar Square or Rome’s Trevi Fountain may feel that they have come face to face with a city’s history, but these are landmarks, nothing more, ignored by locals to whom they represent little.

The soul of a city isn’t found in the symbols constructed by its dignitaries but in its very fabric, and it’s this that has led Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories – actually two short novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye To Berlin – to become essential to all those who want to understand Germany’s capital a little better.

Eighty years on, despite the devastation wrought upon the city by World War Two and its subsequent division, Isherwood’s Berlin remains identifiable to those tramping its streets from tourist destination to tourist destination.

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (right) photographed by Carl Van Vechten, February 6, 1939

‘Berlin is a city with two centres,’ he writes, ‘the cluster of expensive hotels, bars, cinemas, shops round the Memorial Church, a sparkling nucleus of light, like a sham diamond, in the shabby twilight of the town; and the self-conscious civic centre of buildings round the Unter Den Linden, carefully arranged. In grand international styles, copies of copies, they assert our dignity as a capital city—a parliament, a couple of museums, a State bank, a cathedral, an opera, a dozen embassies, a triumphal arch; nothing has been forgotten.’

As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr memorably said, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose‘. But this is not the Berlin in which Isherwood is interested. As he immediately adds, ‘they are all so pompous, so very correct,’ qualities he clearly disdains. Isherwood’s Berlin is more than the sum of its monuments.

An early mentor to poet W. H. Auden, in turn mentored by E. M. Forster, the British colonel’s son moved to Berlin in 1929 to teach English and write, and as a young gay man found the city’s bohemian lifestyle perfect for his tastes.

It’s this world that he describes in a series of interrelated sketches that remain recognisable to anyone who has spent time immersed in Berlin’s subculture. What makes The Berlin Stories so fascinating is precisely that they explore the very spirit of what makes the city special—and highlight how little has changed.

The inspiration for John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera, and subsequently the unforgettable Liza Minelli vehicle Cabaret, The Berlin Stories are populated with eccentric characters carving a tenuous existence in sometimes less than noble fashions amidst locations that may be long gone but whose ambience remains familiar.

Those accustomed to Berlin’s relaxed smoking laws will grimace at how ‘the cigarette smoke made my eyes smart until the tears ran down my face’, and those who’ve spent time in cafés people-watching or working will understand barman Bobby’s complaint about customers who ‘order a beer and think they’ve got the right to sit here the whole evening’.

Meanwhile Isherwood may be writing of The Troika, one of his favourite haunts, when he describes ‘dancers, locked frigidly together, swayed in partial-paralytic rhythms under a huge sunshade suspended from the ceiling and oscillating gently through cigarette smoke and hot rising air’, but he could be portraying any one of the many nightclubs currently packing them in at weekends.

The city of which he writes is timeless: National Socialism, with all its attendant evil, may be rising around his characters, but it’s the day to day minutiae in which Isherwood is absorbed, and the trivia he shares remains telling.

It’s not just the city’s social life that he deconstructs. ‘Lying in bed in the darkness,’ he recalls, ‘in my tiny corner of the enormous human warren of the tenements, I could hear, with uncanny precision, every sound which came up from the courtyard below. The shape of the court must have acted as a gramophone horn…Straining my ears, I heard, or fancied I heard, the grating of the key in the lock of the big street door. A moment later, the door closed with a deep, hollow boom… Somewhere on the other side of the court a baby began to scream, a window was slammed to, something very heavy, deep in the innermost recesses of the building, thudded dully against a wall.’

Prince-Albrecht-Strasse

Any long term residents of Berlin will be more than accustomed to such mysteries: the vast apartment blocks in which we live may seem impenetrable fortresses, but they fail to shield inhabitants from often intimate moments in the lives of others elsewhere in the building.

Those passing through the city, however, might never know that such episodes regularly colour its darkness and influence how its citizens interact. Isherwood’s remarkable eye for detail – he is, after all, ‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’ – offers a shortcut to the city’s nervous system. His colourful characters may be what are most celebrated by fans of the book, but it’s the world they inhabit, and how they do so, that makes The Berlin Stories so indispensable.

Though 1930s Berlin may share certain characteristics with 21st-Century Berlin, Hitler cast a long shadow over its culture. But this doesn’t detract from the book’s contemporary relevance: Isherwood lets us see the political turmoil of the times through the eyes of the locals struggling to make a living amidst this gradual but nonetheless shocking transformation rather than making it his central concern.

‘This was Frl. Schroeder’s History of World War II,’ he writes of one of his characters in the introduction, ‘and its only moral was: “Somehow or other, life goes on in spite of everything”.’

Berliners know that more than most, and anyone seeking to understand the city’s mentality could do worse than to start with that dictum. What took place subsequent to Isherwood’s departure in 1933 continues to haunt the city today.

‘It is strange enough to see a vast city shattered and dead,’ he ruminates in the book’s introduction, his observations as relevant now as they were eight decades ago. ‘It is far stranger to see one that is briskly and teemingly inhabited, amidst its ruins. Berlin seemed convinced it was alive; and, after a few hours there, you began to agree that it certainly was.’

What gave Berlin that life was what Isherwood sought to record and, remarkably, as Berliners should be proud to admit, little has changed: it’s not the Brandenburger Tor that lends Berlin its unrivalled ambience, but the citizens who swarm within every Kiez.

You don’t read Isherwood’s tales to pinpoint the city’s heart: streets may be named, but it’s not the locations that are important. You read The Berlin Stories to get to grips with the city’s soul, the habits and personalities that define it, the celebrations it’s enjoyed and the horrors it’s endured.

Though it drifts from scene to scene, from character to character, without any clear narrative purpose, this is much like life itself, and Berlin’s life is unique. The Berlin Stories brings you one step closer to understanding it…

The original English language version of The Berlin Stories is published by W. W. Norton & Co.

Next in Historical BerlinTopography of Terror »