July 22, 2017

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Our bookclub book for May.Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin is part of Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Novels” series, alongside Mr. Norris Changes Trains. It consists of 6 short stories which were originally published in different places, and which Isherwood had originally planned to build into a bigger work called “The Lost”.

The 6 sections all relate to a similar time period and set of circumstances. That of Christopher Isherwood experiences in Berlin and Germany during the early 1930s. The central storylines are simply about day to day life and experiences, but the subtext is the battle between the communists and the fascists for control of Germany – and eventually the rise of Hitler.

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)

Tales mainly from his life in a boarding house, very human but with occasional moments where the larger political and social situations seep in. We also learn about his work as a tutor and life in the pubs. This is the most practical of the sections.

Sally Bowles

Sally is phenomenal English girl also living in Berlin. It a little like a love letter after the fact – a missing persons plea. It’s quite a rollercoaster section, and very hedonistic.

On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)

In this section Christopher Isherwood escapes Berlin for the summer. Lodging in a guest house with Otto and Peter. The overtones of the coming political changes are getting stronger – and there’s a doctor (quite hateful man) who bangs on about the labour camps. But for all that life is still very normal – orphans visiting the beach, fighting over which is the best beach, teenagers playing around at dances.

The Nowaks

This section runs through Isherwood’s poorest phase – where he lives with a very poor family (of Otto from the previous section). A real eye opener into another side of Berlin, learning about healthcare, welfare, and feelings towards the Jews. A fascinating chapter – especially when contrasted with the next one:

The Landauers

Again a section detailing Isherwood’s relationship with a German family. This time from the other end of the social spectrum. The Landauers are a German family who own and run one of Berlin’s greatest department stores.

A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)

This final section is very different to any of the previous ones, it’s very focused on the political situation. It has a very different structure too – basically flitting from incident to incident leading up him finally leaving Berlin shortly after the Nazi’s come to power.


Strangely the book didn’t seem to grip me, I wasn’t devouring page after page long into the night – but I would recommend it to others none the less. And I am eager to read more of his work from this period (pending finishing the backlog anyway!)

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