Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood


[Edit: Originally posted April 21, 2017]

Goodbye to Berlin is a collection of intertwined short stories. Each story within is both an individual piece and connected to the other pieces in the book. The story “The Landauers” features Sally Bowles, the titular character from her own story in the book. Otto, introduced in “On Rugen Island” also has a significant role to play in “The Nowaks.” While it is possible to read them all individually, you lose something if you read them divorced from the context of the other stories.

As Isherwood discusses in his memoir Christopher and His KindGoodbye to Berlin is heavily, heavily based in Isherwood’s experiences in 1930s Berlin. The main character of Goodbye to Berlin is even named “Christopher Isherwood,” though Isherwood stresses in an introduction that we are not to take this as a sign of a completely autobiographical work.

Isherwood’s approach to writing his real life events into fiction is something that, as a writer, I find incredibly fascinating. It’s different than the standard “write what you know” position. I know the town I grew up in, but if I write a story set there that’s not saying that the story is autobiographical. Now, if I were to fictionalize a specific event that occurred in that town, that’s different. It’s an approach I find myself leaning towards more and more these days.

Goodbye to Berlin is a product of it’s time but there’s much that strikes close to home particularly with the current political climate. We see the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s through the stories though politics is not as much of the focus in Goodbye to Berlin than it is in Mr. Norris Changes Trains. 

You can find the book here.

Related Reviews: Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher and His Kind, A Single Man



Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood


[Edit: Originally published December 18,  2016]

Mr. Norris Changes Trains is a very political book.Taking place in Germany during the Nazi rise to power those themes certainly fit the times. Mr. Arthur Norris, the titular character, is a rather… shady isn’t the right word, but he’s not entirely a person who should be 100% trusted. And those thoughts are made clear by many other characters throughout the book. He’s not a great guy and he is a little bit romanticized by the main character, William Bradshaw. 

Mr. Norris always has these plans, that he never quite tells William about about. William gets more out of him than most of his other friends do, but it’s still not everything. The last ill-fated plan, however, reveals all. Mr. Norris seems to be perpetually in some sort of trouble or doing something a little bit sketchy. Money troubles seem to be a kind of trouble that Mr. Norris has with some regularity. 

He does work for the Communist party, though he person he does work for doesn’t trust him entirely, which is ultimately, a very wise move. Like I said before this is a highly political book. Dealing with the heavy tensions between the Nazi’s and the Communists. It’s not overloaded with politics, however, nothing seems heavy handed or shoe-horned in. It’s simply that the political is part of these characters day to day lives.

There’s a gay character, featured as one could be in a book published in 1935. He’s queer-coded very well and I had him pegged well before it’s revealed at the end of the book. It is revealed, of course, after you learn that he killed himself while he was on the run from the police for offering to sell political information.

Some warnings:

Antisemitism. I think the time period and location of the story alone would let you know that this could be something that came up.

BDSM. Not something you might expect but Mr. Norris has a “girlfriend” who is a dominatrix. The BDSM stuff only comes up a couple of times, but it’s also not something everyone wants to see.

Violence, mentions of torture. This is pretty much exclusive to the last chapter. Though there are mentions of fights throughout. The final chapter deals with some of the things that started happening after Hitler took power.

You can find the book here.

Related Reviews: Christopher and his KindA Single ManGoodbye to Berlin


A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood


[Edit: Originally published November 26, 2016]

This is my new number one favorite queer book. 

I’d watched the movie sometime ago and I greatly enjoyed it despite how sad it was and thought it was high time I read the book. However, now that I have read the book I’m left feeling very bitter and angry about the movie, in a much larger way than they typical “the book was better than the movie” way.

The movie twists the book in a way that’s stereotypical and gross and plays into the “queer tragedies” trope to highest degree. In the movie the primary focus of the main character George is grieving his deceased partner, Jim. He’s sad, depressed, and he’s getting ready to kill himself only in the end he doesn’t, but dies of a heart attack instead.

This does not happen in the book.

George is sad because Jim has died, yes. Is he considering suicide? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite in fact, he’s reveling in being alive. He’s a grumpy old gay man in the ’60s who has survived. He’s got a lot going against him, but he has survived. 

“He wants to rejoice in his own body–the tough triumphant old body of a survivor. The body that has outlived Jim and is going to outlive Doris.” p.104

The contemplating suicide plot line does not exist in the book. Suicide comes up all of once, in a thought that George brushes off. While George does die at the end of the book (in his sleep of a heart attack). The book is not a tragedy in the way that the movie tries to make it.

There’s also a matter of whitewashing, it’s not a large character, but in the book Kenny’s girlfriend is Japanese. She’s white in the movie. 

The book is funny. George is a character and a highly relatable one. From describing his life as a performance to complaining about heterosexual nonsense. When a student of his, Kenny, asks him if experience makes you wise, George says no, it’s just made him silly. 

There are also some very frank discussion of what it means to be a minority. How people react to that, how people of that time thought of homosexuality. There’s also a very deep discussion of hatred and fear, (which was kept in the movie largely intact). 

It’s an incredible book. It’s charming and frank. And I honestly did not expect what I got from a book first published in 1964. There’s a scene where George masturbates to a fantasy of two men he saw.  It’s a day in the life of a gay old college professor. It’s not sugar coated or censored to make heterosexual people happy. I say that within reason, I’m sure there were things that couldn’t be added because the time period, but what’s there is positively phenomenal. This is why it’s so important for queer people to tell their own stories. You don’t find stories like this one written by heterosexual person. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in reading queer fiction.

You can get the book here.

Related Reviews: Christopher and his Kind, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin



Christopher and his Kind: 1929-1939 by Christopher Isherwood


[Edit: Originally published April 28, 2016]

Christopher and his Kind, a memoir detailing Christopher Isherwood’s time in traveling abroad from England, is delightfully frank and honest. Christopher Isherwood has no qualms in saying which parts are unreliable because he doesn’t remember them or how the opinion of his younger self might be biased. He treats young Christopher Isherwood as if he is a different person from the Isherwood who is now writing this memoir, and in a sense he is. 

I found it fascinating the way he talked about how he fictionalized the people that he met, particularly Jean Ross who was the inspiration for beloved character Sally Bowles. This ties in with Isherwood acknowledging himself as an unreliable narrator. He remarks on several occasions in the book that over the years what was Jean Ross and what was Sally Bowles has become blurred.

The queer history that this book provides was wonderful. I was particularly intrigued by the Hirschfeld Institute. It’s something I definitely want to research further. Aside from that it was a wonderful glimpse into how homosexuality was thought of and how gay and bisexual men (though they weren’t called that in the book) lived their lives, and how despite the tendency for history to get straight-washed, queer people have always been there and will always be there.

There is also a movie of the same name, starting Matt Smith, and while it is good, it doesn’t really give you the full feel of Isherwood’s time traveling or the full nature of his relationship with Heinz, or Isherwood’s other friends for that matter. On it’s own the movie is good, and if you’ve seen it but haven’t read the book you should go out and get the book ASAP.

The book can be found here.

Related Reviews: A Single Man, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin, Queer, There, and Everywhere