The Berlin Stories

by Christopher Isherwood

Paperback, 2008




New Directions (2008), Edition: Reissue, 256 pages


MR NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS The first of Christopher Isherwood's classic 'Berlin' novels, this portrays the encounter and growing friendship between young William Bradshaw and the urbane and mildly sinister Mr Norris. Piquant, witty and oblique, it vividly evokes the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, and forcefully conveys an ironic political parable. GOODBYE TO BERLIN The inspiration for the stage and screen musical Cabaret and for the play I Am a Camera, this novel remains one of the most powerful of the century, a haunting evocation of the gathering storm of the Nazi terror. Told in a series of wry, detached and impressionistic vignettes, it is an unforgettable portrait of bohemian Berlin - a city and a world on the very brink of ruin.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member brett_in_nyc
This one I really loved when I was young and had a romantic notion of Berlin before the war as an open and cosmopolitan place, a refuge for literary British and American types (and Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Ottomans, etc etc.)
In the end, it was eclipsed by other books.
LibraryThing member figre
This collection did not match any of my expectations – that is, it wasn’t what I expected to read. There really is a difference there – let me explain. First, it is my fault. I was expecting a collection of short stories, and right on the back it says, “…contains two related novels.” However, I did read enough of the back to know that some part was the inspiration for Cabaret. But, reading the back more carefully, the only part that is Cabaret (and its predecessor I Am a Camera) are the “misadventures of Sally Bowles.” She plays but a small part in this entire production. Then, once I came to grips with this being two novels, I started the second – Goodbye to Berlin – and found that this didn’t match my new conceptions. Rather than a novel, I would better describe it as a connected set of writings – some almost diary entries (upon which much of this is based.) This is where Sally Bowles does indeed make her short appearances – once as the main force of a story, the second as a protagonist.

I only go through this background to let you know that the book/novels/stories worked their way past my conceptions, preconceptions, or misconceptions (choose what you would like to call them) to make me understand why people have turned to them for inspiration in their private and creative lives. There is no doubt that you are hearing Isherwood’s true stories of his life in Berlin during the time of the rise of Hitler. And the intertwining of everyday situations with the important (but underplayed) events of the world makes for entertaining reading. As the blurb promises, the characters are entertaining – but never are they drawn too broadly. They are believable people. And never do world events overshadow the life of getting through life. In fact, events are just a backdrop. Hitler’s name is dropped. The previous war is mentioned. Events in England are glanced at. But these stories and these people are never about those events. And, although I’ve said it more than once in different ways, these stories are about people – people who come to life in the telling.
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LibraryThing member Tpoi
Great read. Read this then watch Mack the Knife, listen to Kurt Weil, think about Weimar Germany.
LibraryThing member ostrom
Splendid. Wonderful evocation of pre-War Berlin. Norris is a terrific character.
LibraryThing member araridan
I liked these stories, but I just kept feeling like there was nothing much to them. They all take place in Germany in the 1930s...before everything goes to shit, but people know who Hitler is. Berlin was also supposed to be a mecca of risque behavior and sexual experimentation/freedom during this era. Given the charged political situation and the background of shadiness, I expected this book to provide a little more commentary or scandal...instead it reads mostly like observational autobigraphical accounts of the author's encounters with other people. Relationships. Money issues. Taking holidays. This quality doesn't make the stories bad at all, just perhaps a little too straightforward for my tastes.

As a sidenote, I was reading this book on my trip through California, and while hanging out at my hometown beach, an older man approached me. (It's quite unusual to see anyone reading at the beach where I'm from). He was very surprised to see someone reading The Berlin Stories and declared that he used to know Christopher Isherwood before his death. This dude was an artist and met Isherwood at a party in Santa Monica during the 1970s. The one thing that this stranger had to say when I asked what Isherwood was like was: "He was an interesting man. While he was living in Berlin, his publisher had proposed that he write a biography of Hitler. He refused because he wanted to have nothing to do with the Nazis, but it turns out that he actually regretted that decision. He thought in hindsight it would have been so interesting to speak to a man that later became so infamous."
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LibraryThing member auntieknickers
As most people know, The Berlin Stories formed the nucleus for John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera and later for the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. I had both read the play and seen the movie before I read this book, while I was living in Berlin. As often happens to me in such cases, I enjoyed the books even more than the dramatizations (which nearly always have to leave things out, unless they have to add things for padding, which is usually worse). I would highly recommend these stories for a peep into Berlin in the pre-WWII period.… (more)
LibraryThing member roblong
I'm a huge fan of these novels, particularly Goodbye to Berlin. I love the way Isherwood puts the great changes in early 30s Germany in the background - as characters preoccupied with their own lives travel towards a new reality they are atonished to find themselves in when it arrives. This, I suspect, is how it happens. They are also wonderfully written and engaging from beginning to end.… (more)
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
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).
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LibraryThing member otterley
Christopher Isherwood found himself in Berlin in the 1930s - a place of (elliptically described in the books) sexual liberation amidst the brief flowering of the Weimar republic and the tense days of the rise of Hitler. Isherwood notably described himself as a camera. THese books present snapshots, or perhaps short films - glimpses into personalities and a world on the brink, but for the present enjoying its pleasures and its political significance. Important reading for any 20th century historians, but also a very pleasurable read for anyone interested in people, oddities and politics… (more)
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
These are clever stories written by an Englishman between 1933 and 1938. I classify this as historical Fiction because, though not written retrospectively, they are mined by the current writers of historical fiction looking for trenchant details. And they are well worth reading just as they were made, conjuring up a vision of the end of a liberal state and its replacement by a fascist one.… (more)
LibraryThing member cestovatela
Except for a great opening line, nothing about Isherwood's collection of short stories grabbed me. Sally Bowles is a fabulous character but the narrator himself is desperately dull. A pathetic man in love with a vibrant woman does not an interesting story make.
LibraryThing member junevonjune
An enjoyable, fun read.
LibraryThing member ChazziFrazz
My brother loaned me this book in response to my loaning him "Monuments Men". Being it takes place in the European Theatre of WWII he thought I might enjoy another perspective of that time and place.

Christopher Isherwood lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933, the time when Hitler was working his way into power. A charming city of café life and a nighttime dark side of wild life and fantasts. Intrigue, vice, millionaires and poor people all to be found around Berlin.

Isherwood travelled in both worlds, teaching English to those who wanted to learn to appear better in status. This book is fiction, but it is based on real people in a real world. It is more of a memoir of his time in Berlin. He introduces you to a variety of people. Frl. Schroeder, whom he rents a room from. Once she was well off but now she has to rent rooms in her flat to meet the rent. Mysterious Mr. Norris, a debauchee who loves luxury but has no obvious source on income. Sally Bowles, who travels in the demimonde of Berlin on the kindness of men. She was a character model for the stage play "I Am a Camera" and "Cabaret".

Isherwood takes you into his world with his discriptives of the people and places. You are there during the conversations and happenings. You can feel the tension that is slowly building from the changing of the political scene. There is also the humour of many of the situations that Isherwood finds himself in.

This book is really two books under one cover. They are related by time and place.

I definitely enjoyed this goodread.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
The basis for _Cabaret_, this book gives one a very good picture of Berlin just prior to he biginning of the WW2. It's a pity that the world failed to take heed of Isherwood's warnings about the Nazis (until it was too late).
LibraryThing member GayCityLGBTLibrary
Gay City Staff Pick: Heard of the musical "cabaret?" Well, this is the collection of semi-true stories it's based on. Check. It. Out!
LibraryThing member Kristelh
Two shorter works by Christopher Isherwood, He puts himself into the story as the narrator and observer of Germany between the wars. The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin.

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking".

And that is how I experienced the books. I bit dull. You can see the poverty (this is the depression years). The struggle to find relief through partying, drinking and sex. The tensions growing between Nazi and Jew. The Communist on the threshold. It was the dispassionate prose that made it hard to engage. I enjoyed the musical Cabaret so much more.

The first book, The Last of Mr. Norris portrays encounters between Mr Norris and a William Brandshaw. I liked this a bit better. It is less dark, a bit more comical but still has that tone found in Goodbye to Berlin of being on the brink of something. The Nazi's presence is increasing. Communists are underground. Again there is detachment in Bradshaw who acts as the observer of all that is happening.
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
"One should never write down or up to people, but out of yourself."

The Berlin Stories consists of two of the author's novels ('Mr. Norris Changes Trains' and 'Goodbye to Berlin'), and each one is a semi-autobiographical account of his time in Berlin in early 1930's.

In the first, ‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains’, Isherwood goes by his middle names William Bradshaw and opens with him meeting a fellow Englishman, Arthur Norris, on a train from Holland to Berlin. Noticing that Norris is very anxious about the upcoming German border police check and intrigued by his mysterious travelling companion Bradshaw strikes up a conversation and ultimately a friendship with Norris.

On arrival in Berlin the two begin to see more of each other and Bradshaw becomes aware of certain oddities in Norris’s life. Norris initially intimates that he is an upper class gentleman of leisure with a certain amount of money at his disposal it soon becomes clear that he is little more than a con-man who takes advantage of his more wealthy friends. Norris is also a member of the Communist party, if not a particularly trusted one, which was a fairly hazardous association to have just as the Nazi party was beginning to come to the fore in German politics and a visitor to a certain brothel where he liked to take part in masochistic games. However, when the Reichstag is burned (reportedly by Communists) Norris realises that it is not safe for him to remain in Berlin but he is unwilling to do so without making one final shady business deal, and uses Bradshaw as a decoy to finalize it.

The blurb on the back of my copy of this book describes Norris as being "urbane and mildly sinister" and the writing as it portrays pre-war Berlin as"Piquant, witty and oblique" however, whilst I felt that he was quite an amusing character he was also as sinister as a blancmange, nor could I see how Bradshaw couldn't help but see straight through him as for all his scheming he seemed pretty transparent. Nor could I work out why Bradshaw seemed to think that Norris's peculiarities were quite the norm whilst the constant introduction of minor characters only seemed to minimise any tension there may have been.

However, whilst I felt that 'Mr. Norris Changes Trains' was poor on its own it did seem to work as an introduction and sets up the second book rather nicely as the reader feels attuned with the author's writing style.

‘Goodbye to Berlin’ in contrast is a group of inter-connected vignettes which chronicle some of his misadventures with some of the city's more interesting and bohemian characters, including one of cinema’s most iconic characters, Sally Bowles; the inspiration for Cabaret. In this book Isherwood drops his pseudonym Bradshaw, and delves into the lives of people under threat from the rise of the Nazi party.

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

While Sally Bowles is an important character in this half of the book, she is ultimately little more than a bit player. The main character becomes Isherwood himself or more importantly his sexuality. Whilst the author never discloses it directly it is very plain that he is a homosexual and so the reader is given glimpses into a more intimate side of the man himself. This is most apparent in the vignette featuring the Laundauers. The story opens with Isherwood tutoring a young Jewish girl Natalia but it is the introduction to her cousin Bernhard that gives the story its poignancy. The fact that Isherwood appears to have been openly gay just as the Nazis were gaining strength seems quite remarkable and even courageous.

For me this is a book of contrasts. I found 'Mr. Norris Changes Trains' to be somewhat wishy-washy whilst in contrast I rather enjoyed 'Goodbye to Berlin' with its engaging characters and it was here that I felt that I got a real glimpse of the author and his abilities.
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LibraryThing member BooksOn23rd
THE BERLIN STORIES reflects Christopher Isherwood’s time spent living in Berlin between 1929-1933. The first half is his novel “The Last of Mr. Norris”, and the second half is “Goodbye to Berlin”.
Written in first-person narrative, the stories are a thinly veiled account of his interactions with other Berliners.
The stories are somewhat interesting, but even though the characters are initially painted vividly, no character stayed around long enough for me to develop any compassion for them.
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LibraryThing member KurtWombat
With apologies to the similarly time encapsulating THE SOUND OF MUSIC: How do you solve a problem like Christopher Isherwood? In his rather lengthy introduction to THE BERLIN STORIES, Isherwood admits to having difficulty deciding how to present his myriad recollections of pre-WWII Germany. Initially, he thought one long novel but he struggled to find threads strong enough to hold so many characters and paths together in one story line, so he eventually he broke them down into smaller projects such as the two novellas collected here--allowing his memories to coalesce into clumps largely held together by time and place and little else. Today such a project might more likely be allowed the fluid form of memoir as opposed to being forced into the ill-fitting structure of the novel. How much fun and more natural for the author this would have been is hinted at by his enjoyable introduction. A memoir with literary flourishes would have worked better than several memoir-ish novellas. So all that being said, you may wonder why I gave this ****. Ultimately I have surprised myself. Considering that virtually nothing happens over the course of the two novellas, and at times I found myself clambering for any foothold to hold my interest, a strange thing happened. I became lost amid the squalid tenements, beach resort hotels, and the crowded and just barely kempt boarding houses of Isherwood’s Berlin and became friends with the poor and rich alike and everyone in between striving or falling while walking the streets, drinking in dives or going to parties, bordellos and burlesque joints. THE BERLIN STORIES were like moving into a new neighborhood, the lines between familiar and unfamiliar blur and then vanish until it is like you have always been there and can never imagine forgetting what you have seen. The image of each person is so vividly crafted that many of them remain projected in my mind long after their moments upon the page and I was left wondering what happened next in the life of everyone who passed through the stories. At first it bothered me that so many lives dropped from the authors hands without seeming to go anywhere but I came to accept that as part of the point. While the Nazi’s are barely referenced, it is understood that they are always lurking—an inescapable tragedy that will toss millions of lives into the air let alone the relatively few presented here. Few realize that their lives really aren’t going anywhere despite the mad dash of the every day. As each character fell away from the narrative, I could not help but imagine them kind of freezing in place and awaiting the massive wave of WWII much like the main character of Francois Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS who finally manages to run away to the beach only to find he doesn’t know what to do next. As all these lives mount over the course of the two novellas, the power of expectation increases. What will become of all those characters left standing on the shore waiting for that wave to come for them?

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LibraryThing member curious_squid
Two books published together as the Berlin Stories. Written by an Englishman living in Berlin in the years between the wars with Hitler's rise to power in the background of stories of average people of the time.
LibraryThing member JoePhelan
I'm very glad to have read this, and am glad to have read it all the way through. The people, the voices accumulate in such a way that the whole is, as they say, somehow more than the sum of its parts. Had I just read the Sally Bowles sections (I mostly wanted to see where _Cabaret_ came from), I think I would have dismissed it as too light & frivolous—didn't he •see• what was happening? But of course he did see, and the horror and nausea of the lived experience is there. It just grows inevitably.

I think I will be reading more Isherwood.
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