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The Berlin Stories

by Christopher Isherwood

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Berlin Stories (Omnibus 1-2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,879346,333 (3.95)58
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)

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English (33)  Danish (1)  All languages (34)
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
"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. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Apr 14, 2020 |
I will undoubtedly look back on this work as one of the most influential I ever read. Eighty years, the bildungsroman of a young twenty-something writer has not changed as much as one might suppose. ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
I greatly admire Isherwood's ability to sketch a character quite briefly, and in some sense superficially, and yet give you a tremendous sense of their inner life. It reminds me of how certain cartoonists and sketch artists can convey a whole personality in just a few lines, while a precisely detailed oil painting might leave a viewer cold. This is especially true of the Bernhard Landauer character, but even the characters who are portrayed as little more than broad caricatures, always give an impression of deep humanity residing within them, just out of reach.

https://donut-donut.dreamwidth.org/792449.html ( )
  amydross | Oct 27, 2019 |
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?

( )
  KurtWombat | Sep 15, 2019 |
This is a review for both ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ and ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood, two separate but connected books collected in this edition into one volume.

Berlin, before and then during The Fall. There are Nazis on the streets, streets also being stalked by fear and paranoia. Given that there are actual Nazis on the streets, the fear and the paranoia are real, and terribly justified.
Christopher Isherwood recounts both the wider swirling political chaos of the time, a terror that is ensnaring a city, a madness that is engulfing a people, a tyranny that is enslaving a country, but also a deeply personal tale of what it is to be an outsider, both in the sense of being an increasingly unwelcome foreigner in an increasingly zealously racist nation and, oh yes, of being a spy. In this case it is the worst of all possible spies, a spy who acts not from any nationalism of belief, but purely in self interest, ironically losing his identity, his sense of self, in the process.
William Bradshaw, clearly and not so subtly Isherwood’s alter ego, meets Mr Norris, appropriately for a Bradshaw, on a train. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, for Norris is clearly as suspicious a character who ever sported a dodgy syrup, and before long Bradshaw is embroiled in Norris’s life.
The place and era are described so perfectly that it gives the reader chills and sweats simultaneously. Berlin is a city on the very edge of both tremendous change, and the abyss, as the fascists roam the streets in gangs, handing out beatings with the cheery air of thugs who know that they are more likely to be commended than condemned for their actions. It is quite clear that life as Berliners know it is coming to an end. For some, this is a time of celebration, and certainly the Nazis are famed for their torchlight parades, for others, a time of desperation. Germans are witnessing their country’s morality being stolen, piece by piece.
Opposing this national abrogation of decency are various factions, such as the communists, who in the manner of well meaning but slightly sinister political groups everywhere appear to skulk in the upstairs rooms of buildings drafting political statements. It’s either that or form a theatre troupe.
What was obviously needed was a crack squad of trenchermen to occupy the beerkellers, denying the Nazi his natural habitat, down a few dozen lagers and then beat the living crap out of anyone in a brown shirt.
Instead, anyone left leaning opposing the Nazis takes the more traditional option of dividing themselves into different groups and fighting one another, all the while devoting no less than one third of their energy to doomed romances, especially if doing so annoys the leader of a rival group or, better yet, members of your own group.
Isherwood clearly has affection for the city he is writing about and even, oddly, for the era. There is, possibly, just possibly, something about a state of near panic sustained for days and weeks while a city lurches from one crisis to another, the sense of real life suspended, that appeals to a certain character. That character is somebody with a foreign passport and no real ties to the city in question, who can get the hell out of town when things get a little too real. Ever since Empire, Brits have always ventured abroad with the attitude that ‘nothing bad can happen to me, I’m British and a tourist’. This is the ‘just passing through’ attitude taken to its illogical conclusion.
Mr Norris may have a passport as dodgy as his syrup, but his ties to Berlin are much stronger.
There is probably no good time, or bad time, to be involved in espionage. To spy requires one to pretend to be something that one is not, and this is not for everyone. Spying, we are given to understand, is not like am-dram. It is, more than anything else, moral compromise and requires sacrifice of the self. If one believes in a cause or a country, then one may consider the sacrifice worthwhile.
‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ is a compelling novel of a collective move to madness by a people, characterised by a city being overrun by barbarians, and an individual move to desperation by the titular character.
When does society begin to decay?
Not decline, because decline can possibly suggest something far more gentle, far less sinister. Decline can suggest the image of a ruined nuclear power station, now overgrown with lush foliage, reclaimed by nature, on the horizion while in the foreground a water-mill grinds corn for a society that is once again, and quite happily, pre-industrial. Decline can be a civilization that is at its pinnacle, one step away from faster than light space travel, or global annihilation and frankly does not like those odds and so decides ‘sod it, that’s it for advancement, time to take things easy and leave it for future generations to puzzle and marvel at our vast superstructures, ruined skyscrapers, and mistakenly think that we had so very many coffee shops because we indulged in a primitive form of bean worship’.
Decay is different. Decay is rotten. Decay is dangerous.
Maybe a civilization, a society, decays when it is over-ripe, decadent.
A society that is overtly decadent can be mistaken for a society that is weak, and where there is weakness in society there is always some idiot that fancies himself the strong man who will show people how things should be done. Where there are people who are enjoying themselves, there are always those who consider that they are enjoying themselves in the wrong way, or too much, or more than the resentful killjoys who just don’t like a bit of subversive fun.
In ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, Christopher Isherwood records both decline and decay.
The decline is of normality. The book is a collection of stories that are scenes of life in Berlin in the 1930s. Inevitably, the Nazis spoil the fun.
There is a slow creep of horror here. The reader knows what’s going to happen, knows what happened to that city, that country, at that time, an age which has been described as a collective madness gripping a nation is shown here with some embracing that madness rather than being gripped by it, with terrible consequences for ordinary Berliners, and particularly dire consequences for any resident of that city slightly out of the ordinary which at that time meant, basically, ‘not a Nazi’.
So there is the decline of morality and society and civilization, because of the very decay that the Nazis represent. They are the rot, putting an end to what some might perceive as decadent, but what others might consider liberated, and liberating.
This is an immensely thought provoking, and somewhat disturbing, book. It records a dark chapter in the history of humanity and the contrast between the vivacious characters, even if they are slightly desperate, and the dark forces that are encircling them could not be greater. Moreover it shows just how easily, just how incrementally, the unthinkable can happen, how by labelling something as decedent, as other, as unnatural, the persecution of those groups can be justified by those who think they are in the right.
That is not to say that the lives that the characters in the stories lead are blameless, or perfect. They are flawed in their own ways, and all too human in their own ways. Their society is not perfect, far from it, but it does not deserve to be ended with such brutality, such stealthy brutality, an invasion from within, goosestep by goosestep slowly eroding freedoms, rights, then expectations and even hopes.
Those that are just that little bit different, that little bit exotic, that little bit, or even quit a lot, interesting can, when society is becoming twisted, be not different but dangerous, not exotic but threatening, not interesting but other and so become marginalised and alienated when it is not they that are the alien or to be feared, but their society that in decay has become alien.
This, then, is a record of a society that never got the chance to decline, as the decay set in first. Not a perfect society by any means, there is fun, sometimes a bit desperate, not always harmless, but by no means as harmful as that which threatens to end the way of life of the characters, slowly squeezing the fun, and difference, and decency, from Berlin. ( )
  macnabbs | Aug 28, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Christopher Isherwoodprimary authorall editionscalculated
Maupin, ArmisteadIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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for W. H. Auden (The Last of Mr. Norris)
to John & Beatrix Lehmann (Goodbye to Berlin)
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My first impression was that the stranger's eyes were of an unusually light blue.
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Both the UK and US versions of the title (Mr Norris Changes Trains & The Last of Mr Norris) are combined in this work when coupled with Goodbye to Berlin.
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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.

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