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The Berlin Stories (1945)

by Christopher Isherwood

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Berlin Stories (Omnibus 1-2)

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2,166417,239 (3.93)65
A two-in-one volume containing the works The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin finds the characters of Sally Bowles, Fra?ulein Schroeder, and the doomed Landauers caught up by the nightlife, danger, and mystique of 1931 Berlin.
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» See also 65 mentions

English (40)  Danish (1)  All languages (41)
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
I intended to write separate reviews of the two novels which comprise The Berlin Stories but having read them—and about them—I think they should be treated as one book (which is, incidentally, how I purchased them).

The first half of The Berlin Stories, titled Mr. Norris Changes Trains, is one of those books you read feeling like you're missing out on critical points because it's written in a code that isn't explained. There are many references to concurrent historical events that Christopher Isherwood assumed were familiar to anyone reading his story. This might have been true in the 1950s; I doubt that today's readers know who the S.A. or Brown Shirts were or are grounded in the significance of hyperinflation which existed during the novel's timeline. Even the concept of changing trains goes unexplained.

My other observation is that not much happens in the first two-thirds of the story. William Bradshaw, the narrator, writes eloquently and engagingly about his interactions with the mysterious and suspicion-worthy Mr. Norris, mostly consisting of dinners and conversations and introductions to other mysterious characters. But this section feels more like scenery than plot.

Then Norris finagles Bradshaw into a nefarious, inadequately explained intrigue, and all the previous mysteries are clarified in a rush of action and information. The novel ends with the haphazard, unresolved fate of Mr. Norris. And you find yourself asking, "what was that all about?"

The second half, titled Goodbye to Berlin, is more a series of character sketches than a novel. Like Martin Amis' Money, which I recently read and reviewed, Isherwood injects himself into the book as a character, a literary device which makes me question whether this is a memoir rather than a novel.

The characters who people this book are interesting, as are the historical events. There are political discussions with Nazis, such as two likely Hitler Youth about their alleged preparations for war, to which they protest that Hitler is for peace. A precursor to Kristallnacht happens, as does the burning of the Reichstag. Knowing the truth behind these events will deepen your appreciation of the book and the people trapped in Hitler's rise to power.

The one element of The Berlin Stories that rendered both halves incoherent at times was its reluctance to openly confirm the male characters' homosexuality. I understand that this is how books had to be written at the time, but it was never made clear that one of Isherwood's two housemates on Rugen Island was bisexual, and his interest in dancing with girls and a female schoolteacher made me question whether I understood what was going on between the two men. The relationship between Bradshaw and Norris is equally nebulous; in fact, Isherwood at times portrays Bradshaw as heterosexual. This lack of clarity on his true nature made me wonder how I would have viewed the novel had I been unaware while reading it that Isherwood was gay.

On the whole, The Berlin Stories is an interesting read, although I wouldn't include it on a list of the best books I ever read or consider it a must-read. My three-star-rating is the blending of two and a half for Mr. Norris Changes Trains and three and a half for its companion. ( )
  skavlanj | Feb 8, 2024 |
Not a review.
This is yet another book I've read in parts and excerpts over so many years that I feel a nostalgia for the characters even in the pieces I hadn't read.
My copy of the book holds an inscription made out to my father, in Berlin, in the early 1980s. The first time I read one of these stories was also in Berlin, after talking to a man who told me stories of my dad crossing the Wall. I love how this city connects us, how easily and terrifyingly it could have been our home. ( )
  Kiramke | Jun 27, 2023 |
OK stories I read a long time ago. Saw film: "I am a Camera" first, which led to it. "Cabaret" based on these stories. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
The Berlin Stories is two novels set in Berlin in the early 1930s. It is between world wars, and the citizens of Berlin are somewhat complacent about the Nazis. However, the Communist party and the Nazis compete for allegiance, and there is a subtle foreshadowing of the coming world events. Still, most Berlin citizens are living life as usual, nonchalantly expecting life to continue as it had in the past.

Chris Isherwood, the author, inserts himself in the second story, Goodbye to Berlin, and it becomes apparent that the stories are semi-autobiographical. In the first story, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Isherwood creates a character that represents himself, Bill Bradshaw. It was inappropriate when these novels were published to speak of homosexuality. So, Isherwood, an openly gay man, used many “code” words or euphemisms to describe his gayness. He cleverly described his friends and those who frequented the gay bars of the day without ever using expressions that would be forbidden.

The Berlin Stories is best known for the character Sally Bowles, who inspired the musical stage show and movie Cabaret.
  LindaLoretz | Oct 27, 2022 |
The problem with most of these stories is that Isherwood casts himself as a complete outsider, so that his main character stands awkwardly on the verge of being an active participant in the action but almost always ends up a passive observer. When the main character speaks of good friends like Otto or Arthur, I never get a sense that those relationships are really as strong as the character says, and the interactions that the reader does glimpse really don't portray these friendships in the most believable light. A symptom of this deficiency is the main character's sexuality -- or lack of one. It seems that beyond concealing Bradshaw's/Isherwood's personality, Isherwood buries any sexual/romantic feelings he may have, too. Or perhaps that's where the root of the problem begins?

But the character's exacting, saucy narration and observations were still fun to read. Isherwood's description of people and places, though simple in style, conveyed a sense of reality that's hard to shake off, and with sarcasm to boot. His characterization of particular people especially -- like Sally Bowles, whom I loved, though I'm biased as a Cabaret fan -- riveted. On the other hand, I really disliked the Otto and Peter parts, which I slogged through, and thought represented Isherwood at his weakest. Were they shameful gay lovers, perhaps? I couldn't tell.

At his strongest, Isherwood reveals a world especially fraught with identity conflicts. That he picked one of the most interesting turning points in history at its epicenter -- the late Weimar Republic as it began to transition into the Nazi dictatorship, with the enfeebled German population compelled to choose between Nazism, communism and, to a much smaller degree, democracy -- only emboldened his sense of setting and character. Perhaps his ability to set his characters in this historical milieu is where he shines most. ( )
  Gadi_Cohen | Sep 22, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Christopher Isherwoodprimary authorall editionscalculated
Maupin, ArmisteadIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dedication
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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
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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Wikipedia in English (3)

A two-in-one volume containing the works The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin finds the characters of Sally Bowles, Fra?ulein Schroeder, and the doomed Landauers caught up by the nightlife, danger, and mystique of 1931 Berlin.

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