The Damned

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I Could Show You Memories to Rival Berlin in the ’30s: Christopher Isherwood and ‘The Berlin Stories’

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“I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” The year is 1930, and Christopher Isherwood, writing his “Berlin Diary,” is looking out his window at the “dirty plaster frontages” of houses “crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.” Which depending on your perspective may or may not sound disturbingly familiar 80 years later, as we too confront a society that seems plagued by a kind of decadence and political turmoil that makes the future feel very precarious, to say the least.

Obviously there are big differences between 1930s Berlin and the present state of affairs in say, New York City; in descriptions of Isherwood’s society (not that he ever used the word himself, as far I can tell), “decadence” is generally understood to refer to the let’s just say “adventurous” sexual mores that fell (and pretty much still fall) far outside the mainstream, to the transvestites, prostitutes, and burlesque performers who scraped out an existence in the underbelly of Berlin, whereas today’s brand of decadence seems more aptly to describe the material excesses of an upper class who think nothing of for example spending thousands of dollars on shoes while the rest of the country reels from debt and unemployment. Another difference is that we don’t have Nazis running around terrorizing the city (or at least not yet, lol?), whereas by the time Isherwood was writing, political strife in Berlin had already reached a point where the gangs of (unemployed) thugs who helped bring Hitler to power were regularly beating up (or worse) the Jews and communists who had the misfortune of attracting their attention.

Which leaving aside the question of exactly where (politically speaking) we are now in relation to where we were then nevertheless raises some interesting or troubling questions for writers like Isherwood who might also think of themselves as a camera, recording with political ambivalence, to present the world around us with an objective truth or at least the sheen of truth, to the extent that such a thing could be said to exist. If we look at The Berlin Stories for guidance, there are several moments when Isherwood and those he romanticizes come off as ignorant or cruel, for example when Isherwood describes a day on the verge of “Hitler’s summer” when his “street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky.”

I mean yeah, no.

Or when Arthur Norris repeatedly makes a joke about living in “stirring times, tea-stirring times,” as he sits down to a cup of tea with the narrator (Isherwood). Or when the young cabaret performer Sally Bowles looks out her window at the passing funeral cortege for German Chancellor Hermann Muller without a clue who he was: “I guess he must have been a big swell?” says her American friend, and Isherwood, also present, agrees: “We had nothing to do with those Germans down there, marching, or the dead man in the coffin, or with the words on the banners.”

Speaking of cameras in 1930s Berlin, it’s worth nothing that the German philosopher/literary critic/mystic/Marxist romantic Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [pdf] — about the use of film as propaganda by fascist governments — in 1936, which at first glance might seem to serve as a rebuke to Isherwood and a warning to those who would follow his path. A closer examination of The Berlin Stories, however, and despite the above examples of political ambivalence, reveals Isherwood’s camera metaphor to be not quite as facile as it may appear. For starters, while Isherwood may have not been fighting the Nazis, he certainly didn’t like them. He feels “green around the gills” when he learns about the torture and death of an acquaintance at the hands of the Nazis, and he goes out of his way to befriend a Jewish family (the Landauers) in the wake of an anti-Jewish demonstration by some “Nazi roughs” who “smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops.” Most of the Nazi sympathizers in the book are presented as unthinking idiots or hooligans, if not monsters.

A more interesting question to ask about Isherwood, I think, is whether we can take his statement about being a camera at face value, or whether, like so much else in the book, it should be understood to be a lie or at least a stretching of the truth to serve his own purposes. The most enduring of Isherwood’s subjects is of course Sally Bowles, the inspiration for the character played with such unwavering and at times unnerving effervescence by Liza Minnelli in the film version of Cabaret. Sally, who is British in the book, is a 19-year-old singer who makes no bones about her willingness to sleep with anyone if it will help her career. She is also a relentless liar; Isherwood describes an outing where Sally “told some really startling lies, which she obviously for the moment half-believed, about how she’d appeared at the Palladium and the London Coliseum.”

Isherwood idolizes Sally and becomes briefly infatuated with her, although in the book, unlike the stage and film adaptations, there is never any romantic interest for obvious if never-quite-made-explicit reasons. She tells him that he “understands women…better than any man she’s ever met” (which as we’ll discuss in a moment is a clue to what I think is really going on with Isherwood) — and he helps her to get an abortion. He only once loses patience with her when she convinces him to write an article on her behalf and declares it unworthy, “not snappy enough” for her needs, but he forgives her a few days later after she is swindled by a young con he introduced her to. “People who never get taken in are so dreary,” Sally concludes in the last conversation she has with Isherwood before disappearing from his life forever.

The other liar we meet is Arthur Norris, the effete dandy who is the subject of “The Last of Mr. Norris,” or the first half of The Berlin Stories. Like Isherwood, Norris is a British ex-pat who (unlike Isherwood) we eventually learn is involved in all sorts of nefarious activities, including the buying and selling of secrets between the French government and the German communists. He blows whatever money he makes on anything from expensive wigs to silk underwear to gourmet dinners to three-times weekly visits from a sadistic prostitute/role-playing-schoolmistress who spanks him. With equal parts compassion and curiosity, Isherwood is slowly drawn into Arthur’s world in ways that have the potential to be quite dangerous (Arthur generally operating well beyond the line of legality and thus drawing the attention of the authorities).

The point being, to understand Isherwood is to understand his infatuation with liars, which — returning to the camera metaphor — I think makes it reasonable to ask whether he himself was lying, or at least half-lying in a way he could find almost believable.

The question then becomes exactly what is he lying about and why do we as readers long to be taken in?

Throughout The Berlin Stories, Isherwood employs a kind of code in which he alludes to non-heterosexuals (like himself, not unimportantly) without ever explicitly stating what’s going on. Arthur Norris, for example, is “more like a lady than a gentleman,” remarks the landlady of their apartment, while boys are referred to as “delicate,” or — by a right-wing/Nazi-sympathizer doctor whom Isherwood strongly dislikes — as “degenerates” who “always revert” and who should be “put into labor camps.” This conversation, incidentally, occurs in the middle of a story in which Isherwood and two younger men — one clearly very much in love with the other, but in ways that leave the physical side of the affair to the imagination — spend a summer together in a house at the beach. There are similar references throughout the book to what readers can understand to be “gay bars” — or at least bars frequented by gays — and “gay cruising areas” such as public urinals and deserted park tunnels.

The only characters Isherwood takes no pain to shield from the homosexual spotlight are those who are either Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Arthur tries to “set up” Isherwood with a rich baron/Nazi whom we meet early on at a party, where he is on a couch in “the embrace of a powerful youth in a boxer’s sweater.” The baron next invites Arthur and the narrator (Isherwood) to his summer house, which “was full of handsome young men with superbly developed brown bodies which they smeared in oil and baked for hours in the sun.” Ridiculously, the baron is also infatuated with vaguely pornographic books about young men on desert islands. Eventually the baron becomes obsessed with a Nazi youth with a complete lack of interest in “finding a girl,” but who is comfortable complaining about Europeans “with no national pride, mix[ing] with a lot of Jews who were ruining their countries.”

Isherwood, by the way, was hardly the only one to note the prevalence of not-really-closeted homosexuals in the ranks of the Nazis, particularly among the ranks of the Brownshirts under the leadership of Ernst Röhm, whom Hitler dispatched in the infamous purge, “The Night of the Long Knives.” On this subject, and as a possibly even more disturbing counterpart to Cabaret, it’s worth watching Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned, which shows the summer-camp orgies of the Brownshirts followed by the execution of Röhm and his like-minded subordinates.

What’s remarkable about homosexuality in The Berlin Stories is the pervasive but diffuse quality it takes on in Isherwood’s world. It’s this feature of the book where his statement about being a “camera” becomes most disingenuous but interesting, in the same manner of his most compelling characters. Near the end of the novel, Isherwood becomes friends with Bernhard Landauer, said by his cousin to be “a strange man,” and who is described by Isherwood as “over-civilized, prim…soft.” (Or in short, gay.) Like Isherwood, Bernhard presents a troublingly passive nature with respect to the political problems in his country — as a rich Jewish business owner, he regularly receives death threats — but at the same time, he is a character with whom Isherwood (ironically enough) expresses a revealing frustration. “Bernhard told stories very well,” Isherwood writes, “But…why does he treat me like a child? He is sympathetic and charming [but] he is not going to tell me what he is really thinking or feeling, and he despises me because I do not know. He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him. And because I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him.”

It is this paragraph, I think, that perfectly describes our relationship as readers to Isherwood’s narrator. Like Bernhard, he is good at telling stories, he is sympathetic and charming, but there is a limit to how far he can go, and it’s clearly stretching the truth to say he would “gladly share his thoughts and sensations with forty million people,” when he has spent an entire book doing the opposite, or at least working more with innuendo and code than openly expressing himself. This point, I should add, is not at all meant to be a criticism of Isherwood, but rather a measure of his genius in writing about subjects that were (and to some extent still are) considered illicit or worse — for example homosexuality was still illegal in England in the 1930s — while giving readers the keys to understanding what he was doing, and what he meant to accomplish.

Far from being “passive,” Isherwood actually walks a very fine or you might say “delicate” line between divulging just enough to get his point across — namely, that gays were worthy of being written about — while leaving out anything that could have landed him in hot water. Not everyone appreciated Isherwood’s balancing act; in the Time magazine review of the book from 1935, the reviewer states that with regard to Isherwood’s story about Arthur Norris, “This portrait of an old rapscallion is satire too cold to be amusing; it is written with the analytic distaste of one who watches without pity the dwindling of a pathologically older generation.”

What the reviewer failed to understand is that Isherwood’s coldness — his aloof ambivalence — was mostly an act, which is something we are finally in a better position to appreciate 75 or so years after the fact.

“I could show you memories to rival Berlin in the thirties,” is a lyric from a Jonathan Richman song — “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” — later covered by Galaxie 500. It’s a line I thought about quite a bit as I reread The Berlin Stories, because Richman, like Isherwood, transforms a reference to political turmoil into what is better understood not as ambivalence, but as psychological insight and trauma.

Isherwood may have been a camera in certain ways, and was definitely an outsider in many others — a non-German, a non-Communist, a non-Jew, a non-heterosexual — but he manages to convey a psychic pain that continues to reverberate through the work of many writers who (whether we like to think about it or not) are still immersed in battles for political and social acceptance. He writes with a masterful bitterness, or what you might call a passive aggression, one that manages to feel disconnected from (yet critical of) the world in which he lives, and for this reason very contemporary.

Bonus Link: The Berlin Stories: A Book for Year’s End

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