When I graduated from high school, my English teacher and advisor gave me The Berlin Stories, a New Directions paperback, with a note inside. The note said the book seemed right for me. It was written on the back of a Wallace Stevens poem.
I was very lucky, and I had a great many fine teachers in high school. But this teacher glowered and stalked and had an ancient cat. He assigned The Whitsun Weddings. He was empathetic and caustic and kind. I was a difficult student (a terrible student), but he was always on my side. I think of him often.
Largely because of this teacher, Philip Larkin is the only poet for me. Philip Larkin puts his finger in an aching, adolescent spot and presses just hard enough to leave one with a lingering delicious pain. Even so, I love that Wallace Stevens poem, the one tucked inside my graduation gift. It’s called “The Poems of Our Climate.” Here’s how it goes:
Clear water in a brilliantbowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
A the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations–one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged.
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
I’m so impatient, I’m a bad reader of poetry. I read poems like I read novels, rushing to find out what happens. A poem is what happens, though, and I usually arrive at the end of one breathless and flummoxed. It’s like sprinting to the flight gate, heart bursting, only to find you’ve got the wrong day. The wrong month, even. So I read this poem a number of times before I understood that it had been written especially for me.
I keep the note inside the book. They go together. They go together because I got them together and because “The imperfect is our paradise” could be the book’s epigraph. It would make a hell of an epitaph, too.
The Berlin Stories is two short novels, published separately in the 1930s. New Directions put them together in 1945. It was an inspired pairing. The novels support one another. Together they flesh out the world Isherwood describes: Berlin of the very early 1930s, imperfect in the extreme, but a paradise for Isherwood’s hitherto uneven talent.
The first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is an affectionate panegyric to an old reprobate. Mr. Norris is into petty crime, BDSM, and poorly written porn. He wears an almost-convincing wig, and has two doors to his apartment: “Arthur Norris. Private” and “Arthus Norris. Import Export.” A most unlikely communist, he’s also an inveterate double-crosser, fooling no one but himself (and, sometimes, Isherwood). The details the novel provides about the Communist Party of the period are interesting, but mostly they lend to the farcical aspect of Isherwood’s story. It’s almost as silly as Travels With my Aunt, but it feels real. Perhaps it is.
Goodbye to Berlin provides fine counterbalance. Its subject is the city, as it was gearing up to participate in one of civilization’s greatest horrors. On the first page Isherwood tells us, in an rare meta moment, “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.”
This novel is something like the first cantos of Inferno. Pre-war Berlin is the outskirts of hell, and its people, through Isherwood’s lens, are its lesser sinners–the lustful, the slothful, the avaricious. In the Nowaks’ cramped attic flat, Isherwood seems literally to inhabit a part of hell, what with the suffocating stove and the freezing draughts, Frau Nowak coughing out her lungs, fat Grete and piggish Otto and Nazi Lothar and Isherwood’s suspicious rash and the sounds of the tenement all around him. They eat lung hash, cooked by the consumptive Frau. I don’t know what lung hash is, but it sounds like hell. Even Bernard Landauer, the doomed department store scion, is something out of the first circle–a gentle, urbane philosopher, damned only for falling outside Jesus’ jurisdiction.
Like Dante writing Inferno, Isherwood knew the worst as he wrote. If Otto and Peter and Sally Bowles (later of Cabaret fame) are Isherwood’s lesser criminals, there are intimations of the coming inner circles: the violent, the treacherous, the Devil himself. Isherwood left Berlin in ’33. The writing was on the wall.
But for all that these stories anticipate an onslaught of death, they celebrate life. Isherwood celebrates the lowlifes of Berlin, the bizarre modes of sex and romance, the vicissitudes of fortune, the indignities of poverty, the shabby glamor of his writer’s life. I love when he gets a five mark piece from a wealthy pupil, tosses it in the air to celebrate, drops it, and scrambles to find it in a pile of sand. I like how he goes to bed drunk and worries about his rash. I like how he speaks German and listens to his landlady lament her large bosom.
I read this book every year. It is a good book for the end of December. It is piquant and sad, like New Year’s Eve. Bittersweet is not the right word, it’s too pat and saccharine for Isherwood and for this Berlin. When I began to think about the book for this essay, I wondered if there is something awful in enjoying a story that heralds the death of millions. But I don’t think of it as a holocaust novel. (It’s my privilege not to, I understand; it was Isherwood’s privilege to leave Berlin, too.)
No, I think of it as marking time. It’s about storytelling and memory, for all it is about hell. It is a story about time and how it passes, and it reminds me of time that has passed. Isherwood used his story to call out to friends long-disappeared, to remember a part of his life that was gone. It was a way to remember a time when everything was uncertain, and better for that uncertainty. The worse had yet to happen.
This book is one of my most treasured gifts. For me it is the dear memory of that teacher, and leaving school, and leaving adolescence. When I first read it, this book was a harbinger of freedom, even if freedom turned out to be different than I expected.
I can’t say it right, what it means to me. The imperfect is so hot in me, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.