Thursday, June 22, 2006

Elegiac Memoir

Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood, Read by Michael York, BBC Audiobooks America, 2004

Much like what many people think of Henry Miller, Christopher Isherwood is often accused of writing autobiographies and passing them off as fictions. This is because his writings, most specifically The Berlin Stories and some of his novelized accounts of his family are so closely related to his life. True Isherwood writes the kind of autobiographical fictions most exemplified by Miller, novels featuring a kind of character based on the author, sharing many of the features of the author (including name and biography), but not exactly the author.

This can be a trifle confusing to people who aren’t inclined to give an author a certain kind of leeway — and can in these days be considered an even more precarious position when we behold modern day similarities such as the scandal involving A Million Little Pieces, James Frey’s own little autobiographical fiction.

The difference is, of course, that both Isherwood’s and Miller’s books were not marketed, sold, and read as though these were tell-all memoirs. Perhaps the last one in that list is a little iffy, but there was no conscious wide-scale campaign to convince anyone that they had bought anything other than fiction. If that fiction should run parallel to fact for some long stretch, that’s no indication that the reader should expect it to do so all the way to the horizon. Maybe books of this kind should have bolder disclaimers on their covers or at every fifth page to discourage such lazy and/or ignorant readings, but the public really needs to get out of the habit of this expectation.

Nevertheless, Isherwood is frequently lauded for his style, which seen today in light of everything which came after as well as contemporaneously, seems less revelatory. After the musty ancient styles of E.M. Forester and Henry James, Isherwood’s rather clear prose cut through the London fog like a British Hemingway — only without all the hunting and macho affectation. He has a generally passionless precision that reminds one at times of Orwell, yet without any overwhelming social sense.

Which is not to say Goodbye to Berlin exists in some timeless vacuum. Isherwood is all too aware of the rising Nazi madness that would soon take over Germany and at times, in some stories he goes out of his way to court Jewish friends and acquaintances as if in spite of Hitler and his ilk. There is an elegiac tone throughout the book, a collection of stories often called either as such or dubbed a novel, though at times it’s hard to discover if Isherwood’s greatest heartbreak is for his interesting bohemian lifestyle coming to its end or for the collective tragedy he seems all too aware is cresting the horizon.

The story “The Landauers,” opens with Nazism as it breaks out into public acceptability, though it had been fomenting as a political force for some time. The Landauer family relationship between the mother and daughter, Natalia, is presented as a remarkable contrast between an earlier German family presented in the preceding story “The Nowaks.” The two families are presented in this fashion, back to back, as such to provide a clear demonstration that German myths of the respectability of good Teutonic stock in comparison to the filthiness of Jewish blood were just that — ridiculous myths.

The Nowaks are a disturbed family, poor but boisterous, constantly bickering, slapping each other’s faces, teasing and tormenting one another. Isherwood became friends with the younger son, Otto, a beautiful waster of ambivalent sexuality, who he met at a beach resort engaged in a kind of repressed homosexual friendship with another young man, Peter. The Nowak father drinks beer to excess and mocks everyone, the head of the home a kind of deranged prototype for German disintegration. The family does decay, the eldest “respectable” son joins the Nazis, the mother committed to a sanatorium, Otto is a parasite who attaches himself to a woman with money after his failed suicide attempt, and the young daughter is a sluggish giggling fool.

Compare that with the Laundauers. The family runs a department store in town. The daughter is respectful, the parents love each other, and everyone has much equanimity. The family is industrious and decent. Books are on abundant display in the home and Isherwood engages in deep conversations on literature and philosophy first with Natalia and then later with her brother Bernhard who is a manager at the store, though it is Bernhard who seems in the face of everything to believe the most in the myth of German decency.

These two stories represent a kind of pivot in the collection about which all the other events and characters revolve. These two families when set side by side record the competing order and disorder of pre-war Germany, though Isherwood records them in direct contradiction to the prevailing propaganda almost before the propaganda has much spread.

How prescient “The Landauers” reads: “I thought of Natalia. She has escaped, none too soon perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.” The story ends on the frighteningly straightforward conversation between two men at a coffee shop about concentration camps and the liquidation of Jews. Published in 1939, Isherwood’s collection is a damning repudiation to all who would excuse the German populace as ignorant of what was taking place. It was enough in the air that an English homosexual aesthete clearly understood it well before the first concentration camp was erected.

Which is not to say that Isherwood’s story-novel focuses itself primarily on matters political. Rather, the book reads more as a sociological recording of the lives of interesting people who cross narrator Isherwood’s path, as well as at times a rather poignant examination of his own concurrent malaise. Through various teaching jobs, through the ups and downs in his relationship with the flamboyant, flakey, and fast-living Sally Bowles, and through his various changes in residence throughout the book, Isherwood’s melancholy prose carries with it a kind of bitter humor.

Where in another ten years shall I be myself? Certainly not here. How many seas and frontiers shall I have to cross to reach that distant day? How far shall I have to travel on foot, on horseback, by car, pushbike, aeroplane, steamer, train, lift, moving staircase, and tram? How much money shall I need for that enormous journey? How much food shall I gradually, wearily consume on my way? How many pairs of shoes shall I wear out? How many thousands of cigarettes shall I smoke? How many cups of tea shall I drink? And how many glasses of beer? What an awful, tasteless prospect. And yet, to have to die... A sudden vague pang of apprehension grips my bowels, and I have to excuse myself in order to go to the lavatory.

In one’s own physical and spiritual exhaustion, who among us have not felt very much the same sentiments, the same sense of hopeless churning numberless repetition of day after day after day? Who can read that passage and not, in a weak moment, cringe?

While an outsized attention has been paid to the character of Sally Bowles, a kind of proto-Holly Golightly, partly from her being an actress and having an actress’ flair for dramatizing her life and partly from the play I Am a Camera and the musical Cabaret (both centering on her), the novel’s central figure remains Isherwood. Isherwood the observer, Isherwood the camera, Isherwood the journalist, Isherwood the diarist. Like a camera, he is very blunt and straightforward in his telling, but unlike a camera, he is not a silent recorder of activity alone. His laments, like the one above, ring out through the book, as well as his judgments. And though he may forgive Sally for her coquettishness and her rudeness, he sets these pieces down, like he sets down the sins and foibles of his landlady and her tenants and German diners and all the alcoholics and bums and boys. He sets them down, he records them for just such a reckoning, so that the record will show clearly all.

It may not be autobiography, but it is damned true.

Reader Michael York, who came to prominence actually as part of Cabaret, has one of those buttery smooth voices with just a hint of whisper, a sweet English accent that makes it almost impossible to speed up the recording to my own reading pace, as I normally do. Instead, I luxuriated in his tones and searched library catalogs desperately for the companion volume to this, The Last of Mr. Norris. Alas, it was not to be.

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