Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

Author: Christopher Isherwood

At the end of this article, please find discussion questions. 

Christopher Isherwood was a famous British gay writer of the twentieth century who lived in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s. Although Isherwood was proudly gay, he did not feel that he could include a gay narrator in his novels and still get them published. Hence, in Goodbye to Berlin, the narrator is also named Christopher Isherwood, but this character’s sexual identity is unclear. Despite this ambiguity, the queer innuendo in this book is strong. In fact, the innuendo is strong enough that it influenced queer authors such as Truman Capote and Armistead Maupin.

As the title suggests, Goodbye to Berlin is a story of a British expatriate’s years in Berlin in the early 1930s before he ultimately returns to Britain. The book is a series of vignettes told in different chapters, allowing the narrator to communicate with an eccentric cast of characters. Below I provide brief plot descriptions and queer aspects in each chapter.

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)

This first chapter establishes the setting and characters. Having graduated from university in Britain, young Chris arrives in Berlin and teaches English in private lessons. One of his clients is Hippi Bernstein, a nineteen-year-old woman from a wealthy Jewish family. Chris seems to have communist leanings, and the anti-Semitism in Germany bewilders him. Chris lives in a room in a flat owned by Fraulein Schroeder, a middle-aged woman. Other boarders in the flat include a prostitute, a yodeler, and a bartender. 

Sally Bowles

This is the most interesting chapter, and it is the inspiration for the musical Cabaret. Through a mutual friend, Chris meets Sally Bowles, a dynamic young woman who is a force of nature. However, unlike Liza Minelli’s depiction of this character in the film version, Sally is British and she has very little musical talent. In fact, most of the action takes place outside of clubs and bars. Sally and Chris become close friends, and Chris assists Sally with gold-digging, helping her to take advantage of rich gentlemen callers. He even assists Sally as she gets an abortion. Sally is very similar to Audrey Hepburn’s depiction of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sally’s friendship with Chris is similar to those that frequently exist between straight women and gay men. 

On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)

Chris goes to Ruegen Island on the Baltic Sea and shares a house with Peter and Otto. Peter is a wealthy British man the same age as Chris who has suffered nervous breakdowns. After trying to talk out his problems with a prostitute and an analyst, Peter finally finds Otto, a handsome German seventeen-year-old boy. Peter pays Otto a daily fee simply to talk to him about his anxieties. Peter is clearly obsessed with Otto, and the former becomes quite jealous of the latter when Otto shows increasing interest in the young women on the island. Chris meets a young doctor on the island who comments on the toxic relationship between Peter and Otto. The doctor labels Peter as a degenerate, and it is quite clear that Peter is an anguished queer man. Of course, in the end Otto leaves Peter forever after the two bicker and Otto steals from Peter.

The Nowaks

After returning to Berlin, Chris goes to live with Otto and his family in a crowded flat. Though Otto shows much interest in girls on Ruegen Island, he shows an abiding affection for Chris that sometimes seems homoerotic. For example, Otto exercises without wearing clothes in front of Chris, and he flexes his muscles for him. Nevertheless, Otto continues to date women. After Otto’s ill mother enters a sanatorium, Otto and Chris visit her, and they also meet two young female patients named Erna and Erika. While Otto and Erika are smitten with each other, Chris seems very indifferent to emaciated Erna. Otto and Erika fool around with each other while Chris lets his mouth press against Erna’s “hot, dry lips” in an encounter that lacks any passion or romance. In fact, Chris says, “I had no particular sensation of contact.” Again, Chris is neither overtly homosexual or heterosexual. 

The Landauers

With anti-Semitism waxing in Germany, Chris is inspired to become friends with the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who owns a chain of department stores. At first he socializes with Natalia Landauer, a vibrant, strong-minded eighteen-year-old woman. Then he spends most of his time with Bernhard Landauer, Natalia’s cousin. Though it is never made clear, Chris engages in a sort of romance with Bernhard that involves flirtation, mind games, and intimate discussions. In a homoerotic scene, it is suggested that Chris may consummate his seeming desire for Bernhard when Bernhard invites him to stay the night. In addition, Bernhard invites Chris to run away to China to live with him. Though Chris at first thinks that Bernhard is joking, he later believes that Bernhard is serious. Through eavesdropping on a conversation between two businessmen, Chris later learns that Bernhard dies of heart failure. The two businessmen believe that the stated cause of death is a coverup for the Nazis’s assassination of Bernhard. 

A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)

As Chris concludes his stay in Berlin, he observes interactions with both communists and Nazis. One communist he meets is named Rudi. Rudi enjoys wearing Russian blouses and short leather shorts. In addition, Rudi enjoys being around half-naked men. This chapter also sees Chris very comfortable at what seems to be a drag show in a bar that caters to straight audiences.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the relationship between Chris and Hippi. What does their relationship tell us about Chris?
  2. Why do Sally and Chris become good friends? What are the challenges in their friendship? Why do you think they are never romantic?
  3. How is Peter different from the other men in this chapter? Is Chris more sympathetic to Peter or Otto? Why do you think so?
  4. How do Chris and Otto express their sexuality differently? What aspects of this chapter are homoerotic?
  5. How is Bernhard a queer character? What examples from the story indicate his queerness?
  6. Why do you think Christopher imagines Rudi being tortured to death?

Reference

Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New Directions Pub, 2008.

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