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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Better Angel (1933)

Author: Forman Brown (originally published under the pseudonym Richard Meeker)

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

Better Angel is overt and honest in its queerness. It is miraculous that Forman Brown was able to publish this book in the 1930s, even if he did so under the pseudonym Richard Meeker. This novel is largely autobiographical, and each of the main characters (Kurt, Derry, David, Chloe, and Tony) is based on a real person. Brown is the basis for Kurt, and he had a long relationship with the man who is the basis for David’s character. In fact, Brown describes this man, Richard Brandon, as the “one great love” of his life. With Brandon and Harry Burnett, who is the basis for Derry, Brown established the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre. The Turnabout Theatre performed marionette shows and live revues. Brown even wrote songs for famous performers, such as Sophie Tucker, Elsa Lanchester, and Bette Midler.

What is the plot of this novel?

As the novel opens, the reader meets the protagonist Kurt Gray when he is a young boy in the small town of Barton, Michigan. While other boys enjoy playing sports, Kurt enjoys reading books and playing make-believe. The other boys taunt him for his unusual interests, but his mother encourages him to be different and be a leader. 

The action skips ahead to Kurt at the age of thirteen, when he and another boy see each other naked as a result of escalating dares. In a game of hide and seek, another boy almost succeeds in sexually assaulting Kurt.

As Kurt gets older and he becomes more unsure of his feelings for other boys, he feels guilty about masturbating and having unspecified sexual dreams. His prayers seem to be answered when a revival comes to town. As Kurt’s parents are church leaders, Kurt attends the revival sessions and hears about the evils of gambling and masturbation. 

The revival eventually leaves town, at least momentarily, and Kurt receives an uneventful high school education. He’s part of a strong social group, and he plays the organ for his church.

After high school, Kurt goes to the state university in Ann Arbor. He initially boards with an older woman that his parents vaguely know. Once Kurt meets a girl named Chloe in one of his classes, the two became fast friends. He moves into her house, where her mother and younger brother Derry also live. Kurt spends a lot of time with Derry, and the two have an affair. Despite becoming infatuated with Derry, Kurt fears that Derry’s distant and moody temperament is not ideal for a relationship.

Upon graduation, Kurt decides to pursue a career in music and songwriting. Before doing so, he spends the summer with his parents in Barton, corresponding with Derry through letters. In one letter, Kurt tells Derry that he loves him. Kurt becomes jealous when Derry writes to tell him that he is spending a lot of time with another student named David. 

Kurt returns to Ann Arbor for the wedding of Chloe to Roy, a college classmate that she does not really love. Kurt anxiously awaits seeing Derry, and he dreads seeing David, believing him to be Derry’s lover. Derry claims that his house is too crowded with house guests, and he has Kurt stay with David. David confesses that he is in love with Kurt, and Kurt kisses him. As Kurt leaves for his new life in New York, he feels encouraged by David’s promises to visit him. He also doubts that he actually loved Derry, and he suspects Derry mostly appreciated the physical aspect of their relationship. 

When Kurt returns to Michigan for the holidays, Chloe reveals that she is deeply dissatisfied in her marriage and that she intends to divorce Roy. Kurt fears that Chloe may actually be in love with him. Roy tells Kurt that Chloe is in love with him. Roy worries how divorce might malign his reputation and career. Roy tries to convince Kurt to tell Chloe that he is a complete phony and not a true artist. Roy believes that Chloe is attracted to Kurt because he is a true artist. Further, he believes he can save his marriage by deflating her worship of Kurt. Kurt initially agrees, but then realizes that he cannot go through with this lie. 

After her divorce, Chloe moves to New York and tells Kurt that she is in love with him. When Kurt tells her that he is gay, she is shocked, but she claims to accept him for who he is. Still, Kurt hopes that he can somehow learn to love Chloe, but he suspects that he will never be attracted to women. David and Derry come to New York to say goodbye to Kurt before he boards a ship for Europe, as Kurt receives a scholarship to study and write music abroad for several months. Before the ship departs, David and Kurt kiss once again.

As Kurt travels around Europe, Chloe writes to him to tell him that she observes Derry and David wasting their lives around “pretty boys” in the West Village. Chloe tells Kurt that she believes that Kurt can do better than both of them. Kurt fears that Chloe still harbors feelings for him. 

Kurt meets a charming young man named Tony on the ship to Europe, and Tony comes to stay with Kurt in France. Tony guesses that Kurt is gay, and he tells Kurt that he has made love to quite a few men, and even some women. Tony urges Kurt to try to live a heterosexual existence to make his life easier. 

Kurt then makes love to Tony and immediately regrets it. He feels that Tony proves that he is promiscuous like all of the other queer men. However, Tony still believes that Kurt is quite innocent and inexperienced. Tony reveals that David was the kept man of a wealthy older gentleman named Ozzy when David lived in Philadelphia. Tony knows this because he met David at one of Ozzy’s lavish parties that he frequently holds for queer men. Despite this shocking revelation, Kurt and Tony form a close friendship, and Kurt even writes the libretto to a play that Tony writes.

Tony and Kurt eventually part ways, with Tony going back to New York to audition for stage roles. Kurt goes to Paris and agonizes that he is not interested in the female prostitutes as so many men are in the city.

Kurt returns to New York and stays with David and Derry. David is ashamed of his past association with Ozzy. Further, he seeks to free himself of the gay clique. David loves Kurt’s innocence and the fact that Kurt is not in any way caught up in the gay clique.

Kurt accepts a job as a music teacher at a boys’ prep school in Connecticut, and David makes plans to someday join him in New York. Meanwhile, Kurt and David continue a long-distance relationship, with both of them falling more and more in love with each other. When David comes to visit Kurt in Connecticut, Derry gets arrested and calls them for help. Kurt and David pay for his bail and an attorney for his hearing. Because it is obvious that an undercover police officer nearly coerced Derry into having sex, Derry is cleared of all charges for “immoral behavior.” 

Kurt returns to his school in Connecticut and becomes a mentor to a queer student named Ford. He accidentally catches Ford making love to another boy in one of the practice rooms. In coded language, Kurt apologizes for interrupting a special moment and praises Ford for being different from the other boys. To show his appreciation, Ford gives Kurt a replica of Donatello’s David, which reminds Kurt of David. On the spur of the moment, Kurt decides to go to New York for the weekend to visit David. He wants to buy a farmhouse in Connecticut to share with David.

Once Kurt arrives at David’s apartment, no one is home. Kurt finds a note from Ozzy addressed to David to meet him that evening, and Kurt notices that David’s formal clothing is not hanging in his closet. Concluding that David is unfaithful to him, Kurt writes a note to David on the back of Ozzy’s note, demanding an explanation. In a moment of anger, vulnerability, and questioning his life choices, Kurt meets Chloe in a hotel room and has sex with her. They are both awkward and unfulfilled.

When Kurt returns to Connecticut the following day, he finds a telegram from David. In the telegram, David says that he is on his way to see Kurt to explain everything. Kurt realizes that he still loves David. At the close of the novel, Kurt waits for David’s arrival with the intention still to invite him to live together in a farmhouse in Connecticut. 

What are the queerest aspects of this novel?

Better Angel is one of the first American novels to portray homosexuality in a positive way with a happy ending. This novel contrasts sharply with contemporaneous novels such as Strange Brother that have very tragic endings. The novel stands out in its realistic treatment of queer existence, and it is interesting that many themes discussed still resonate in twenty-first century queer life. 

The character of Kurt is sexually inexperienced even in his twenties and he prefers monogamy, which is a rebuttal in itself of queer stereotypes of promiscuity. Kurt and Tony even discuss an autobiography of a straight writer who fails to see the double standard applied to queer men regarding sexuality and promiscuity. It seems that straight men can have many partners without criticism, but queer men cannot. Added to this discussion is the existence of gay cliques in the major cities across America. Brown portrays these cliques as insufferable and incestuous. David yearns to break from this clique, and Kurt is not in any way a part of a clique. Brown seems to suggest that queer men can happily exist apart from these cliques.

The character of David keeps the reader guessing. His protestations of love for Kurt seem disingenuous at the beginning because David barely knows Kurt. As the narrative progresses and David’s love for Kurt does not abate, David seems more genuine. However, both Chloe and Tony disdain David. Chloe justifies her hatred for David because of his weakness, while Tony criticizes David’s relationship with Ozzy. Although the reader never quite knows the true nature or fate of David’s relationship with Ozzy, it is easy to understand how a vulnerable, closeted young man in the 1930s might fall under the influence and control of a wealthy older man. David represents so many young queer men who try to make their way in a homophobic world, stumbling along the way. David’s ability to persevere shows his strength and Chloe’s clear homophobia and jealousy. By the end of the novel, the reader understands that jealous Chloe and vain, closeted Tony reflect society’s homophobia while David dares to love Kurt in secret. 

An avid reader, Kurt consistently mentions his desire to see queer representation in books. After reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, Kurt is convinced that Shakespeare was queer. Kurt also enjoys the queerness in Proust’s writings. 

Most touching is Kurt’s interaction with his student, Ford. Upon walking in on Ford making love to another boy, Donald, Kurt is speechless. He invites Ford and Donald for tea just to assure them that everything is all right. Only much later does he finally find the words to tell Ford that his queerness is good, even if Kurt must do so in coded language. Even in the twenty-first century it can be difficult for queer educators to assure queer students of their place in the world. This is a shame. Young queer people benefit from the wisdom and example of their queer elders. We should live in a society where this mentorship is more common. 

Reference

Brown, Forman. Better Angel. Alyson Publications, 1995.