The Berlin Stories
(New Directions)There are (supposedly) two stories here: "The Last of Mr. Norris" and "A Berlin Diary" ... but it's more of a muddle than that. Confusingly, tacked onto the end, are four other short stories: "On Ruegen Island," "The Nowaks," "The Landaurs," and, redundantly, "A Berlin Diary."
Whatever way you slice it, it is a tedious journey through Weimar Germany 1930 - 1933, filled with pimps, whores, rent-boys, gold-diggers, drunks, abortions, noisy (and nosy) landladies, noisy Americans, and noisy Nazis.
"The Last of Mr. Norris," we are told, is one of the great novelettes of the 20th Century, but Arthur Norris, the hero, is a nervous bore, who may or may not be criminal, or even a Communist. Whatever he is, he's not fun; more, like, drab. In 1935, Time Magazine reviewed Mr. Norris, as follows:
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.
Sixty-five years later Time was to cite Berlin Diaries as one of the 100 great books of the twentieth century. They shudda stood in bed ... they had it right the first time.
§ § §
Sally Bowles, star of "The Berlin Stories," was the delight of those who created "Cabaret," but she is yet another nervous bore who either loves or detests our hero, it's hard to tell which. "We talked continually about wealth, fame, huge contracts for Sally, record breaking sales of the novels I should one day write."
"I think," said Sally, "it must be marvelous to be a novelist. You're frightfully dreamy and unpractical and unbusinesslike, and people imagine they can fairly swindle you as much as they want --- and then you sit down and write a book about them which fairly shows them what swine they all are, and it's the most terrific success and you make pots of money."
"No," the narrator says, "I suspect the trouble with me is that I'm not quite dreamy enough..."
No, but he was dreamy enough to make pots of money on these besotted stories.
Much is made of Berlin being one of the seminal "gay" novels, but outside of a few scenes in dubious bars and the narrator (and the reader) having to live with a flaky, obnoxious seventeen-year-old prima donna named Otto (revealed many years later to be Isherwood's lover) there is little here of high art.
One episode in "The Landauers" has our narrator standing outside a bar where "Men dressed as women!"
"You queer, too, hey?" demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.
"Yes," I said, "very queer indeed." And that's it as far as revelations about Christopher and his kind.
Isherwood famously wrote,
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."
He may be a camera, but obviously the lens got daubed with much too much Vaseline.--- Lolita Lark