In One Word

In One Word, The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood is…

the berlin stories

  • First published in 1935 and 1939 by Hogarth Press
  • Format: Audiobook
    •  Narrator: Michael York
    • Listening Speed: 1x
  • Listening Time: 2 fascinating days


  • Another LGBTQ month book. This time, it’s the ’20th century’ prompt. Now, I’ve never seen Cabaret or any of the films it inspired so I went into this fairly blind. This audiobook contains abridged versions of two related novellas: The Last of Mr Norris, which documents the eponymous debauche’s mysterious escapades and disappearance, and Goodbye to Berlin, a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s last few years in Berlin. Both are set in an impoverished Berlin during the decline of the Jazz age and the looming rise of the Third Reich.
  • Silly to expect more overt LGBT elements in stories published in the 30s but I was still a bit disappointed that they weren’t more obvious. That said, it is fairly obvious to most modern eyes that Peter and Otto are in a relationship (even if they themselves can’t admit to it and they seem to be very bad for each other) and one of the characters in The Last of Mr Norris is overtly acknowledged to be gay (but not in such a pleasant term as that). There’s a chance that Mr Norris might be gay or bisexual too but it isn’t clear.
  • The stories move very fast indeed and, if you’re listening on an audiobook, this requires your full attention. Michael York’s narration is fantastic, though, so that isn’t a problem. Goodbye to Berlin might get a little jarring and unfocussed at times since it is more of a compilation of short stories rather than a full novel but it all takes place in the same time period and around the same people so it shouldn’t be a problem.
  • Uncomfortably relevant elements are all over these stories. In particular, the one that struck me was the apathy felt by the regular citizenry in response to the Nazis rising to power. The key thing is that Isherwood never drew a dividing line between them and more educated characters who were able to ‘see through it’. He never made the population look stupid for falling for the Third Reich’s propaganda campaigns. He only made it clear that they all had to adapt to the situation they found themselves in since there was no other safe way around it and they were a population too desensitised by a succession of outrages to even feel shocked by anything. Something that strikes an uncomfortable note in the modern day. In particular, Isherwood vividly paints how the Nazis managed to get its claws into Berlin. It seemed to start as a far-right reaction to the decadence of the Jazz Age and to the poverty that struck Berlin under the Weimar period. It then spent the majority of the books as a menacing presence in the periphery and, then, they descended all at once. I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the periods so references without context like ‘the referendum’ didn’t mean much to me but were ominously loaded so I and probably other readers could understand it was something bad and get a chill up the spine every time.
  • The characters are all colourful with the notable exception of the main characters. As Isherwood stated in Goodbye to Berlin, they seem to be just cameras, documenting the exploits of more interesting people. Mr Norris is a fascinating mystery, Sally Bowles is a fascinating unlikeable character that I wish I could have seen more of. Werner is one of the more memorable and tragic figures in Goodbye to Berlin and one that stuck with me, along with Natalia and her family too.
  • Entirely recommend giving this a go if you want a well-written examination of a decaying society about to fall into a deadly trap. I might try the unabridged versions of the stories if I get the chance. I definitely want to watch Cabaret now and see how much of the stories made it onto the screen.

Goodreads Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Did you agree with my rating? Can you think of a better word to describe it? Please let me know with a like, share or comment.

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