May Books 9) Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood
I've never seen the movie Cabaret, though I did see a stage production of the musical many years ago in Belfast - a local team putting it on at the Arts Theatre, directed by Peter Quigley who also played the EmCee (this was just before Sam Mendes's West End production). It is one of thse cultural things that everyone knows about even if they haven't actually seen it; I've been a little surprised while raving bout these books over the last few days by just how many people haven't heard of them but do know the film.
They are fascinating for a Berlinophile like me; these are familiar streets, distanced from the present by eight decades and the Third Reich. On the one hand, there is the depiction of young and somewhat irresponsible expats spending and shagging their way around an exciting city, a situation which, while not exactly universal, has none the less been replicated in many other places and times (as a glance around Place Luxembourg in Brussels most Thursday evenings will demonstrate); on the other hand, there is the fact that this amazing city was the centre of a society that was turning on itself and about to turn on the rest of Europe. Nobody sees the Nazis coming, and yet everyone does; they are like frogs in a heating saucepan.
The two books are actually very different from each other in structure. Mr Norris Changes Trains is the less polished work, a character study of Mr Norris whose pretensions of respectability are overshadowed by his history of dubious business dealings, his unorthodox sexuality and his activism with (but not quite in) the Communist Party. Goodbye to Berlin is a collection of several shorter stories which were never quite combined into a single novel, so that there are characters in common but less of a coherent thread. Yet Isherwood is more ready to let his sæva indignatio show, and it's a better read if more disjointed.
One last point: Mr Norris Changes Trains is dedicated to W.H. Auden. Goodbye to Berlin is dedicated to John and Beatrix Lehmann - that's the same Beatrix Lehmann who played Professor Amelia Rumford in The Stones of Blood shortly before she died, and her brother.