Friday, June 01, 2007

Book review: The Berlin Stories

Reading The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. Now I want to read a biography of Isherwood and everything else he's ever written. It's actually two short autobiographical novels about Berlin in the early 1930's. Berlin in the '30s is grim, but this book is not, or at least most of it isn't. In the first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, Isherwood, thinly disguised as “William Bradshaw” is like a cartoon baby escaping falling anvils as he toddles along. His friendship with the charming but duplicitous Arthur Norris brings him unscathed through some dangerous escapades. In the second novel, Goodbye to Berlin, “William Bradshaw” has become “Christopher Isherwood.” This is really a collection of stories, the most notable being “Sally Bowles” on which the play and movie I am a Camera are based.
I could swear we read this book in college. I distinctly remember the professor lecturing about Isherwood being an openly gay writer. He must have dropped the book from the syllabus due to time constraints, because if I had read it, surely I wouldn't have forgotten this passage:
...an agonized cry came from the lighted room ahead of me.
“Nein, nein. Mercy! Oh dear! Hilfe! Hilfe!
There was no mistaking the voice. They had got Arthur in there, and were robbing him and knocking him about. I might have known it. We were fools ever to have poked our noses into a place like this. We had only ourselves to thank. Drink made me brave. Struggling forward to the door, I pushed it open.
The first person I saw was Anni. She was standing in the middle of the room. Arthur cringed on the floor at her feet. He had removed several more of his garments, and was now dressed, lightly but with perfect decency, in a suit of mauve silk underwear, a rubber abdominal belt and a pair of socks. In one hand he held a brush and in the other a yellow shoe-rag. Olga towered behind him, brandishing a heavy leather whip.
“You call that clean, you swine!” she cried, in a terrible voice. “Do them again this minute! And if I find a speck of dirt on them I'll thrash you till you can't sit down for a week.”
As she spoke she gave Arthur a smart cut across the buttocks. He uttered a squeal of pain and pleasure, and began to brush and polish Anni's boots with feverish haste.
“Mercy! Mercy!” Arthur's voice was shrill and gleeful, like a child's when it is shamming. “Stop! You're killing me.”
“Killing's too good for you,” retorted Olga, administering another cut. “I'll skin you alive!”
“Oh! Oh! Stop! Mercy! Oh!”
They were making such a noise that they hadn't heard me bang open the door. Now they saw me, however. My presence did not seem to disconcert any of them in the least. Indeed, it appeared to add spice to Arthur's enjoyment.
“Oh dear! William, save me! You won't? You're as cruel as the rest of them. Anni, my love! Olga! Just look how she treats me. Goodness knows what they won't be making me do in a minute!”
“Come in, Baby,” cried Olga, with tigerish jocularity. "Just you wait! It's your turn next. I'll make you cry for mummy!"

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