While Isherwood intended this collection to form a large episodic novel, the loosely connected existing finished fragments actually prove one lucky structural coincidence. The fragmentation effectively contributes to Isherwood’s presentation of a rather disintegrated pre-Hitler Berlin and its society.
Yet, despite the outward formal fragmentation, the narrative’s patterning clearly shapes an atmospheric sense of a whole: the overall disillusionment within society, loss of ideals, society in decay and a growing sense of foreboding eventually culminating in Hitler’s rise to power. Perhaps this is however not a mere observation indicated by now famous ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,’ a line that somewhat echoes the ‘passive …, not thinking’ existence of the characters as much as Isherwood’s narrative style. The observational narrative arc in my opinion could serve as a metaphor that a society in decline, a society in which there ‘seems as if there were a kind of badness, a disease, infecting the world today’ can only renew itself through an extreme catharsis to allow it to face its demons.
The collection consists of six mostly chronologically ordered sections linked not only through Isherwood’s semi-autobiographic account of the eponymous narrator’s experience of pre-war Berlin, but it also interweaves the lives of a few diverse characters. Sally Bowles, Frl. Schroeder, the Landauers or Otto Nowak are but a few. Regardless of their background and beliefs, the juxtaposition of which the reader is left to ponder and reflect on as the narrative progresses, their experience of contemporary life is filled with a sense of shared malaise, ‘sudden flashes of rage against the hopelessness of … life’; the occasional flicker of hope increasingly overpowered by increasingly frequent and rising foreshadowing since ‘all these people are ultimately doomed’. While the opening ‘sketches’ are arguably relatively light-hearted and satirical, the trouble ahead alluded to only through intermittent asides of ‘a lot of Nazi rioting’, the undertones of sadness, bitterness and stagnation are nevertheless discernible. In masterfully built narrative, Isherwood succeeds to fill the reader with a growing sense of unease as the characters’ personal lives unfold. Be it a well-meaning Frl. Schroeder matter-of-factly commenting on ‘the kind of public we have nowadays’ who however blindly dismisses the growth in Nazi popularity as ‘silly ideas’; Sally Bowles who would ‘do anything, just now, to get rich’ but who behind the façade of naïve exuberance and sham worldliness hides a longing for a secure and traditional life as she acquiesces that ‘Only the trouble is, I haven’t any young to defend …’; or the doctor who self-indulgingly mocks the narrator as ‘You are an idealist!’ The collection’s final diary entry A Berlin diary (1932 – 3) is a beautifully crafted sympathetic portrayal of a surreal ‘photograph’ frozen in time whose actuality is left questioned.
What does Isherwood question however? Is it the blindness to the reality around that catches people unawares when ‘game has become earnest’? The acceptance of lapsing values and solidarity in a world which believes that ‘everyone’s got to look after themselves’? The choice to ignore that while ‘Our party [were] … drinking our claret/ that police-officer [was]…. stumbling mortally’ to preserve an impression of normalcy? Perhaps he does not question after all. Perhaps he more wonders how this reality came to pass, was allowed to pass. In spite of the moments of irony, cynicism, covert and even open criticism of ‘These people could be made to believe in anybody or anything,’, the overarching tone is one of sympathy and dismay; not of judgement. Although Isherwood repeatedly presents his readers with a world of frivolity, quibbles and seemingly purposeless existence which may lead us to scrutinise the characters in a harsh and unfavourable light, I would argue that he simply presents us with humanity in miniature. There are daily atrocities happening in the world around us and yet, we continue our everyday lives. We spend recklessly; argue about fashion style choices; let TV programmes wash over us for endless hours. Even aware that ‘the lights of Hell are shining brightly’ somewhere, we remain irrevocably, selfishly human.
Should this collection be considered a warning that as we believe we progress, our ‘selfishness is much less honest, more civilized, more perverse’ and would therefore continue the cycle of self-destruction unless we change, or an honest contemplation and observation of human nature that is continually ‘acclimatising’? This is perhaps for each reader to decide for themselves. I would however argue that Isherwood’s ‘Berlin is a skeleton’ is a timeless synecdoche for the world; filled with the diverse but vital organs and cells. And when one part starts to deteriorate, it can become ‘a skeleton which aches on the cold’.