Once, again, I find myself tracking down origin materials for a musical I've recently seen. In this case, I saw Cabaret earlier this month, so I started reading Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, which formed the basis for the play and later movie I Am a Camera, which in turn became Cabaret. Since I don't run a theater blog, and I leave the movie reviews for my brother Chuck over at The Other Ebert .... (And I'm not sure when or if I'm going to read the source of the musical I saw in New York. Tolstoy might be a bit much.)
The Berlin Stories is actually two novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, with the former being written in 1935 and the latter in 1939. Both concern the author narrating a fictionalized account of his life in Weimar Republic Berlin. By the end of Goodbye, Der Furher has taken power and is about to become a dictator.Both portray a wonderful vision of the era, even if the author left out a bunch of personal things going on in his own life at the time that were (according to Armistead Maupin's introduction) later revealed more in depth in Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind, which will likely be reserved in the very near future. As it is, tantalizing hints lie in the prose, but written is such vagaries as to get around the censors of the era.
The Last of Mr. Norris concerns our narrator (William Bradshaw, which would be Mr. Isherwood's middle names) as he crosses into German by train, sharing a compartment with the title character, a rather effeminate business man whom the narrator assumes is smuggling silk from Paris into Berlin.
Mr. Norris and Bradshaw become friends over time, with Bradshaw getting involved with the German Communists by proxy. Mr. Norris has issues with his hired help, and also appears to be paying a woman of negotiable virtue (and a friend when not otherwise employed) to dominate him. Over time, we see Norris, who does works for the Communists, get Bradshaw involved with Herr Kuno Pregnitz for a trip to Switzerland to make monetary arrangements which would benefit Mr. Norris. Pregnitz is an older man with a collection of physique magazines and a love of books written for younger men. (It's rather implied that Kuno's gay and has an interest in Bradshaw, but given the time of the writing, nothing is ever spoken aloud.) In Switzerland, Herr Pregnitz meets with Van Hoorn and son, not knowing they're Norris contacts. Kuno flirts shamelessly with the son, who in turn befriends Bradshaw, eventually unleashing his Nazi sympathies to the young British narrator. (Having the benefit of reading this nearly a century later, I can say it's quite disturbing how much the young Dutchman believes the crap.) As it turns out, what's been going on is that Van Hoorn Sr. is with the French Secret Service and trying to use Herr Pregnitz government contacts to get better information than Norris can provide.
Which leads to a confrontation with Norris, who in turn leaves town before either the Police or the Communists or his former employee can get him. We hear bits from him over a few moths, as the reichstag burns while he is in South America.
Then we start into Goodbye to Berlin, which is narrated by a man named Christopher Isherwood. (Or Herr Isseyvoo, as his landlady Frl. Schroeder calls him.) It takes the form of a diary (or journal really; nothing is dated and the stories really don't have a particular narrative order to them), discussing Isherwood's various dealings with people in Berlin. This section is where we meet the now famous Sally Bowles, a singer with rather...um...loose standards of morality. (It's kind of funny, she's only in the book for about 30 pages, but she's one of the most memorable parts.) We meet the tenants sharing his boarding house with him, including the prostitute Frl. Kost (who winds up with a Japanese sugar daddy towards the end) and Frl. Mayr, the singing Nazi. We wend our way through him teaching English to students, some poorer than others, and at one point join him in a small attic where he's living with a 5 person family. We meet the Landaurs, a Jewish family who's fate doesn't seem that pleasant by the end. (The patriarch suffers a "heart attack" under the eyes of the Nazis.) We watch as Weimar falls and the Reich rises.
Honestly, it's the end that gets to be the most memorable, as Isherwood talks about the folks watching the atrocities start and throwing up their hands, but not doing anything to stop them.
One of the more striking bits of all of this is discussions on how everyone wound up where they are in the narrative, While this would have been Depression era, the post War era with its Inflation is almost another character in the narrative. It's hard not to feel like you are there in some sections, whether freezing in Otto's parent's kitchen, or listening as the old maids argue over small things in the living room.
Quite frankly, I kind of wish they'd have used either one or both of these for the German perspective in my high school lit class's WWII section rather than the rather horrid novel we read instead.