Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Oh Liesel! Feelings!

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Somewhere in all the snow, she could see her broken heart, in two pieces. Each half was glowing, and beating under all that white.

It is a struggle to do this book justice.

At first I thought the writing style was awful because it didn’t flow. Every time I was getting into the story, there would be a little quote, or the narrator would interrupt or just change what the story was about completely. But now I’ve finished and have realised what a genius book this is I think I understand why it is written the way it is:

  1. Death: He says his heart is a circle, whereas the human heart is linear. He is everywhere all at once and sees everyone at their best and worst, usually interpreting things afterwards. The story is told from his perspective and in hindsight, so it takes into account all that he has seen.
  2. Words: This book is all about the transforming power of words. It is not a new argument of course, but Zusak takes the line that Hitler rose to power because of his words. And so Liesel’s affair with books, the time spent by her father teaching her to write, the books made by Max etc etc, these all add up to rebelling / reclaiming words.
  3. Storytelling: The characters in The Book Thief tell a lot of stories. But a lot of this is focused on when it is the right time to tell people certain things. This very considered focus on language and storytelling is reflected in the structure of the book – things don’t have to happen chronologically, because there is a right time to be told things. The book deserves to be read with a sense of foreboding and an awareness that death will have met all the characters by the end of the book.

The best thing about this book, for me, was how human it is. Perhaps Death is the perfect narrator for this story because he is looking at humans from the outside and can make us think objectively about how we have done such things. The first time Liesel watches the Jewish people paraded on the way to Dachau I was reading with a horrible weight on me; a sense of claustrophobia and futility because I couldn’t work out what anyone could have realistically done to save anyone. And that thought helps me to see that history could so easily repeat itself if people do not remember and try to understand.

“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

The Book Thief

Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood

Loved this! Goodbye to Berlin is split into six stories that make up a diverse picture of Berlin.

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930): Christopher Ishwerwood replaces William Bradshaw as narrator of the book. It is hard to read Goodbye to Berlin as anything other than autobiographical. The book begins with a diary that reads like an autobiography, featuring many of the characters that lived in the same building as Mr Norris in Mr Norris Changes Trains. It is a witty portrait of Berlin’s eccentric and bohemian types.

Sally Bowles: Famously based on Jean Ross, her fictional alter ego is an english socialite who singes in cabaret clubs. She charms Isherwood with her catty and shocking conversation and liberal attitude. She gets accidentally pregnant, has an illegal abortion, falls in love with con-men and permanently expects her big break to be just around the corner. She is oblivious to politics and language to the point of being hilarious; it is surprising how little the political climate affects the foreign community in Berlin.

On Reugen Island: This story contains the first signs that Isherwood is aware of the burgeoning problems of Naziism. The holiday resort has children singing nazi anthems and swastika flags on beach huts. However the main focus is the relationship between two men Isherwood is staying with: Peter and Otto. The reference to the relationship emphasises the men’s status as outsiders.

The Nowaks: As money becomes a problem Isherwood moves in with the Nowak family. This story shows the poverty that contrasts to the cabaret clubs and champagne socialism.

The Landauers: As the Nazis are elected, the destruction of Jewish properties reminds Isherwood of a prominent Jewish family he met when he first arrived in Berlin. He first befriends the daughter Natalie, with whom he has a very sweet relationship based on novels, cinema and amusing language barriers. He eventually loses touch with her after introducing her Sally Bowles. He gets to know Bernard Landauer who has a very independent life in Germany’s countryside. As time goes by the family gets death threats, and Isherwood finds out Bernard has died. Officially, the cause is a heart attack but common gossip suspects shooting or concentration camp.

A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3): The bad winter lowers everyone’s spirits. People are melancholy and torn between nostalgia and their uncertain future. The growing dominance of the Nazi party – people are beaten in street, Nazis go door to door collecting (demanding) money, and newspapers are nothing but a list of crimes and punishments. The mood has changed and Isherwood decides to leave Berlin.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Ishwerwood

This seems to be something as a warm up for Isherwood’s main event: Goodbye to Berlin, as this story shares many characters and settings. William Bradshaw is traveling through Europe to Berlin when he meets Mr. Norris on a train. Our slightly naive narrator gets sucked into the seedy life and shady business of Mr. Norris, who by contrast is eccentric but charming. This book mainly seems to be about friendship, a kind of car crash fascination that make awful people attractive and the strange types to be found in Berlin during this unique period in history.