Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.


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.

Slaughterhouse 5 – Worth the Reputation

Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

‘And so it goes’. The philosophy behind this iconic anti war novel is simple, and says just enough. It is not made up of sensationalist violence (could have been, easily) about the Dresden bombing: Vonnegut appeals to the most decent side of human nature instead.

I reckon he must have started out with a book at least double the size, and distilled it down until it was perfect. Something akin to All Quiet on the Western Front for WWII would start to cover it.

Billy Pilgrim is a time traveler… but the novel isn’t really about that. And he gets captured by aliens… but it isn’t really about that either. This is a really extraordinarily unique book, quirky and very unappreciated because of its ‘cult’ status. The flickering jumps in time could be the post traumatic stress from the war, a device to show the past is always present. Once something has happened, it has happened forever. And so it goes.

The Ultimate Game of ‘What If?’

Fatherland, Robert Harris

A story along the lines of; what would have happened if Germany had won WWII?

A really interesting cross over from fact into fiction, with a detective story going on in the foreground. Readable and clever: you read the novel from perspective of german government as a police detective starts uncovering the truth behind the final solution. His reaction to finding out is pretty reasonable to imagine: initial shock and denial of any knowledge or accountability replaced by the awareness of how easy it is to hide painful truths. Robert Harris is so clever because with all the knowledge of the holocaust we all have from history he still manages to make us think like the characters in the book. And reinforce the importance of remembering.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

This is original. I swung from not being into it at first to complete adoration at the end. This book had a large scope, and is about more than it appears to be:

escapology, WWII, superheroes, love, family ties, being jewish, bodies and their limitations, glamour, new york, homosexuality, publishing, historical times of excitement, fantasy history, comic books, children, grief, war stories, guilt, making money, european/american cultures, how to live your life.

Requiem for a Wren

Requiem For A Wren, Nevil Shute

“This Second World War love story still has a freshness and sincerity more than half a century after it was written.” Gerald Seymour, Sunday Express.

Tragic story: Alan Duncan, returning home to his parents’ farm in Australia after losing both his feet in military action, is met with the suicide of the parlourmaid. The whole book covers this first night home, as Alan tries to piece together what has happened and how the events link with his deceased brother’s fiancée. I can’t really discuss the plot because it would completely ruin it for you, should you ever read it.

However, I shall say that this is well written, and very informative if like me you are even remotely interested in war stories and the consequences of war, the role of women in the world wars, love, loss and grief, memory. Ever since reading All Quiet On The Western Front I can’t get enough of learning about the adjustments people in military service had to make when they returned home. Its so interesting and heart breaking, and not as common knowledge as it should be.

Love Makes Little Gods of Us All

Little Gods, Anna Richards

Love makes little gods of us all.

I must confess, I bought this book for the cover.

Little Gods is accurately described as being the following:

  • an adventure
  • a fairy tale
  • a black comedy
  • a twisted romance

Really enjoyed this one, a very good story (although it loses its way a little bit mid-way but is worth persevering). Freak power and hurrah feminism. I also thought the setting of the war in England was very well depicted, and refreshing to read the war from the home side. I like Anna Richards’ writing too – she throws odd words into descriptions that make her story telling come alive.

The Glass Room

The Glass Room, Simon Mawer

… Love seems a relative quality, not a unitary thing that can exist independent of an object. Love for, love of, never just love.

A mixed bag. My overall feeling is that this book had an incredible amount of potential, I’m just not sure it achieved what could have been achieved. Overall I like the story, which is basically chronicling the history of a provincial Czech town through the second world war. The focus is however on how the lives of the characters change over time.

Mawer has a really intelligent focus on language; the characters themselves mix Czech, German and French, with the author self consciously pointing out errors or difficulties in the translation into English. People’s dialects and struggles to make themselves understood mingle with the greater theme of identity – personal follows national follows political and so on.

The setting of the Landauer house which contains the glass room itself is really unique (and sounds architecturally like something Kevin McCloud would approve of!) and gives the book so much of its style.

Worth a read but I couldn’t help thinking that Mawer had tried to do too much and consequently didn’t do enough.