Sunday, 10 October 2010

I am a camera

Earlier this afternoon, sitting on a sun-warmed bench in leafy Manchester, I finished a rather wonderful book called Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

No. Even now I can't altogether believe that any of this has really happened...

Isherwood lived in Berlin in the early 1930s, and watched first-hand as Hitler rose to power. He taught English, and did some writing, and changed accommodation a lot, depending on his variable income; but what he did most of all was just observe - watch as an extraordinary city went through some extraordinary circumstances.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

The writing is absolutely beautiful, but it's almost secondary to the incredible sense of ever-weakening defiance against inevitable darkness with which Isherwood manages to permeate the book. His friends and acquaintances include cabaret singers, businessmen, beggars, prostitutes, Nazis, landladies, homosexuals, Communists, barmen, con-artists, Jews, barons and many, many more - each lives in a very different situation to the others but all of them are fighting, desperately struggling to preserve an illusion that their lives will get better... They are all absolutely terrified and deeply unhappy, but rarely allow it to show. It has echoes of both Mrs Dalloway and The Great Gatsby, in different ways, which is probably why I loved it so much!

When I have been listening for some time, I find myself relapsing into a curious trance-like state of depression. I begin to feel profoundly unhappy. Where are all those lodgers now? Where, in another ten years, shall I be, myself? Certainly not here. How many seas and frontiers shall I have to cross to reach that distant day; how far shall I have to travel, on foot, on horseback, by car, push-bike, aeroplane, steamer, train, lift, moving-staircase and tram? How much money shall I need for that enormous journey? How much food must I gradually, wearily consume on my way? How many pairs of shoes shall I wear out? How many thousands of cigarettes shall I smoke? How many cups of tea shall I drink and how many glasses of beer? What an awful tasteless prospect! And yet - to have to die... A sudden vague pang of apprehension grips my bowels and I have to excuse myself to go to the lavatory.