(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 2. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1993)


Berlin, Vienna:
Images of the City in the British Literature of the30s

Alain Blayac (Universit´ de Montpellier III)

Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret, drawn over by tram wire. Bonn was a dark house where someone had died, a house draped in Catholic black and guarded by policemen... Only the posters spoke... "Send the Foreign Workers Home!" "Rid us of the Whore Bonn," "Unite Germany First, Europe Second," "Open the Road East, the Road West has Failed."

The opening page of John Le Carré's A Small Town in Germany may be referred to across the decades as a mirror (or sister) image to Christopher Isherwood's evocation of Berlin in the 30s.

The entrance to the Wasserstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crime.(1)

Forty years or so earlier than Le Carré's description of Bonn, Berlin's walls become panels, billboards on which political leitmotive bloom and multiply. But the quotes from the two novels, beyond the documentary interest they may present, also remind us of the unfailing


1. ISHERWOOD, Christopher. Good-Bye to Berlin. Londres: 1939; rééd. Penguin Modern Classics, 1969, p. 184.


interest that the British have always displayed towards Germany. I do not have to enlarge here on the advent in 1714 of George I (1714-1727) and the "Hanover Sovereigns" (who will renounce their German titles and become "Windsors" exactly two centuries later in 1917). I'll only remark that, between 1909 and 1912, the requirements of colonial expansion induced the experimentation of a new policy of rapprochement with Germany which the war brought to an abrupt halt. Needless to mention that 1918 and the Versailles Treaty inaugurated a policy of control of the vanquished Germany. Thus, in the course of time, we can trace the evolution of the attraction, interest, and curiosity displayed by the British for a country from which English Literature abundantly draws. Helen Schlegel (Howard's End, 1910) closes the English chapter of her life to turn over a new leaf in Bonn. Twelve years later, Gudrun Brangwen (Women in Love, 1922) flees to Dresden to join Loerke the artist and trace the sources of German modernism... and countless other examples could be cited, right up to the present day.

When speaking of the 30s in Great Britain, one must bear in mind that, at the end of the so-called Roaring Twenties, a revulsion against the senseless, artificial life of the aristocratic classes, the Bright Young Things in particular, spread throughout the intellectual sets, particularly in Oxford and Cambridge.

I read, much of the night, and go South in the winter.(2)

The hunt for pleasure described by Aldous Huxley in Antic Hay (1922), the desperate futility painted by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies (1930) and denounced by the highly shady but perspicacious Father Rothschild were superseded by a longing for freedom, a desire to get back to the fundamental sources of life which Germany seemed to offer. Besides, in 1922, the Treaty of Versailles and its excesses had released a wave of anti-French feeling and, conversely, sympathy for the poor, downtrodden Germans. During the interwar period as a matter of fact, wars raged all over the world. A new world war emerging from the sum of the minor conflicts loomed in the offing. History seemed to be pregnant with unheard of upheavals. The European peoples lived in the "imminence" of an all-engulfing catastrophe.


2. The Waste Land. Londres: Faber & Faber, 1922, 1961. Section I, l. 16.


At the same time this sense of imminent disasters was counterbalanced among the younger generation by the illusion that the course of History could be, if not altered, at least ignored, that in our violent world there still existed oases, havens of rest, ideal Cities.

This Myth of the Ideal City no one more than the young British intellectuals will cherish. It feeds the mentality of a restricted politically-minded set: the young liberal intellectuals educated in Oxford and Cambridge. Their sympathy for the Germans basically lay in the (more or less naive) belief that there everything was more liberal, more modern. The Myth of the Ideal City resisted all reductions, whether sociological or psychological. Arcadia, the Golden Age, projections in a future, compensatory Eden-like world, all these epithets apply to Germany and its mythic city, Berlin.

The openly-practised homosexuality of Berlin seemed brave and honest to the inhibited shameful "Younger Generation" of British students. "Germany, land of the free!" (cf.The Long Week-End). In 1930 Stephen Spender advised John Lehmann to go to Germany because, through defeat, that country had escaped the fate overtaking the rest of Western Civilisation.

There youth had started to live again, free of the shackles of the past, a life without inhibitions, inspired by hope, natural humanity and brotherhood in the springs of being.

This was the Gospel of naivety, of the Holy Land of Weimar Germany, handed down from Auden to Isherwood, from Isherwood to Spender, from Spender to Lehmann. More than countries, nations or peoples, however, cities encapsulate the ideas embodied by their inhabitants and populations. Nowadays they are beginning to block the horizon, to engulf space, to gather men together while separating them in barbaric segregations or partitioning. They are heir to the fragmentation, the sectorisation of their components which is the hallmark, and the plague, of modern times. Here may be found one of the keys to the interest aroused by Berlin and Vienna in the British mind, by a Berlin and Vienna which, in their own specific way, perhaps even in their specific differences, seemed to herald the modern (or modernist) society of the future. Thus it comes as no surprise that an abundance of writings focused on Germany and its haunting cities, from Spender's Vienna (1934) to Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" (1938), in the same way as the Cold War later revived the interest in Vienna, Bonn and Berlin and prompted writers such as Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Ian McEwan or William Boyd to use these cities as the settings of their stories.


Lions and Shadows (1938) covers Isherwood's life up to 1929 when he went to Germany on Auden's recommendation. Oddly enough what he found in Berlin is best described in Stephen Spender's autobiography World Within World (London, 1951) for Spender himself had been attracted by the mesmerizing lights of the capital where he found that "to these young Germans the life of the senses was a sunlit garden from which sin was excluded." The pastoral, arcadian image and tone speak for themselves, the attraction must have been irresistible to the young men, all the more so as there people's "lives flowed easily into the movements of art, literature and painting, which surrounded them.".. There Modernism was a mass movement. "Roofless houses, expressionist painting, atonal music, gay bars, nudism, sun-bathing, camping, all were accepted... Drums and flags seemed to march through my brain; it was as though my blood were a river of music."(3) One can imagine the wonder of the puritanical, self-conscious, inhibited students immersing themselves in such a sensuous world, their overwhelming sensations, the impression of freely biting into the forbidden fruit etc... It is not surprising to learn that Spender accomplished his éducation sentimentale in Berlin which he described first in an autobiographical novel The Temple (1929) rejected as being pornographic, then in his September Journal.

I was twenty in those days, and I was caught up mostly with the idea of Friendship Freundschaft, which was a very significant aspect of the Weimar Republik. It was not cynical, shame-faced, smart, snobbish or stodgy as so often in England.(4)

But he was also painfully aware of the general atmosphere of decadence.

Masturbation, homosexuality, following people in the streets, breaking up relationships because one has failed in one's own, all these compensatory activities form a circle of Hell in which people can never rest from proving that their failures are the same as love.(5)

The nightmarish, hallucinatory vision of Hell, of decay and death infecting the citizens became haunting themes recurrent in the writings post World War II: ____________

3. Quoted by GREEN, Martin. Children of the Sun, a narrative of 'Decadence' in England after 1918. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1976, p. 287.
4. SPENDER, Steven. The Thirties and After. Londres: Fontana, 1978, p. 106.
5. The Thirties and After, p. 116.


The ruin of the city (Köln) is reflected in the internal ruin of its inhabitants who, instead of being lives that can form a sear over the city's wounds, are parasites sucking at a dead carcase, digging among the ruins for hidden food, doing commerce at their black market near the cathedral, the commerce of destruction instead of production.

The great city looks like a corpse and stinks like one also... The city is dead and the inhabitants only haunt the cellars. Without their city they are rats in the cellars.

In other words, these lines demonstrate that Spender had presaged the future, had imagined the aftermath of what he had witnessed during his first visit to Germany with the advent of Fascism. In the "Berlin Stories," especially in Good-Bye to Berlin (London, the Hogarth Press, 1939) transposed to the screen and better known today as Cabaret, the musical comedy which it inspired, Isherwood brilliantly captured the spirit of Berlin, a city constantly hovering in a precarious balance between past and future, characterised by a permanent tension, a feeling of urgency haunting all its inhabitants, a metropolis in which people from all social classes met, envied, hated and, far more seldom, loved one another... but always with a desperate intensity suggesting their acute Angst, as if the city itself were going to disintegrate at the very next moment, as if no one were ever sure of its permanence or reality.

At the same time Isherwood managed to dramatise "the cynical relationship existing between the grim architecture of Berlin, the long grey uniform streets, expressing Prussian domination... and the feckless population" (Green 288). As Otto Friedrich later wrote:

Isherwood [...] created, more than any German writer, the image we have of Berlin in the Twenties in the [three] books he devoted to Germany, Mr Norris Changes Trains (London, L. & V. Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1935), Good-Bye to Berlin and his autobiography Lions and Shadows: an Education in the Twenties (London, the Hogarth Press, 1938).

Indeed, during the interwar period, Berlin was the object of many a misunderstanding which Isherwood's vision may help somewhat to set straight. Its architecture, its urban contexture have a dual, contrasting aspect. On the one hand, the famous avenues (Unter den Linden), the bourgeois districts, the embassies make up the impeccable Prussian front, whilst on the other hand, and in sharp contrast, at the periphery of the city, its real heart, "a small, damp, black wood, the Tiergarten" (Good-Bye... 185),


in which the marginal, the destitute, the "lumpen-proletariate" flock together. The city, which superficially appeared monolithic with its monumental edifices is now indelibly marked with a blister, a scar, a wound which have their counterparts in the German soul. "That astonishing, vicious, yet fundamentally so respectable city, where even the night life had a cosy domestic quality" (Lions 183) is also the city of illusion and make-belief. The Cabaret of the title, with its transvestite shows, conjures up a striking microcosm both of the city and of its population whose uncertain identity is ceaselessly shaken and questioned. Here the bold, glass and steel architecture, inherited from the Bauhaus, merges incongruously with the most atrociously pompous and decadent houses. In fact, for Isherwood, Berlin's real identity is to be found in its slums, the Hallesches Tor is the reverse side of the Brandenburger Tor, in the same way as Nazism is the reverse side of Berlin's artistic refinement and political liberalism.

Germany then is also the Land of the Arts. European art sets up its headquarters in Berlin rather than in Paris or London whose influences have decidedly waned. More refined than Munich, more intellectual than Hamburg, Berlin attracts scores of major artists. Cosmopolitan, futuristic and decadent at the same time, it is caught up in a turmoil of creativity and becomes the melting-pot of all artistic movements and experiments: Pabst, Murnau, Fritz Lang for the cinema, Berg and Schoenberg for music, Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky for architecture and painting all settle there at one time or another in their lives.

The manners are completely liberated in a climate of Bohemianism and sexual permissivity. Unparalleled tolerance, the debunking of all taboos, the refusal of any repression mark a city in which youth reigns supreme. Youth indeed is the great political challenge. If we come back to the Aphroditean society which Otto Gross, the anarchist, had endeavoured to set up before the war, it is easy to imagine the dizzying elation in which the young British visitors, homosexuals themselves, were engulfed. But such liberation clashed with the "inventions" of pre-Nazi Germany, a Germany blacker by far than the England they had fled.

Isherwood obviously was a foreigner in the city, as was Spender in Vienna. Isolated among its inhabitants, looking for love, not fully sure of his sexual identity, the young man observed, took notes, realised that public catastrophes always go hand in hand with personal, individual disasters. The structure of his novel illustrates the discovery. Good-Bye to Berlin is made up of two diaries in between which four more fictional stories are sandwiched. Two years elapse between the diaries and a new tragic note is struck in the interval. Gradually the narrative plunges into the night of the city, of its people too, in an


exploration which sounds pathetically authentic. In the course of the story Berlin materialises as a melting, rotting city where the most diverse creatures meet and merge in a welter of lust and sex, of cultures and ideas. Gradually the nature of the largest city in Europe after London and Paris comes to loom over the narrative. A first rate industrial centre but also the major artistic (arty, trendy?) city where real life and a world of make-believe merge: conjurors, charlatans, prostitutes, artists of all sorts "like satyrs... dance the Antic Hay." Berlin's truth is to be found in this bonfire of vanities. A gallery of damned souls, the prisoners of the city's inferno, haunt the pages of the novel. For all the Berliners, especially for the Jewish Berliners, hope there only resides in flight and the "Good-bye to Berlin" acts out a good-bye to Death. Although Isherwood's position is one of detachment, although he watches from the wings or the stalls of the theatre as it were, he demonstrates in a most pathetic way the evidence that the nature of Berlin, contrary to the claims of the official propaganda, is made of misery, poverty, suffering and death. Oddly enough Nazis hardly appear in the course of the novel (Lothar Nowak being the only character to sympathise with the movement) but the last page tolls the knell of the old era. "The sun shines and Hitler is master of this city."

City space, city scape, reality, identity, these are the questions explored by Isherwood in the Berlin stories, by Spender in his poem Vienna. Indeed Vienna was born of the workers' 1931 uprising. It deals less with the story of the revolt than with its mythology, the heroic resistance of the workers against the Fascist forces. Spender never tells a story, never explains a genesis or a process, he attempts to communicate the personal convictions he has formed about the city. As a poem Vienna fails but its very structural incoherence reflects the chaos inherent in the city. The image will be taken up and made even darker after 1945 by Graham Greene with The Third Man in which a pitch black Vienna is peopled by shadowy creatures like Harry Lime who pullulate like the vermin they have become in the clammy, miry gloom of its sewer system. In the same way as Joyce had done for Dublin, Spender, Isherwood create an image of the German cities from the fragments of their inhabitants' lives shored against their ruins. The Berlin, the Vienna, which gradually emerge from these lives are, like Eliot's London but for different reasons, "waste lands" of human isolation, fulsome loves, urban distress and death, Joycean paralysis. But they also assert themselves as genuine cities of History, indissolubly linked with the Thirties. Thus, through the magic of the writers' evocations, Berlin and Vienna become "shrines" or "landmarks" of the Twentieth century conscience and history.


If Spender, Isherwood (and the so-called MacSpaunday set in general) achieved preeminence, it is not because they were more talented than their seniors or contemporaries, but essentially because they had conjured up the genius loci, captured the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Evelyn Waugh, who disliked them intensely, paid them a reluctant and perhaps involuntary tribute when he complained that they had "captured the decade."

No doubt the visit to Germany was a "crucial experience for the British intellectuals who visited it in the Twenties and Thirties" and there were scores of them: "Alan Bush the composer, Felicia Browne the artist, Rupert Doone the dancer, Naomi Mitchison and Arthur Calder-Marshall the novelists" (Green 284). Turned into writing their experience was offered to the readers: it still casts a glaring light on the nature of the metropoles in the exploration of the foreign, exotic as it were, cultures and ways of life. Moreover one is entitled to say without exaggeration that it contributed to the "deciphering of what we are." Berlin and Vienna materialise spaces which help forge individual identities, set up networks of relationships, maintain a minimal stability, an emotional and intellectual attachment to places and landmarks, which often enable us to feel History if not to know it. It is the tragedy of the age that the British writers' accounts of Berlin and Vienna disclosed a reality which was disregarded, when not derided, but which heralded the greatest cataclysm in the history of Mankind. They presented in a nutshell the foundations of a tragedy which was to engulf millions of human beings.

Finally these works which we briefly - too briefly - evoked today weave a specific web of links between the city and the experience of life probed, explored in their complex interaction, between the "self" and the place, between the interior domain of the subjectivity and the exterior. Here the city, far from being reduced to a mere backcloth, a simple setting for the action, blooms into a genuine character, the main character perhaps, as later Alexandria will do in Durrell's Quartet.

Let us then always remember Isherwood's "Berlin stories," Spender's Vienna for from the eponymous cities materialised a modernism which contained the germ of today's Over modernity, generating vulgarised, de-humanised spaces, vacant spaces, non-spaces. Let us keep in our memories the imprint of these cities in which were sketched, then acted out by their citizens (for better or for worse) the idiosyncracies and the Spirit of this Age of deliquescence and death, "the Age of Uncertainty and Incompleteness" (according to John James Todd, Boyd's hero in The New Confessions), the spirit indeed of our 20th century.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 2. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1993)