I’m an enormous fan of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, which I read in one go – I think they worked very well together. But then while I was reading Joseph Roth’s ‘What I Saw’, a collection of his descriptions of interwar Berlin, I read a sneering comment in the introduction about Isherwood’s being a fantasy Berlin, and how you should only read Roth, the ‘authentic’ document of 30s Berlin.
When I read this I felt a little smaller for having my taste for Isherwood corrected, but then, a while afterwards, I thought: but that’s the point of Isherwood. He’s not trying to document the authentic Berlin; his is a world of over-the-top characters, of excess, of fantasy. It would be wrong if he was trying to set himself up as the impartial eye of the times, the outside observer, but that’s not a claim I think he makes. Isherwood’s Berlin is about consciously turning a blind eye to the chaos, or celebrating the chaos, somehow both at once. Roth is about confronting, analysing, documenting.
I loved Roth’s feuilletons because they are extremely rich and evocative, and incredibly clear-sighted considering he was writing in the middle of it all. But I love Isherwood too, and I don’t see why there isn’t space for both on a bookshelf. And Berlin Alexanderplatz too, except I haven’t read that yet.