Back in January I celebrated my birthday and my wonderful wife gave me a fantastic present, which I must now write about. On the day of my birthday I received an envelope with my name and address on it, in what looked like typewriter key strokes. When I opened the card, I discovered that it was a birthday card with a difference. The card itself featured a lovely black and white print of Alice from Alice in Wonderland and inside I discovered that I had been given a book subscription from a fantastic company called The Willoughby Book Club (do go and have a look at their website).

This fantastic little company offers a personalised book subscription service, whereby the recipient receives a surprise new book in the post each month (or every other month, if you prefer) based on their reading preferences. In my case, my wife stated that I liked a mixture of contemporary fiction, vintage classics, and modern classics. My wife also sent them a link to this book blog, to ensure that I would not get sent anything that I had already read.

I then eagerly awaited for the beginning of February, when my first surprise book would arrive in the post.

When it did, it opened the outer cardboard packaging to find a beautifully wrapped book, complete with Willoughby Book Club badge and bookmark.

The gift package I received from The Willoughby Book Club Plus, stuck inside the front cover of the novel there is a personalised message, with information about the bespoke book subscription scheme on the reverse. All of this is delightfully done, so kudos to the fine people at The Willoughby Book Club for doing things with flair, passion, and creativity.

Inside the front cover of Goodbye to Berlin

And what was the book? Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. This influential novel was first published in 1939 by the Hogarth Press and is based upon Isherwood’s own experiences of living in Berlin in the 1930s. Here is a close-up photo of the front cover of my edition:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

The book is really a collection of six different stories (in fact, some of the six chapters did first appear printed separately in other collections), all told from the perspective of the same observer (Isherwood) as he lives in Berlin during the first few years of the 1930s, when the Nazis party was started to get stronger, but had not yet come to power.

It is a very honest and non-judgmental account of what Isherwood saw during his time in Berlin. Most, if not all, of the characters he writes about are people who would be at risk from the Nazis, should they ever gain real power (which, of course, as readers living later in history, we know that they did). For example, there is a gay couple, Peter and Otto, and a wealthy Jewish heiress, Natalia Landauer, and an English upper class, rather self-absorbed singer and general waif, Sally Bowles.

The narration is largely a simple retelling of events, generally with little comment or analysis from the narrator. In fact, on the opening page, Isherwood writes explicitly:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

This very sparse style actually gives the novel a real force, as you can really imagine being in decadent Berlin in the early 1930s with Isherwood and his friends.

This was a very readable and interesting book, which I certainly enjoyed. I am now looking forward to the other surprise books I will receive from this subscription!

As a postscript, I see that the novel was made into the film Cabaret in 1972, for which Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award for her performance as Sally Bowles. However, as I’ve not seen the film, this doesn’t mean a lot to me! (Plus, it sounds as though the character of Sally in the film is pretty different from Isherwood’s creation in this novel.)

If you liked this, you might well enjoy: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.