Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

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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.

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Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

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I’ve always thought of this blog as a record of the fiction that I’ve read. Therefore, up until now, I have only written about the novels, novellas, and short story collections that I have read. For the most part, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is a fairly clear one. However, when it comes to autobiographical writing things get a little less clear cut. For example, is Out of Africa a novel or an autobiography? And what about Cider with Rosie or Hideous Kinky or My Family and Other Animals? Each is clearly autobiographical, yet none is exactly a straight autobiography.

However, I have just read what is more obviously a straightforward autobiography – Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That – and have decided that from now on I will include any autobiography I read if it is of a writer, as this seems in keeping with the subject of this blog.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Prior to reading this, I had read what is probably Robert Graves’ most famous novel, I, Claudius (which is fantastic, by the way) and I also knew that he was a poet and that he had translated classical Greek works into English, but that was about the extent of my knowledge about the man.

However, I was aware that Goodbye to All That was considered by many to be a classic autobiography and that it covered (amongst other things) the author’s time spent serving as an officer in the trenches of the First World War.

So, when I found a copy in a charity shop a while back I picked it up, and last month I decided to read it.

This is a story of what I was, not what I am.

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The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

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Hello everyone and a very happy New Year to you all!

It’s been quite a while since I last posted anything. This is partly due to being busy during the recent festive season and partly because the last novel I read was rather lengthy (weighing in at 742 pages). The tome in question was The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

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My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

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Followers of this blog will know that I recently enjoyed reading the adventures of an unconventional childhood spent abroad in Esther Freud’s book Hideous Kinky. Reading that book brought to mind another book about an unusual childhood – Gerald Durrell’s wonderful memoir, My Family and Other Animals, which I decided I would re-read. (I actually had to go and purchase a third copy, as the two previous copies of this book I owned have both been lent out to friends never to be seen again. Humpf.)

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Between 1935-1939 Gerald Durrell (then aged 10 to 14) moved out to the sunny Greek Island of Corfu with his family. This classic book provides a charming and amusing account of that experience and of the many eccentric people and animals that Gerry befriended whilst there. Here are the opening lines:

This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.

The book is divided into three sections, each covering the period of time the family spent in a particular villa. In addition to the young Gerald, the family comprises their widowed mother, the bookish Larry, the gun-mad Leslie, the diet-obsessed Margo, and Gerry’s trusty canine companion Roger.

 In addition to the core family, other key characters include Spiro (Spyros “Americano” Chalikiopoulos), their devoted driver and protector, and the polymath Theo (Dr Theodore Stephanides), who provides the young Gerald with his education in natural history. Then, taking a smaller role, there are also a few other private tutors, an assortment of Larry’s artistic friends, and of course the local peasants, whom Gerry befriends.

Each day had a tranquility a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.

The human comedy is interspersed by descriptions of the animal life that the young Gerry observes on his expeditions around the family homes and seashore. Several of these discoveries he then brings back to keeps as pets, including Achilles the tortoise, Quasimodo the pigeon, Ulysses the owl, not to mention the numerous other birds, spiders, beetles, mantids, snakes and geckos. He also gets given two puppies by some local peasants, which he affectionately names Widdle and Puke, after their initial contributions to the family dining room.

The book really is a gem; brilliantly written, highly entertaining, memorable and informative. There are not many books that manage to achieve such feats. I heatedly recommend this to children and adults alike. In fact, I think every doctor’s waiting room and airport lounge should be furnished with a copy or two, as it is also the kind of book that you can pick up in a dead ten minutes and enjoy reading an excerpt from. Truly a slice of the English at their eccentric best!

My childhood in Corfu shaped my life. If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.

Hideous Kinky – Esther Freud

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Not many books that I’ve come across are written from a child’s perspective, but Hideous Kinky is a rare, and rather good, exception.

However, before I go any further, let me address the issue of the title, lest anyone be put off unnecessarily: This book contains nothing that is remotely hideous or kinky. Rest assured, it is not that sort of book.

So, what gives? Well, since you ask, it turns out that ‘hideous’ and ‘kinky’ are simply two of the very few words that our young narrator and her sister have ever heard their mother’s almost entirely silent friend Maretta speak. The two sisters subsequently clung on to these strange sounding words, repeating them now and then in a kind of childish chant. Hideous. Kinky. Hideous. Kinky. Hideous. Kinky.

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

The book paints a picture of the author’s unconventional childhood, or rather, a year or so of it that was spent travelling around Morocco with her bohemian mother (called Julia in the text) and her older sister, Bea. There is no plot to speak of, rather the book is episodic in structure, being really just a loosely connected series of memories. However, the text is fantastic to read. It is lively and enjoyable and deceptively simple, yet I think Esther Freud has shown great art in the writing.

We are so used to reading narratives written by adults, so reading an account from the perspective of a young child really is noticeably different. For one thing, we are left in the dark about many details we would ordinarily expect to be given. For example, no date is ever provided (though I’m guessing the trip took place in the 1960s). Similarly, we never learn our narrator’s age (the text hints at her being four or five, but is sufficiently ambiguous that it is impossible to know for certain). Various other facts, such as who her father is, what their life was like back in England, and how her mother met all these strange characters, remain equally unexplained.

What does come across is all the things of interest to a young child: the smells, the sounds, the treats and the sense of danger and adventure. The conversations recorded in the book are also wonderfully child-like. Here is a brief snippet, where our narrator is missing some home comforts, and starts to entreat her mother:

“When we go home, can we live in a house with a garden?”
“All right.”
“Do you mean all right yes or all right maybe?”
“I mean, all right hopefully”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short book. It makes you envious of this kind of free-spirited, adventurous childhood (although perhaps not with a mother quite so irresponsible as Julia).

Finally, some trivia:

Esther Freud is the daughter of the late British painter Lucian Freud and Bernadine Coverley. She is also the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. This makes Esther one of at least 14 children confirmed to have been fathered by Lucian Freud (and there are claims he fathered up to 40!)

Oh, and whilst looking up some information about Esther Freud, I stumbled across the following quote, which I think gives a good flavour of the author’s noble approach in this book:

“Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

The Bafut Beagles – Gerald Durrell

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Previous readers of this blog may recall my love of Gerald Durrell’s classic autobiographical account of his childhood spent in Coru, My Family and Other Animals – a real treat of a book. Anyway, my wife managed to pick up some old Penguin editions of a couple of his other books, including this: The Bafut Beagles.

For anyone who has not come across Gerald Durrell before, he was a British naturalist, zookeeper and conservationist, who undertook numerous animal expeditions around the globe. This particular book tells the story of his collecting expedition to the British Cameroons (now Cameroon), made in 1949.

The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

After the war, the young Durrell had joined the staff at Whipsnade Zoo as a junior keeper, however it was not long before he became eager to participate in exploratory animal expeditions. The particular expedition described in this book was only his second trip, and its purpose was to locate and bring back to British zoos certain exotic species for further study.

During much of the expedition, Durrell lived with the Bafut tribe in the Northwest Province. As with My Family and Other Animals, you learn almost as much about the people Durrell meets as the animals. Durrell evidently became very fond of his African hosts, and the book is named after the group of “hunters” who would accompany him on his excursions to catch (but certainly never kill) various species of mammal, bird and amphibian.

Many curious creatures make their way into Durrell’s entertaining narrative, including an assortment of snakes, hairy frogs, and galagos. Then there are dancing (and non-dancing) monkeys, White-Faced Scops Owls and flying mice. And if that wasn’t enough, there is also the Stranger’s squirrel, the Rock Hyrax and various other exotic creatures that I have probably forgotten.

As well as the accounts of all of these intriguing creatures, Durrell’s narrative is also interspersed with some great vignettes taken from the life of the Bafut tribe. It was during this particular trip that Durrell met the colourful chieftain of the area, the Fon of Bafut, Achirimbi II. The Fon was a man of considerable power in the region and was duly treated with respect and reverence by his tribe. This fact notwithstanding though, during his time living amongst the people of Bafut, Durrell got to know the chieftain well, and portrays him to be a warm-hearted, fun-loving man when not performing his stately duties. Here is an amusing extract of Durrell’s first introduction to the great man (and his love of strong liquor):

I had by now absorbed quite a quantity of mombo [local alcoholic drink] and was feeling more than ordinarily benign; it seemed to have much the same effect on the Fon. He barked a sudden order, and, to my horror, a table was produced on which reposed two glasses and a bottle of gin, a French brand that I had never heard of, and whose acquaintance I am not eager to renew. The Fon poured out about three inches of gin into a glass and handed it to me; I smiled and tried to look as though gin, neat and in large quantities, was just what I had been wanting. I smelt it gingerly, and found that it was not unlike one of the finer brands of paraffin.

In fact, Durrell ended up forming a close friendship with the Fon, which lasted many years.

I found The Bafut Beagles to be a great read, full of adventure, interest and humour. I would certainly recommend it. If you too liked this, you might also enjoy: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin

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Hm, it seems I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties once again… Sadly I do not have the time to write much now, but thought I’d just log in to add a very brief post to mention that I finished reading James Baldwin’s celebrated autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain last weekend.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

As I have a whole list of other things I’m meant to be doing right now, I will attempt to provide a twenty word synopsis of this novel. Here goes:

Harlem in the 1930s and the community and hypocrisy of an African-American pentecostal church are brought under the spotlight.

Apologies for the brevity of this review; perhaps I’ll get to expand it at a later date.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

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