Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin
(New York: Vintage, 1989)
First published: 1939

‘For heaven’s sake, don’t leave me alone with this man!’ she exclaimed. ‘Or he’ll seduce me down the telephone. He’s terribly passionate.’

For literary call-girl Sally Bowles, the telephone is for sex and gossip. Indeed, her frequent and salacious telephone calls with Isherwood help determine the shape of her chapter in the novel. Sally is not the only character who uses the phone for sex. At the Lady Windermere—a gay nightclub—the telephones at each table facilitate a queer erotics of connection. However, this fragile queer social scene does not survive the police raids of the later chapters, during which the Nazis appropriate the telephone as a means of surveillance and control. Isherwood also concerns himself with the ethical implications of telecommunication. Bernhard Landauer, a Jewish department store owner, enters into dialogue over the telephone to confirm his continued existence in the world. However, much of what Landauer wants to convey about himself to Isherwood remains ‘static’—in the sense of interference—and unknowable. In converting telephony into representational literature, Isherwood retains the phonic residue of someone who has been made to disappear by the Nazis. The narrator infamously likens himself to a camera at the outset of the novel, but he also spends a lot of time on the phone—inviting readers to consider the aesthetic, political, and ethical implications of the new technology.

by Matt Helm