The world of Goodbye to Berlin, possibly Isherwood’s finest novel, is a grim world where the decaying past is about to be transformed into a horrible future. Isherwood writes of the period of transition, the period when change is ineluctable and yet few people seem to see it coming, or at least to recognize the significance of this change.
The reader is introduced to this world in the first section, “A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930).” This first of two diaries in the novel introduces objects and people that the narrator can observe from the window of his room. The famous phrase from this diary—“I am a camera”—establishes the technique of the “diary” and something of the narrator’s character: He is passive in his perceptions (though not neutral), an observer more than an actor. A certain ironic vision of life is established as well, with an emphasis on the fragmented and discontinuous nature of the world in which the narrator finds himself.
Christopher, called “Herr Issyvoo” by the Germans, turns his attention to four characters of the Berlin scene. The four—Sally Bowles, Peter Wilkinson, Otto Nowak, and Bernhard Landauer—are representatives of “the lost” (as Isherwood’s first, unfinished version of the novel was called). These are people whom “society shuns in horror,” according to Isherwood. Christopher tells their stories in a series of episodes that are unified by this theme of the lost.
The novel concludes with another “Berlin Diary,” this time dated “Winter, 1932-3.” By this time, Nazi brutality is everywhere in evidence, and at novel’s end the reader realizes that the coming turmoil will destroy the lost characters of whom Christopher has grown so fond.