What I’m reading in Berlin

1) The Innocent – Ian McEwan

This is an early, easily overlooked McEwan novel. It may not have the polish of his later books (the beginning’s a bit slow, and there are chunks of unconvincing dialogue), but If you’re into cold war espionage literature then you’ll be hard-pressed to find another author who combines cold war narrative with sepia 1950’s existence so effectively.

Many of McEwan’s novels deal with sclerotic post-war British identity and the accompanying sexual hiatus. This is no exception. Twenty-five year old electrical engineer Leonard Marnham is sent out to Berlin to work on a top secret project tapping Soviet lines, when he has his first sexual liaison with a young German girl. Dysfunction ensues.

2) Goodbye to Berlin РChristopher Isherwood 

This delicious set of fragments gives a real flavour of 30’s Berlin, depicting the sudden fall from prosperity experienced by everyone in Germany after the Wall Street Crash. The narrator takes up the namesake of the author, and despite protestations in the introduction, the account has a strong autobiographical streak.

The six sections tell the tale of 1930’s Berlin from different standpoints, exploring the lives of characters the fictional Isherwood encounters; from the aristocratic family he works for as an English teacher, to an aspiring British actress treading the boards of the German dance halls.

Originally intended as part of a grand social project charting the rise of Nazism, this book is quite simply delightful to read. Isherwood flirts his way through the pages, never taking himself and his Englishness – or indeed anything at all – too seriously, even when presented with decidedly unusual moral dilemmas.

Lots of the characters are salacious and gossipy in a kind of flawed-but-ultimately-loveable way. This just makes it all the weirder when Isherwood suddenly mentions the political and social context: ‘She was, of course, a member of the Nazi party.’