“Do tell me why you’re laughing”: Irony and Sincerity in Goodbye to Berlin and The Line of Beauty

Have we reached the point of the ‘Sincere Turn’ in the current era of political discourse? Can earnestness ever be the predominant function of parliamentary debates and panel shows or, with Britain specifically in mind, is the sneering cult of the arched eyebrow destined to have its way?

Superficially, it felt as if the UK were beginning to tire of the smirking theatricality which had previously defined the public face of its parliament, with the Labour Party bearing a genuinely welcome humourless disposition in a country where most leaders of the opposition eventually end up guest hosting Have I Got News for You

But we know how that ended up, with the longstanding court jester emphatically gaining control of the entertainment, after embracing pantomime in a campaign which appropriately saw him hiding in a fridge to avoid scrutiny from reporters.

Reading Christopher Isherwood’s Farewell to Berlin last week put me in mind of this purging of the performative from the political, as I occasionally struggled with a readable, entertaining and well-meaning novel which had a tendency towards glibness at the wrong moments.

Isherwood’s playful memoir had me wondering whether a well-meaning approach to political struggle can ever get by without seriousness, and furthermore whether irony might be framed as an innately conservative characteristic.

As a relatively short piece of fiction goes, Goodbye to Berlin is a diligent piece of craftsmanship, vividly rendering a life peopled by picaresque street urchins, charmingly sterile toffs, a coquettish landlady and the inimitable Sally Bowles. While there is a not insubstantial narrative thread holding the novel together, it is comprised as a series of vignettes from Isherwood’s time in Berlin, where he experiences a variety of social milieu during his time working as an English teacher, and, along the way, engages with the changing political environment of Weimar Germany.

The problem is this political environment, and its treatment throughout the novel, is never fully assimilated within this rambunctious environment, emerging as no more than vaguely affective window dressing. Isherwood’s intention is to, through a blithe, carnivalesque figuration of Berlin, implicitly foreshadow the era of Nazi government which is to become its dark antithesis, but the requisite tonal sensitivity is found wanting in this aim.

There are obvious objections to my point, chief among them being the argument that literature can do better than portray those caught up in historical atrocities as tragic automatons. Goodbye to Berlin admittedly avoids this trap in its very human portrayal of the idiosyncratic Landauers, the upper-class Jewish family befriended by Isherwood, while the embers of Berlin’s Communist underworld burn brightly until the very end.

But when we observe the moments where sincerity steals into the novel, its presence is worrying all too often felt as an afterthought, as if Isherwood has suddenly remembered the complicated human entanglement involved in the farce. This is evident in the ‘On Reugen Island’ episode, a chapter recounting the constant vicissitudes of a possibly homosexual relationship between Chris’ (1) housemates Peter and Otto, with Otto comically winding up his older friend / partner by making himself a favourite with the local women of the eponymous island.  Isherwood wraps up a raucous and chaotic chapter with a wistful reflection on ‘Otto’s dancing-partners [who] have stopped lingering sadly in the twilight’, and it feels as if he is in the act of retroactively infusing his own writing with order and meaning.

Other times, it almost seems, though no doubt he has noble intentions as to rendering the pathos involved, as if sincerity is vindicating Isherwood. Particularly apt is the case of Chris’ friend Bernhard Landauer, he of the ‘gentle ironical laugh’, whose ‘gestures’, Isherwood recounts ‘are clothed in arrogance’ – not only does he treat his friends ‘as children’, but most frustratingly the businessman will ‘never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him’. The Jewish Bernhard’s fate, likely unconsciously, is somewhat stylised as a reproof to his knowing, ironic manner, with Chris fancying that he spotted ‘something a little exaggerated in his laughter’ the last time he saw him, at it is interesting at least that he saw fit to highlight that Bernhard is less than even master of the humour of his situation at this point.

The purpose of this piecemeal sincerity is to uphold Isherwood’s dominant narrative mode of gentle ironic mocking which relies on the author installing himself as the novel’s all-seeing deity. A further look into the notorious ‘Sally Bowles’ chapter should better illuminate my point here.

Of all of Isherwood’s semi-fictional creations, Sally Bowles, based on Jean Ross, the author’s real-life acquaintance during his time in Berlin, is one of his best-known and best-loved. Chris’ adventures with the happy-go-lucky cabaret singer form the comic crescendo to Goodbye to Berlin, and there is much to be enjoyed about her blasé attitude towards her various romantic relationships and idiosyncratic attempts to assimilate in Berlin.

To be slightly more exact, the Sally chapters are mainly so riotous because of her perpetually quotable brand of ditsy naiveté, as typified by her conviction that she can get herself out of her endless scrapes by becoming a famous actress. Another layer of humour is added by Chris’ implicit role as an urbane, ironic judge who acts as a revealing foil to her character – as Sally puts it, ‘you do understand women most marvellously: better than any man I’ve ever met’.

This is not without its uncomfortable moments, as when Sally puts her foot in it by, during a meet-up with Chris and the Landauers’ daughter, Natalie, excusing her lateness because she’s been ‘making love to a dirty old Jew producer’. It’s hardly surprising that Ross’ family objected to how the singer was immortalised, with her daughter Sarah Caudwell writing in a 1986 ‘Reply to Berlin’ in the New Statesman that she suspected that Isherwood’s portrait of Sally Bowles more accurately resembled how he himself behaved with his male friends. Indeed, this is not without substantiation from Ishwerwood’s own end, who admits that much time of his was spent with friends who ‘fluttered around town exclaiming how sexy the Stormtroopers looked in their uniforms’. (2)

In Goodbye to Berlin this fascination in fascist aesthetics from a socialist standpoint does have a not-so-occasional tendency to pop up, as in the amusing rendition of Chris’ housemate Frl. Mayr, a virulent anti-Semite who sits ‘like a war-horse at the living-room table’, or the ‘model son’ Lothar, a Nazi whose Spartan work-ethic is admired by Chris while staying with Otto.

For Goodbye to Berlin to be elevated to the status of serious literature rather than an extended comic piece, the work of an accomplished writer who can write about ‘anything you like’ (the words with which Sally goads Chris), perhaps some device is thus needed to insulate Isherwood from this notion that he has played the role of a passive, vapid outsider during a time of national crisis. Perfunctory, fleeting gestures of sincerity which lend credibility to the largely wry disposition behind the novel’s structure perform this work, tying Goodbye to Berlin’s ribaldry into the illusion of something more.

Isherwood’s lack of success in adding an undertone of pathos to his novel suggests that sincerity is most convincing as a sacrifice, when the way in which it is employed is painful, but sustainable, rather than self-serving. But what about when the truth itself is hard? We are talking about novels which focus on the difficulty of historical constraint after all. Faced with such conditions, especially those which threaten our sense of self, can we help shying away from the sincere?

One of the novels that I have most enjoyed over the past year, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is neurotically focussed on this exact dilemma, and bears much comparison to Goodbye to Berlin in this respect. 

The plot follows Nicholas Guest, a perceptive, intelligent English student from a somewhat prosaic middle-class background who has been staying for some time with the upper-class Feddens, a subtly dysfunctional family whose patriarch Gerald is a high-ranking Tory MP. Despite the Feddens being much more responsible than he, Guest is blamed after a series of scandals, including the discovery of Gerald’s infidelity and involvement in some ‘creative accounting’ but also Nick’s own fling with another man at the family’s holiday home, lay them low.

When I did this at university, I was surprised to see that a lot of my classmates really didn’t like Nick, but it was understandable. Superficially, Nick comes across as a pompous student of Henry James and aesthetic theory, and is rather too uncomfortably involved with the machinations of the upper class for someone of his own overtly socialist principles.

While this is a simplistic prism through which to discuss character, a couple of considerations redeem Nick. The first of these is that he can hardly be accused of cynical intentions in remaining with the Feddens, drawn to them as he is through motivations romantic (his infatuation with their steadfastly heterosexual son Toby and the world of beauty of which he is a represenative), and a naïve but earnest belief that he can help their bipolar daughter Catherine. More importantly, Nick, as a chronicler of the excesses of Tory Britain, makes the best of a frivolous existence amongst his chosen milieu. He is self-aware to the extent that he is self-aware about his own self-awareness, (3) and thus not only understands the quirks and machinations of the upper-class bubble, but is free from any illusion about his own place within it.

Indeed, unlike Isherwood’s imperious irony which seeks to master the likes of Sally Bowles, Nick’s is an ironic mode which admits defeat where necessary – on a date with Leo, a working-class guy who is unused to Nick’s affectations, he finds that his ‘mock-pompous’ tone comes across as ridiculous rather than subtle. (4) The consequence of this magnanimity on Nick’s part is that irony and sincerity can be more meaningfully delineated in Hollinghurst’s novel as ‘effects’ of factors present only in their obscurest form in Goodbye to Berlin – class and sexuality.

What surfaces from diligently tying irony and sincerity to social phenomena in this fashion is a conceptualisation of irony as either ‘defensive’ or ‘dominant’, a distinction which, for those writing in or about a right-wing environment flexing its muscles, either in Berlin or Notting Hill, is especially important to make.

Thus while Nick’s irony can be straightforwardly cruel, just like Chris’ – there are too many deliciously cutting remarks to count, as in Nick’s description of when Gerald’s younger lover and assistant Penny talks about “high society” at a party to Nick, ‘clearly thinking that’s where she was’ – it self-consciously allows Nick to feel safe in a hostile environment dominated by powerful men who take a dim view of gay liberation.

Nick is a stranger in an aggressively heterosexual battleground amongst the likes of Barry Groom, whose brusqueness is such that he is notorious for never saying hello, and Gerald’s university friend Derek ‘Badger’ Brogan, whose ‘seedily hush-hush’ personality is almost exclusively constructed around the more lurid memories of their time at Oxford together. By demystifying the behaviour of these men through his inwardly ironic disposition Nick can adjust his own outward disposition to be non threatening and pliable, thus continuing his peaceful existence alongside the Feddens – wryly noticing Badger’s ‘free and easy way’ amongst Gerald’s tribe, he knows for example that it is simply easier to ‘enrol in the family cult of Badger as a character’.

This isn’t to say that what Nick is doing isn’t to some extent cowardly or an abdication of duty – he realises as much when things get out of hand with the loathsome Groom, who seems on the cusp of making a racist remark to a taxi driver, at a family soirée, with Nick ‘shaken’ by his own surprising bravery in abandoning his calculating, ironic protocol to impulsively and sincerely label the MP an ‘arsehole’ to his face. But Nick’s protective reticence can be rationalised by a rather more sympathetic desire when his circumstances are taken into consideration, a desire better explained with recourse to the other breed of irony skilfully identified within The Line of Beauty.

Something that Isherwood does not quite account for in his wish to be the all-knowing comic puppeteer of Goodbye to Berlin, as we have already somewhat established, is that he is practicing a ‘dominant’ form of irony, whose love of mastery and tendency to complicate solidarity is thoroughly suited to historical moments of conservative ascendancy.

Gratuitously cruel instead of occasionally cruel, this brand of dominant irony is weaponized against those who don’t quite fall in with the ascendant group in question in order to assert this group’s absolute superiority. A telling example occurs when, while Nick is trying his hardest during the aforementioned soirée to keep up some small talk with Penny about Henry James, he interprets Badger knowingly and surreptiously flirting with her on his other side as ‘one of Badger’s little sexual challenges to him – it was almost a way of calling him a fag’. Defensive irony is not just a question of Nick’s pliability, but to whom he is pliable. Accordingly, Badger making the Feddens’ houseguest keenly aware of his difference as a gay man, without that difference itself being spoken of, emerges as the subtlest method of making him accountable to the c(/C)onservatism that his priniciples urge him to resist.

This stealthy formulation of irony is characterised most of all by its anticipation of the moment where it can aggressively re-emerge of sincerity, a wish for exposition that is of course tempered by the degree of boldness required within a certain political moment. 

This, after all, is the political era of Section 28, where Margaret Thatcher’s firmly-entrenched majority has emboldened a reluctant, ‘I-don’t-see-why-they-should-stuff-it-down-our-throats’ outlook on same-sex relations. The opportunistic Barry Grooms of this delicate social formation accordingly search tactfully for the moment to follow through on the implications of this ‘tolerant’ intolerance. Groom bides his time deferring to important (implicitly) gay Thatcherite allies such as National Security expert Morden Lipscomb, but always with a certain sinister futurity, producing ‘something awful, a sly smile’ after Nick’s reprimand. 

When Groom is no longer on the back foot, with Nick’s extracurricular activities blamed for the vultures circling the Feddens, he is free to dispense with the act of knowing but not telling. He shoves past Nick on his way to crisis talks with Gerald, calling him a ‘stupid little pansy’, before harking back to the fateful soirée to give his previously private thoughts on Nick’s character:

‘I remember sitting next to him after dinner here, years ago, and thinking, you don’t fit in here, do you,  you little cocksucker […] I could see he wished he was upstairs with the women.’

The irony that seeks to dominate rather than defend is thus an even more pronounced form of cowardice, a protective chrysalis which ensures that the aggressor can stalk its prey from a distance until the moment is right, belying the vulgar wish to see its victory decisively confirmed.

The mirror image of this insidious longing for all that is solid to melt into air, which poses as irony, is the poignant longing which characterises Nick’s own defensive irony. For all of Nick’s shameless schmoozing, the referent of his own irony is his aspiration of belonging to normal, beautiful life, but as a gay man. Nick enjoys a fanciful status as a ‘lost middle child’ among the Feddens, where this balance is seemingly struck – he is in an environment where his professional interest in aesthetics can be supported while his sexuality is ostensibly accepted. This lifestyle is conditional – it relies on Nick knowingly ‘playing the game’ alongside the other cynics and sycophants – but this seems a small price to pay at first.

What The Line of Beauty asks us is, why would you want to live your life in this way? Masking the sincere fact of your vulnerability may do to get by, but ultimately when the moment arises, others have only been pretending that they cannot see through this mask. Having been wholly betrayed by every member of the Feddens at the end, each of them individually disavowing him in one way or another, Nick, anxiously awaiting the results of an HIV test, ruminates on his ‘love of the world that was shockingly unconditional’, and sees that the vibrant, seductive social world which he painfully attached himself too was merely one of many paths he might have chosen, that, in the midst of leaving a street where he suffered so much for himself and others, ‘the fact of a street corner at all […] seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful’.

This moment of candour, unsurprisingly occasioned by Nick’s very pressing feelings of bodily vulnerability, tells us that sincerity is the discovery of unities, an appraisal of the self which turns outwards to sacrifice the delusions of the self on the altar of the greater good, as Hollinghurst puts it a ‘self-pity [which] belonged to a larger pity’.

Irony and la règle du jeu are necessary and even forgivable to a certain extent, but it has to be remembered that they are best employed as an expedient cloak for those looking to reaffirm their own advantages. For the well-intentioned, irony invariably, both in the examples of Nick and Isherwood, has a corrosive tendency to sever our connection not only with ourselves but the wider world. Only in sincerely taking account of one’s own human frailty, a process which enables Nick to see that he isn’t exempted from the persecutions of Thatcher’s Britain, can this connection with the beautiful struggle of an existence on the political margins be regained.

(1) I’ll be referring to Isherwood’s novelistic persona as ‘Chris’.

(2) I have to admit I lifted this quotation from Wikipedia, but the original can be found in Christopher and His Kind

(3) There are lots of humorous moments where Nick almost steps outside of himself to scrutinize his own behaviour – I really enjoyed his date with Leo in the novel, where, distinguishing himself from the Feddens in conversation, he is poignantly ‘rather surprised to hear himself throwing his whole fantasy of belonging there out of the window

(4) ‘He unlocked the gate and let Leo go in ahead of him. ‘Cycling isn’t permitted in the gardens, but I dare say you can walk your bike.’ Leo hadn’t learnt his mock-pompous tone yet. ‘I dare say bumshoving isn’t permitted either,’ he said.

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