TAC Bookshelf for the Week of July 1
Matt Purple, managing editor: Some lighter fare from me this week, starting with the Weimar Republic. There’s been a surge of interest in interwar Germany as of late, probably due to its eerie parallels with our own times: the instability, the rush to political extremes, the hedonism. The show Babylon Berlin captures this fraught atmosphere well, as did in its own day Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin.
Set between 1930 and 1933 and published in 1939, Goodbye to Berlin spotlights the bohemianism of its namesake: the cabarets, the seductions, the gay relationships. Yet whereas Babylon Berlin sends it whirling around your head with a faint, passing whisper of “darling,” Goodbye quietly hones in on its individual characters. Its narrator, an English writer, professes to be “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive”—and his lens picks up a good deal of humor and joy, a city jarringly normal in many ways. But it also captures the anti-Semitic darkness lurking just beneath. Even the most amiable characters in Goodbye are liable to surprise with Nazi hatreds. Near the beginning, two heretofore sympathetic women listen with glee as another woman in the flat below them is savagely beaten by her fiancé, courtesy of their having deceived him for no reason other than that she is a Jew. Near the end, a mob of young Nazis assaults a man so badly that his eye is left hanging out of its socket. This is not a sickness imposed from above: the vicious prejudices of average people feed directly into the stomping boots later on. Quietly indicted here are not just the Nazis but much of Berlin, those who cheer on fascism and those who, as Isherwood says, acclimate themselves to it “in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter.”
Isherwood was himself an English writer, who traveled to Berlin both to be with his friend W.H. Auden and, like so many other foreigners, to revel in the city’s permissive culture. And perhaps because he lived so actively, no other novelist has portrayed so well the fine-grain causes of why Germany went the way it did. The sheer prescience of Goodbye has made it a valuable historical artifact, while its mix of tension and glamor fits it naturally onto the stage and silver screen. It was the inspiration for the play Cabaret, as well as the origin of Sally Bowles, Weimar’s archetypal fictional nightclub singer.
From hell on earth to actual hell, which David Bentley Hart doesn’t think is an eternal sentence. Hart has a new book out, That All Shall Be Saved, which argues that those who believe that eternal damnation awaits the sinful are reading something far more brutal into Christianity than was ever intended. At issue are questions of justice—whether a just God could ever inflict such punitive punishments—and of freedom—whether anyone is ever totally free in choosing to sin—all of which Hart illuminates brilliantly and which I’m not remotely qualified to comment on here. Perhaps his most accessible inquiry is simply this: why does Christianity sometimes seem like the only modern religion that requires its adherents to be better than its God?
That All Shall Be Saved is a powerful blend of polemic and serious Scriptural study, laden with Hart’s trademark impatience with all who oppose him. Calvinists beware: his pen can be poison. I still occasionally call up his merciless review of Damon Linker’s book The Theocons when I’m feeling blue.