Christopher Isherwood, in his autobiography "Christopher and his Kind", published in 1976, offers a candid version of his bohemian sojourn in Berlin at the beginning of the 20th Century. The author makes clear that his stay was due more to the satisfaction of his sexual desires and less to the gathering of material for his autobiographical novels "Mr Norris Changes Trains" (1935) and "Goodbye to Berlin" (1939). During Isherwood’s stay, Berlin was in the last throes of the Republic of Weimar and at the centre of a cultural and artistic innovation; it was also a place renowned for its sexual freedom, and that was quite appealing to upper class homosexuals. In Berlin, the author could find both inspiration for his works and a personal freedom he could not find at home.
Many other writers of the 30s had chosen Berlin as elective site for expatriation, because it was seen as a locus of history in the making, a city of history. Despite this, Isherwood’s "Goodbye to Berlin" is more a novel of the city than a novel about a city. In it, the shared textuality of the urban and the literary is developed along thematic lines that stem from a basic autobiographical matrix: the city as the elected location for the construction of a personal, sexual and ideological identity; the structural identification between the narrating self (also an authorial projection) and the city as body; and, finally, the city as illusion, artifice and cluster of isolated realities, in its turn related to a problematic caesura between individual and community.
Background and mould of a sizeable part of modern literature, the city has often developed into a literary myth. Be it a metropolis like London or Berlin, or a cosmopolitan area in Mitteleuropa like Trieste or Prague, it is possible to consider the city as a semantic space, a representation of a text open to multiple and different interpretations.
Literature helps to ‘create’ a city as much as architects do, as Kevin Lynch has stated about Dickens’ London: the writer builds the perception readers have of a place, and the way it is imagined by his/her readers. This can be clearly exemplified by 19th-century literature, in which cities like Paris, London and Vienna were rebuilt like works of art to celebrate their historical achievements, and took their place in the collective unconscious as much as the characters of the most famous novels of the time.
In literature, the city becomes then an existential topos: the place in which the world’s complexity is discovered; the interior and mental landscape; the place of modernity with its tensions and difficult appeasement between individuality and community; paysage moralisé and infinite; discordant place of aporias.