Mr Norris Changes Trains

For the past month (which will now include next week -myself and the boyfriend are taking another well earned week off down ‘sarf’, hurrah!) the foot has been taken off the gas at Relish Towers. As life gets in the way the focus has been on family and friends this month rather than reading and writing. Exhausted (and rather hungover..) as we are, after a week of rest and relaxtion next week, I am hoping that Literary Relish will be returning to normal this autumn/winter. The colder, darker nights will allow ample time for bookish musings and mullings and an opportunity to catch up on some reviews that have been simmering around for a long, long time.

However, before we get started with what I hope will be a flurry of new reviews and discussion I thought I better pop some thoughts down about our rather subdued Manchester Book Club meet last Tuesday…

Apart from Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita that Alex very smartly selected for us a couple of months ago, out of what has been a very diverse selection from our little Book Group, Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains has been my favourite choice by far. Written in 1935 as the first of his ‘Berlin Novels’ (Goodbye to Berlin being the second) Isherwood writes the story of his alter-ego, teacher William Bradshaw who, on a train travelling from Holland into Berlin, encounters and subsequently forms an intriguing friendship with Arthur Norris; a hilarious, evasive, effeminate and often rather sinister middle aged man.

As the mystique surrounding his new found friend and his occupation grows, Bradshaw follows Arthur around pre-war Berlin. From party to restaurant to communist hub, this story is imbued with tension and populated with characters whose appearance seemed so grotesque as to be rather cartoon-like at times:

‘There was no mistaking his warmth. He had a large blunt fleshy nose and a chin which seemed to have slipped sideways. It was like a broken concertina. When he spoke, it jerked crooked in the most curious fashion and a deep cleft dimple like a wound surprisingly appeared in the side of it. Above his ripe red cheeks, his forehead was sculpturally white, like marble. A queerly cut fringe of dark grey hair lay across it, compact, thick, and heavy. After a moment’s examination, I realised, with extreme interest, that he was wearing a wig.’

(Bradshaw meets Arthur Norris) p.3

Having little time to concentrate on anything major this month (a nightmare of a mood to be in when you’re trying to read Salman Rushdie!) Christopher Isherwood proved to be the perfect antidote. His prose is neat and evocative, his characters unusual and the setting exciting. However, it appears that that is all there really was to it! Although a couple of our book group members found Arthur Norris a difficult character to get along with, spoiling the book somewhat for them, the majority found this to be an entertaining read but were unable to elaborate as to exactly why it was so enjoyable, myself included!

Although William Bradshaw is supposed to be Isherwood’s alter-ego (Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) the author very cleverly ensures that his narrator is as neutral, unexciting  and asexual as possible; allowing the big personalities of the novel to shine and for us, as readers, to easily place ourselves in Bradshaw’s position. Hobnobbing with Arthur, his communist ‘associates’ and the fishy Baron Pregnitz in the cafés and bars of 1935 Berlin, it is fascinating to see Isherwood effectively portray the danger and tension of the place at the time, particularly given what we all know about what happened next… 

Isherwood criticised himself intensely later on in life for what he felt was a naive portrayal of this historically significant and harrowing period. I personally feel he was rather harsh on himself. Although the tension we all picked up on in the novel may have been amplified by our own knowledge of Germany under the Nazis; despite the amusing characters and bizarre situations they find themselves in, behind the action in Mr Norris Changes Trains lies a disarming honesty and darkness that betrays genuine acknowledgement of the very real danger lurking in the background. After all, how was he to understand the full extent what would eventually happen come 1939…!?

Isherwood has been introduced to me at the perfect time in my life (thank you Jess!) Writing with simplicity and a unique sense of style, Goodbye to Berlin and A Single Man have now taken pride of place on my wish list.

4 thoughts on “Mr Norris Changes Trains

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