1935 – mr. norris changes trains ~ christopher isherwood

Things I didn’t realise about bookblogging, number one hundred and thirty three:

Book reviews are a very of-the-moment thing.

Some of the novels I’ve read for Book to the Future have stuck in my thoughts; their atmosphere still haunting me months after I turned the final page and clicked the “Publish” button on my review. Other books that impressed me initially have completely failed to make a long-term impression.

But while my thoughts regarding books change over time, my reviews cannot.

This week, I read a book that I feel could go either way. I could have forgotten it entirely in one months’ time, or it could grow in my mind into something beautiful…

Mr. Norris Changes Trains

by Christopher Isherwood

Published in 1935

Like so many great stories, Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains begins with a chance encounter.

William Bradshaw, our narrator, is adrift. An expat Englishman in Berlin, he makes a meagre living teaching English. He has a casual relationship with a fellow expat named Helen. Quite simply, William is bored.

When he meets Arthur Norris on a train, William’s life is instantly transformed. Mr. Norris is middle-aged, with long, delicate hands, crooked teeth, a rather obvious wig – and a forged passport. Jittery with the fear of being caught, Norris begins a conversation with William, our protagonist, and the two begin a strange, shy friendship.

William visits Arthur Norris at his home, and he’s further intrigued. Norris runs an import and exporting business, but, upon questioning, Mr. Norris can’t tell William what he actually imports and exports.

Arthur Norris is a complicated guy. Though he has creditors quite literally beating at the door, he lives a lavish lifestyle. Though he’s the very picture of the proper gentleman, in private, he’s a sexual masochist, and pays a prostitute three nights a week. He despises the working class, but is a member of the Communist party, giving emotion-filled speeches at their meetings.

William finds himself drawn to Arthur Norris. But are William’s feelings grounded in disgust…or attraction? And is Arthur Norris really the harmless eccentric he seems?

Set against the background of a Germany hurtling towards Nazism, Mr. Norris Changes Trains is an intriguing study of not only a character, but a country teetering on the edge.

Isherwood really knows how to pique my interest. It’s not Mr. Norris, but our narrator, William Bradshaw who has me intrigued. There’s nothing I love more than an unreliable first-person narrator. William likes to speak as if he’s an impartial observer, as if he’s somehow separate from the entire situation, and Norris means nothing to him. But, at the same time, when Norris suddenly goes away for months on end at the beginning of their relationship, William’s disappointment is almost that of a smitten lover. By the end of the novel, he and Norris are living in the same house, and William watches him as he completes his elaborate morning routine, in one of my favourite passages of the novel:

“It was a revelation to me to discover, after all this time, the complex preparations which led up to his every appearance in public. I hadn’t dreamed, for example, that he spent ten minutes three times a week in thinning his eyebrows with a pair of pincers. (‘Thinning, William; not plucking. That is a piece of effeminacy which I abhor.’)” (pg. 118)

Mr. Norris is such an impressively ironic novel. Many were the times when, I’d find myself smiling as I read. I can’t resist a little playful irony.

What I appreciated most about Mr. Norris is Isherwood’s extraordinary talent for creating characters. There’s a whole cast of strange and twisted people who, like our narrator, are drawn to Arthur Norris. My favourite member of the supporting cast is the Baron (complete with monocle!) who has a massive crush on William and reads adventure stories intended for young boys, which he interprets in an entirely sexual context. I love the sheer seediness that hangs around this novel. And then, of course, there’s Norris himself – possibly the seediest, shiftiest character of all. The opening passage of the book, in which Isherwood/William describes Norris in every detail is a brilliant piece of character writing.

I also admire Isherwood’s subtlety. Very little is stated explicitly. Much of what we know about the characters is merely implied, or shrouded in mystery. A modern novel wouldn’t be so deliciously subtle – it’d show us everything in detail. And then, there’s the adept way in which Isherwood builds up a frenzied, almost apocalyptic atmosphere. This is more than just a novel – it’s history in the making; the rise of Nazism told, albeit through the frame of fiction, as it happened.

I was greatly impressed by this novel, but I did have a few issues, however, with the plot. Towards the end of the novel, Isherwood’s plot suddenly becomes a little more complicated than I was expecting. I’m not a huge fan of political novels, and I’m easily confused by convoluted plots. I had a little trouble keeping up with what was happening and why. I also felt the novel’s ending was a little weak – but perhaps that’s only because the opening was so strong.

Overall, I found Mr. Norris Changes Trains a promising novel. I’m definitely interested in reading more of Isherwood’s novels – in particular, Goodbye to Berlin, his most recognisable work, which is written in a more autobiographical tone than Mr. Norris. It was published in 1939 – and, interestingly, it’s the basis for the film Cabaret. I won’t be reading it for Book to the Future, but I’m looking forward to picking it up sometime in the not-too-distant future.

With every book I read, my reading list only expands. While some might find this frustrating, personally, I’m elated by this prospect.

~~

Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should you read it:

While Isherwood has impressed me as a writer, I’m not sure Mr. Norris has left a huge impression on me. It’s a great character study. I’ll leave you to decide this one.

In a word:

Subtle.

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century’s classic novels in chronological order.

4 thoughts on “1935 – mr. norris changes trains ~ christopher isherwood”

  1. Oh, what a shame about the convoluted plot approach at the end. Until then, I was nodding along with your review thinking that this was exactly the sort of book I’d love to pick up!

    (Admittedly, I did initially read that title as “Mr Norris Changes Nappies”, which would no doubt be a very different book…

  2. Mr. Norris Changes Nappies would also have been an interesting book!

    I love the way Isherwood writes; the way he creates atmosphere and characters so effectively, but there was just something about this novel that didn’t capture me.

  3. I find the same thing about blogging when it comes to books as well. Sometimes if I don’t blog about particular books in a certain amount of time I’m not going to end up blogging about it, but I find also that if I make a whole lot of notes while reading, then I will.

    It’s a shame about the ending being weak compared to such a strong beginning, but I’m still intrigued by the characters. I love it when friendships start out in that sort of way and the characters end up being something eccentric or insidious. Thanks for the review Michelle, I’ll be keeping an eye out for this one.

    1. I take notes during reading, then immediately after I finish, so I don’t forget my initial impressions and thoughts. I also fold over the corners of pages I want to remember for later. Some books have just a few. But other books, practically half the book is folded over. Whoops.

      If I didn’t set myself up with a weekly review schedule, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I’m actually the World’s Greatest Procrastinator – but as long as I have a set routine, and I tell a significant number of other people that routine (like Nanowrimo!) I’m okay.

      Mr. Norris really is about characters. It’s definitely worth reading, even if just to observe the way Isherwood sets up the strange relationship between our narrator and Mr. Norris – without telling us the exact nature of that relationship.

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