30 September 2014

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

The first 50 pages of this novel are some of the best I've read in a long time. It's a marvelous set-up -- the narrator meets a man on a train and, with a wonderfully detached sort of bemusement, is gradually drawn into the orbit of this mysterious, bizarre character. I wasn't completely taken with what Isherwood decided to do with the story from there (it was quite literally on page 50 where I suddenly thought, oh, hmmm. Ok.), but his prose is so archly fantastic that you're happy to go along for the ride ("She could drink most of the English journalists under the table, and sometimes did so, but more as a matter of principle than because she enjoyed it.").

It's a kind of sub-genre, I think, the story of a narrator who meets a strange person and becomes somewhat entangled in an utterly unfamiliar and not entirely appealing world, ultimately managing to retreat, usually mostly unscathed, as the hurricane of this strange individual passes by. Diana Athill's Make Believe, which I read recently, actually follows a similar model. There is something not entirely satisfying to me about the narrative form -- it places you in the perspective of the ipso facto less interesting character, who is meant to be the screen that displays the crazed meanderings of the real point of interest, who always remains a little bit mysterious and is vaguely being judged as flighty, immature, unstable, etc, whereas the milquetoast narrator gets to be the sensible, wise, responsible one. Or, alternatively, the wildcard ends up seeming like such a self-centered monster that you both despise him/her and blame the narrator for putting up with this nonsense for so long. Either way, my interest is often tempered by a sense of indignation.

Isherwood ameliorates the problem somewhat by giving us a narrator who is a bit of a cad, just aware enough of his tendency to romanticize deadbeats as to allow us to feel comfortable doing the same, and willing to go along with the craziness enough to clear him of the charge of priggishness or prudery (there is a particularly delightful scene where he gets rip roaring drunk and floats along through scenes of chaotic decadence: "Here one of the anaesthetic periods of my evening supervened. How the Baron got me upstairs, I don't know. It was quite painless."). What is more, Isherwood cleverly inserts several other judgmental characters, friends of the narrator's who warn him that Mr Norris is not to be trusted, leaving it open as to whether they are close-minded or sensible.

Two things that make this novel, which was written in 1935, particularly interesting are the ways in which it handles the rise of Nazism and the gay subculture of Berlin. I haven't read many novels written in the 30s that actively portray life in Germany in the 30s (are there many?), where there is no awareness of the tragedy that will follow (or is there, is of course the question). Not knowing what is to come, the book leaves all possibilities open (what Michael André Bernstein, in a very smart book, called 'side-shadowing'), so the sense one has is of a vague undercurrent, not explicitly discussed. The book's treatment of homosexuality, strangely, seems similar -- it seems completely apparent, I think, to a modern-day reader, but one wonders whether Isherwood's contemporaries were slower to catch on (I vaguely seem to recall reading something where a person mentioned being very surprised to realize it). Only once in the novel is it made completely explicit that a character is gay (when one character asks another if he knew that someone was "a fairy"); there is an amusingly euphemistic quality to the rest of the novel, where two men will disappear together for a few hours and resurface later, rather like the fireworks scenes of films from the time.

In any case, I certainly look forward to reading more of Isherwood's writing.

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