Hogarth Press, 1935
Christopher Isherwood, the author of this novel, is decidedly white and male. This is the thought I had before beginning to read Mr. Norris Changes Trains, a novel I’ve wanted to read for some time now and couldn’t put off any longer. I worried for a second about breaking my 2017 oath when I remembered, he’s gay! Of course! And so, I excitedly include Christopher Isherwood in this blog. He’s not an author I’d read specifically for the purposes of this blog—he’s dead for one thing, his work published from the 1930s to ’70s—and is a white man. However, he was an early openly gay author, an innovator of gay literature, and later (after moving to the states) became one of the first openly gay members of Hollywood society, and a lifelong advocate for gay rights. The real reason I picked up Mr. Norris Changes Trains, however, is because I fell in love with his prose about two years ago reading his much later autobiographical novel, Christopher and his Kind, and I’ve been dying to get to another book of his ever since.
From the first page, I was reminded of why I love Isherwood’s writing so much. He has an unsettling knack for describing experiences that, not only are you completely unable to describe, but have been unable to fully identify or consciously realize you’re experiencing. Isherwood has a remarkable ability of seeing through people and human interactions and committing them to paper, both eloquently and exceptionally clearly. An example:
“The tiny flame of the lighter flickered between us, as perishable as the atmosphere which our exaggerated politeness had created.”
Mr. Norris Changes Trains feels a little like a character study. The character of Arthur Norris begins as a mystery, and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand his nuances, mannerisms, and general disposition as the narrator does. The narrator is a loose representation of Isherwood himself, but in Isherwood’s earlier novels (like this one), Isherwood is mostly an observer and, while an active participant in the events of the story, does not analyze himself as a character the way he does in his later (and better) autobiographical books about his years in Berlin.
The setting of Berlin in the early 1930s begins as a minor character itself, and increasingly comes to the center of the story as political tensions become more intense and the Nazi party gains more and more power. The setting takes a back seat to the characters, however. The book is about characters and the characters happen to be living in and greatly influenced by Berlin. The result is a really interesting look into how Berliners viewed the Nazi party and the politics of the time in general.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains, I don’t think I would have been able to without having read Christopher and his Kind first, and that is the novel I would recommend if you have any interest in reading Christopher Isherwood. With that said, you can expect remarkable prose from any Isherwood novel you choose.