Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Photograph by Carl van Vechten, through Wiki Commons

Photograph by Carl van Vechten, through Wiki Commons. (Isherwood on left, W.H. Auden on right.)

When I came up with the idea of Shelf of Shame week, I couldn’t immediately think which author to choose.  I knew I wanted to pick an author I’d left neglected, rather than a single significant book, and I wanted it to be an author I really should have read.  There are plenty of big names I’ve yet to read, particularly from world literature, but they could wait.  I chose Christopher Isherwood.

In the grand scale of things, he’s not a name that would be all that glaring by omission – but with a doctorate in interwar literature under my belt, I felt a definite lack by not knowing Isherwood’s work.  Whenever I told people what I was studying, they’d almost invariably throw a few names at me – P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh were the most commonly mentioned, but Christopher Isherwood came up a few times.  Now I’ll be able to nod sagely and say “Yes, well of course I’ve read Mr. Norris Changes Trains.”  I was hoping Shelf of Shame week would help us each discover a latent love for certain authors and books – or at least a violent reaction.  Well, I remain rather on the fence with Isherwood…

Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) has a great opening paragraph:

My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue.  They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakeably scared.  Startled and innocently naughty, they half reminded me of an incident I couldn’t quite place; something which had happened a long time ago, to do with the upper fourth form classroom.  They were the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules.  Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything except his own thoughts: perhaps he imagined I could read them.  At any rate, he seemed no to have heard or seen me cross the compartment from my corner to his own, for he started violently at the sound of my voice; so violently, indeed, that his nervous recoil hit me like repercussion.  Instinctively, I took a pace backwards.

This paragraph introduces us to Mr. Norris – a somewhat childlike man, for all his intrigue, dodgy dealings, and penchant for light BDSM (“My collection of whips was probably unique.”).  It also introduces us to the narrator William Bradshaw.  If you know Christopher Isherwood better than I did, you might know that his full name is Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood, hence this narrator/authorial figure, who seldom intervenes in the plot, but is always observing.

And the plot is somewhat complex.  This, I confess, is where I started wanting to hop off the train.  The characters were so interestingly formed, whether comic (the landlady is amusing; there is also a definite dark comedy to the professional sado-masochist), tragic, or – as with Mr. Norris – a combination of the two.  But I’m afraid any storyline which focuses on politics is one which is unlikely to thrill me.

Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with goings-on of the communist party and the Nazis – mostly the former – with various people exposed as double-crossing each other, and lots of talk of smuggling things across borders and saying the right things to the wrong people, etc. etc.  I don’t know precisely what I expected from Isherwood, but I think it was probably men in smoking jackets leaning on grand pianos and being louche.  Flappers, maybe, being spikily witty over cocktails.  I’d have lapped all that up like nobody’s business.  The ins and outs of communists… not so much.

And yet (I told you I was on the fence) the writing was wonderful.  Isherwood didn’t indulge in symbolism all that often, but when he did it was worth the wait – I loved ‘Like a long train which stops at every dingy little station, the winter dragged slowly past.’ And some paragraphs showed how he could get into the details of a character even without permitting access to their mind:

As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes.  But no, this time-honoured process didn’t work.  Here were no windows to the soul.  They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shellfish in the crevices of a rock.  There was nothing to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam.  Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin.  After three or four attempts, I gave it up.  It was no good.  There was nothing for it but to take Arthur at his word.

But, on the whole, I neither loved nor hated it.  I felt a bit like I’d hopped on the wrong train, and that I could still love Isherwood, given the right book.  (Perhaps it didn’t help that the Folio edition I’m reading had illustrations by Beryl Cook, whose work I’ve never liked, and which didn’t seem a good match for the subtleties of Isherwood’s prose.)  But Shelf of Shame week is intended to get books off shelves, and I’m glad to have the beginnings of a grasp on Isherwood.  And now I’d like suggestions for which one I should try reading instead…

5 comments on “Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

  1. Kate
    March 18, 2014

    Good heavens, Beryl Cook illustrating Isherwood? My mind is boggling.

    I think I had the same problems as you when reading this, I was thinking, ‘come on, where’s Sally Bowles?’, and had Cabaret lurking at the back of my mind. But I do think this is an excellent short novel, great for teaching, and great for seeing the dismal misery of pre-Nazi Germany if you were an outsider. Mr Norris reminds me of the grubby slithery con-men in Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, not heroic at all, and why should he be.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    March 18, 2014

    Intriguing! I read “Goodbye to Berlin” expecting to love it, and was somehow – well, a little uninvolved. Yes, his prose is wonderful, but…. I don’t know what the ‘but’ is yet – maybe when I’ve read more I will understand!!

  3. AnotherLookBook
    March 20, 2014

    Ah, that opening paragraph would have pulled me in! Beautiful writing. For the lounging-in-smoking-jackets type of Isherwood, I’d recommend The World in the Evening. It was my first (and so far only) Isherwood experience, and it left quite an impression on me. Plus, I’m not that into war and political stuff, and in The World in the Evening war definitely takes a backseat to the rest of the narrative.

  4. Thomas at My Porch
    March 21, 2014

    The Isherwood that I have enjoyed the most and that has stayed with me the most is A Meeting By the River. It was one of my top ten books for 2009. It is about a man who travels to India to make contact with his brother who has gone there to become a Buddhist monk.

  5. neer
    March 21, 2014

    I read this last year and rather liked the description of the last days of Weimar Republic. Some of the characters were well-defined and that the narrative voice was non-judgmental was a great plus point. Also I loved this quote:

    ‘Never mind. Never mind. In this brief life, one cannot always be counting the cost.’

    If you are interested, here are my views on it:

    http://inkquilletc.blogspot.in/search/label/Mr.%20Norris%20Changes%20Trains

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2014 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 20th Century, Shelf of Shame and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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