MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS (1935)

download (1)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-70s, and, again, 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, specifically, gay pride.  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” (4).

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 is definitely the background, however, and not what the book is about. 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 (most hated it) 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 and fascinating subjects out of any Isherwood novel you choose.

Links: Isherwood Foundation .org Goodreads | Amazon

Advertisements

BOOK OF CLOUDS (2009)

downloadMy experience reading Book of Clouds suffered slightly from skewed expectations. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the story to really kick in to gear. Each time something out of the ordinary occurred, I’d think, this is it! Now the story really begins! And then it wouldn’t, at least not in the way I expected. In retrospect, I’m probably not the first person who’s read Book of Clouds and felt this way, and this is, in part, what Book of Clouds accomplishes.

The novel follows a young woman, probably in her mid twenties, living alone in Berlin, an expat from Mexico where the rest of her family still resides. The setting of Berlin is what drew me to this book. I’ve been fascinated with post-war Germany and specifically Berlin for a few years now, and so a novel about a foreign girl living alone in Berlin was appealing to me for obvious reasons.

Beginning early on in the book there are scenes that don’t seem quite real, for example when the protagonist reflects on a memory of seeing an old woman on a train who resembled Hitler so precisely that she decided it was indeed Hitler himself on the train with her. Every time one of these not-quite-real scenes occurred, I’d expect the story to transform into something else: something with magic, or a mystery, but it never did. Instead, it was almost disappointingly realistic. A chance encounter doesn’t become a great love. Her employer, an old historian, never really opens up to her; never spills his secrets, if he has any. There’s no one hiding in the attic apartment upstairs. People and places are left behind without a fuss or dramatic parting of ways. And to me, this is what Book of Clouds was about. It wasn’t particularly hopeful, but didn’t leave me feeling hopeless either; there was an absence of expectation- positive or negative. It was, even with the magically-charged moments or dream-like scenes experienced by the protagonist, strikingly real.

Links: Interview with Chloe Aridjis | Goodreads | Amazon