Queer Classics: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris cover

Continuing with my Isherwood burn, I read this and Goodbye to Berlin as part of a collection. This was my favourite of the two (though I might get around to reviewing the other one as well).  This is one of Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin novels (this one published in 1935) which capture his experiences of the city at the time leading up to WW2. William Bradshaw, an English man living in Berlin, strikes up a friendship with Arthur Norris whilst on a train to the city. Norris, with his strange manners, ill-fitting wig and suspicious passport, intrigues the somewhat detached and sarcastic Bradshaw.

The whole novel has a light, satirical quality to it which I really enjoyed. Bradshaw’s detachment is almost ridiculous at times, and eventually leads him into hot water (I won’t give any more away). It’s really the humorous observations and characterisations that were the highlight of the book for me. Isherwood plays with Bradshaw’s youthful detachment in contrast to the very serious, and sometimes violent, political backdrop playing out around him. Norris is a serial fabricant, incapable of facing or telling the truth about his business dealings, his past or his financial realities; he’s a really amusing character.

Likely because of the time it was written (and the semi-autobiographical nature of his stories at this time), sexuality is treated quite coyly. One of the characters, a German aristocrat, Baron Pregnitz, is quite clearly gay, but Isherwood is much more vague about Bradshaw’s sexuality. Although at one point, Bradshaw uses his intimacy with Pregnitz to lure him into an intrigue on behalf of Norris.

Mr Norris is enjoyable as satire, and an interesting insight into a place and time that had such a profound impact on the 20th century and beyond. The plot twist for me wasn’t much of a surprise, but that didn’t really mar my enjoyment.

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3 thoughts on “Queer Classics: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

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