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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Christopher Isherwood - Mr Norris Changes Trains

Mr Norris Changes Trains - Christopher Isherwood


When a friend of mine heard that I was reading a book titled "Mr Norris Changes Trains", the first thing he said was "Chuck, I suppose?".

Poor Christopher Isherwood! Had he known about the main badass character of Walker Texas Ranger kicking his Arthur Norris out of common knowledge, I'm sure he would have chosen to call him differently.
By the way, popular culture betrayed Isherwood twice here. Just tell a female friend of yours what given name the surname "Bradshaw" (the main narrator of this novel) brings to her mind and there you are: Carrie.

Does this ring a bell? I sincerely hope it doesn't.
But I'm afraid it does. Now, don't deny it!

Anyways, let's put first and second names aside for a moment. And let's forget that - Chuck or not Chuck - "Mr Norris Changes Trains" is a very unfortunate title. If I could rechristen this book, I would call it "The Fairy Godfather" (sorry Daniel Pennac) or, on a more silly note, "The Wig and the Moustache". But Mr Isherwood thought it otherwise.

This is an odd novel. Here we have a book which is at the same time a relic from the past and something modern.
Whereas Arthur Norris' look, speech and manners wouldn't displease Thackeray, the little Isherwood tells us about the foreign correspondent Helen Pratt is enough to make a Orianna Fallaci or a Katie Adie out of her.

This contrast is just the effect Isherwood wants.
For "Mr Norris Changes Trains" is set in a very well-defined place and moment of recent history: Berlin in the mid-thirties. That is precisely when Hitler seized power tightening his grip on a whole nation and - quite soon - changing for worse Europe as we knew it.
And that Berlin was caught between the carefree hedonism of its cabarets (heirloom of the 1920s) and an economic and political crisis which quite helped the Nazis to kidnap Germany and throw it to the dogs.

Isherwood is masterful in writing: no doubt about this. And where he excels is in Mr Norris himself. This affected Barry Lyndonesque man with more than a touch of effeminacy and seeking for masochistic pleasures is a marvelous creation.
Far less successful is how the British author writes about Mr Norris' business between Paris and Berlin: plotting and intrigues are definitely something Graham Greene is more apt to work on than his compatriot. Isherwood tries to tell us more about German communists but he somehow fails to be very convincing in that respect.

Nevertheless, this is a good and enjoyable novel, if only for Arthur Norris' antics.
I would have liked Isherwood saying more about Berlin in the 1930s but the German capital stands pretty much in the background here with the exception of a chapter or two. I guess how I should pick up "Goodbye Berlin" by the same author or try the earlier "Berlin Stories" cooked up by Robert Walser to get more of what I want.