Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains falls into that strange corner of literature labelled “autobiographical fiction”. Apparently based on Isherwood’s experience as an ex-pat in Germany in the thirties, it also falls into that strange period of European history between the two biggest wars humanity’s ever seen: a moment of decadence and optimism that’s over almost before it’s begun.
Our Narrator, William Bradshaw (an author insert: William and Bradshaw were Isherwood’s middle names), living in Berlin, strikes up an unlikely friendship with the titular Mr Norris, a man who habitually lives beyond his means, receives money from mysterious sources, is involved with some communists, and (gasp!) enjoys a little light BDSM of an evening. So decadent! So degenerate! Oh Isherwood, you sweet summer child.
What else is there to say? Not a huge amount, honestly. It feels obvious and a little disingenuous to talk about the cloud of oncoming war that hangs over the novel: it was first published in 1933, so while its author and characters knew that something was coming (the Reichstag fire is a major plot point, inasmuch as this novel has a plot) they could not possibly have known how big and terrible it would be. Still; the teleological reading is inevitable. A lot of people disappear at the novel’s end, and we half-intuit their fate.
It’s a slight little book, pretty much entirely character study, but tales of decadence petering into ominous silence have a particular draw. I think, too, that this is the first novel I’ve read that sets this interwar decadence in Germany, so we get to experience the gathering political menace of the early thirties both at first hand – through the eyes of someone who was actually there – and at one remove: William Bradshaw, being British, white, male, apparently straight* and politically neutral, is never really in any direct danger from the Nazi party’s rise to power. The novel’s semi-autobiographical status has a similar effect: the fiction removes us from the autobiography. We see these events from a distance, not really grasping their full import. The result is this sense of dreamlike menace. Something is coming, but no-one (or, rather, none of the characters) know exactly what it is.
I don’t have a conclusion for this one. (Do I ever.) It’s an unusual novel; I wouldn’t necessarily call it great literature, but it’s an interesting, atmospheric treatment of the lost few years before the Second World War. I kind of wish I’d read it when I was writing my undergraduate dissertation, actually: set in the period I was writing about, with the same haunting, uncanny effects I was analysing. Maybe I’ll revisit it with that in mind, one day.
*although, in fact, Isherwood himself was gay