Exquisite prose: reading ‘A Single Man’ and ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ by Christopher Isherwood

If there was a poll of the finest writers of the 20th Century, surely Christopher Isherwood would be near the very top of that list.

Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of reading three of his novels, starting with the highly autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, which inspired the hit movie Cabaret and which I have already reviewed on this blog,

After that I read Isherwood’s short novel ‘A Single Man’ (made into a successful 2009 movie by fashion designer Tom Ford) and another set in Berlin, ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’.

It’s been a delight to read such a lyrical and psychological writer, who with a few beautifully formed sentences can bring a scene to life in the reader’s mind and recreate the inner mental workings of his protagonists.

This ability to penetrate deep into the psyche of his characters is evident in A Single Man, a short novel that chronicles the final day in the life of George, a severely depressed gay college professor mourning the loss of his lover Jim.

It’s set in suburban Los Angeles in 1964. Isherwood, who was also gay, emigrated to the US and moved to California in 1939, to escape the more repressive society in his native England.

The extremely compact timeline for the book allows Isherwood to really focus on the inner workings of George’s depressed, but also buzzing mind as he navigates the challenges of the day and deals with his grief and the people and places that trigger memories of Jim.

The opening of the book is quite startling, and reveals another strength of Isherwood’s writing: his creativity. It begins with George waking up in a discombobulated state – an “it” trying to identify the “I” – as he looks at his tired and sad self in the mirror.

“What it sees there isn’t so much a face, as the expression of a predicament. Here’s what it has done to itself, here’s the mess it has somehow got itself into during its fifty-eight years, expressed in terms of a dull, harassed state, a coarsening nose, a mouth dragged down by the corners into a grimace as if at the sourness of its own toxins, cheeks sagging from their anchors of muscle, a throat hanging limp in tiny wrinkly folds.”

It’s just one example of Isherwood’s marvelous descriptive powers and the poetry of his writing.

By the the time the “it” has gotten dressed, spent some time on the toilet from where he observes the quiet suburban streets and some of his neighbours below and eaten some breakfast, George is himself again and ready to set off on the first challenge of the day: the commute to the work.

Throughout the novel, there is a sense that George is trying to swim back to the surface of the here and now, to reconnect with people and the world, even as memories of the past and what he has lost drag him back down.

On his way to teach an English class at a community college, George’s thoughts drift elsewhere as he drives along Los Angeles’s busy highways on auto-pilot.

“And now as he drives, it is as if some autohypnosis exerts itself. We see the face relax, the shoulders unhunch themselves, the body ease itself back into the seat. The reflexes are taking over…”

As he is now free to direct his attention elsewhere, George engages in a fantasy that involves unleashing a virus against homophobes, and then going on a killing spree. Then his vengeful daydream is ended by his arrival at the campus as he “rapidly puts on the psychological make-up for this role [of well-liked, suave English professor] he must play”.

Amid all the despair, and the sense of hopelessness, there is also fleeting pleasure and the meaningfulness it means to George.

There is the homo-erotic pleasure of watching two young men playing tennis in the heat, the “exhilarating” pleasure of watching the students in his class smile back at him with those “bright young eyes”, the pleasure of conversation with a young, male student called Kenny (with whom he is infatuated), the pleasure of revenge, when visits the dying Doris, with whom the late Jim had an affair, and the simple pleasure of companionship and getting drunk when George changes his mind and decides to accept a dinner invitation from his friend Charley, a single mother and fellow Brit.

In a sense then, George’s story is life-affirming: through the veil of immense grief we can still find space to enjoy those moments that give life a quite rich meaning.

I am alive” George says to himself as he drives back from visiting Doris to a workout at the gym.

“And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight and appetite. How good to be in a body – even this old beat-up carcass – that still has warm blood and live semen and rich marrow and wholesome flesh.”

Mr Norris Changes Trains is a more traditional plot-driven suspense novel, but still showcases Isherwood’s ability to create fascinating characters that intrigue and beguile the reader.

Set mainly in Berlin, it tells story of the friendship between a young English tutor called William Bradshaw (the story’s narrator, and a kind of fictional alter ego for Isherwood whose full name was Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) and Arthur Norris, a charming and rather posh older gent fond of using phrases like “My dear old boy”.

The pair meet on a train travelling from the Netherlands to Berlin when William encounters Arthur in a highly agitated state as they await the arrival of immigration officials and surmises that Arthur is mostly like a smuggler.

William soon learns that Arthur is entangled in all sorts of shady and clandestine activities amid the backdrop of a looming war in Europe

Like Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ much of the action unfolds as Berlin finds itself at the crossroads of two great epochs: the end of its famous decadent, free-spirited and Golden era of music, art and cinema and the rise of brutal fascism under dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement.

Bradshaw, who earns his living as a tutor, is drawn into Arthur’s exciting and dangerous world attending rowdy communist party gatherings, bearing witness to his strange business dealings (where Arthur is threatening by his evil business associate Schmidt) and joining Arthur’s bohemian entourage at Berlin’s rowdy bars and night clubs.

On one occasion Norris disappears from the party, and Bradshaw, goes in search for him only to find him engaged in a sado-masochist ritual, which he at first mistakes for Arthur (whom he can hear crying out “Nein, Nein! Mercy!”) being robbed.

“The first person I saw was Anni. She was standing in the middle of the room. Arthur cringed on the floor at her feet. He had removed several more of his garments, and was now dressed lightly, but with perfect decency, in a suite of mauve silk underwear, a rubber abdominal belt, and a pair of socks. In one hand he held a brush, and in the other a yellow shoe rag.

Olga towered behind him brandishing a leather whip. ‘You call that that clean, you swine,’ she called in a terrible voice. ‘Do them again this minute. And if I find a speck of dirt I’ll thrash you till you can’t sit down for a week. As she spoke she gave Arthur a smart cut across the buttocks. He uttered a squeal of pain and pleasure and began to brush and polish Anni’s boots with feverish haste.

Both comical and shocking, it’s one of the many delightfully entertaining episodes in the book that Bradshaw describes without judgement as he drawn deeper into Arthur’s intrigues, plots and plans.

Arthur Norris as I have since found out is based on Gerald Bernard Francis Hamilton, whose friends included Winston Churchill, the American actress Tallulah Bankhead and the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, who was his landlord in London in the 1930s. Hamilton, who became known as “the wickedest man in Europe” – was a “fixer” for notorious communist Willi Munzenburg and someone who sold secrets for a living.

Hamilton was also imprisoned for bankruptcy and indecency. According to an article in The Spectator magazine, Hamilton lived a “long and disgraceful life” where everything he did was for money, rather than for political reasons.

Regardless of the nature of his clandestine activities, Hamilton clearly cast a spell over Isherwood who turned him into the more genial, but still Machiavellian wig-wearing conman Arthur Norris.

The novel was a critical and commercial success, but Isherwood later condemned it at making light of the suffering of the people he depicted in it.

Whether or not this is fair critique, is largely irrelevant in my mind as you can, like me, read ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ as if it were purely historical fiction and revel in the curiously fascinating character of Mr Norris and his affect on a young, naΓ―ve English tutor.

It reminded me of the British noir classic, The Third Man by Orson Welles. ‘No doubt Mr Norris Changes Trains’ would make a brilliant movie in the right hands.