Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #41: Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr. Arthur Norris is a perfectly debauched creation, a fey man of middling years with the murkiest of pasts and a complete vacancy of morals. Meeting him on a train to Berlin in the ’30s, young English teacher William Bradshaw – another Isherwood stand-in – is taken by his acquaintance: “His smile had great charm. It diclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks.”

Amused by this delicate dandy with his equal parts fastidiousness and generosity, their friendship is cemented over the first of many drinks. Later, Bradshaw notes, “the second cognac worked wonders”, and in Norris and Bradshaw’s decadent Berlin, it generally does. The brownshirts and the political turmoil around them is a backdrop to Norris’s much more appealing transgressions – drunken evenings, sexual perversity, and disreputable company. And then there is the delicate topic of money, and how Norris funds his many proclivities. It is all, to Bradshaw, a bit of fun, despite what his other friends may thing of his odd duck friend. But then there is one con too many, and his Berlin adventures begin to get far more serious.

Isherwood condemned his own novel, twenty years later, as a heartless fairy-story. But as a description of one type of mischief that was lost with the Nazi regime, the unraveling of a sub-society, and the terrible rise of Hitler, it is effective and heartrending. After reading Orwell condemn just the sort of poncey halfassed Marxist that Isherwood clearly knew he was, this was an interesting counterpoint: we need many different kinds of stories about war and politics, and the exposure of people to evil, and the fact that even Norris is horrified by Hitler is a darkly funny testament to that. Not heartless at all, it’s a very funny work shot through with suppressed terror.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #22: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

One of Isherwood’s most famous works, and one of his later books – from 1964 – it’s a short, vivid, no-holds-barred descent into grief. It opens with an indelible passage, simple but sharp. George wakes up and for a few blissful moments, he’s not George – he’s just a body, with no memory. Then his consciousness takes hold, and so does the pain.

George’s lover has died, and now he’s trying to get through the day. There’s an important difference between the film and the book, which I won’t go into, about George’s motivation, but in both he’s shielding the shell-shocked emptiness of his life from those around him.

There is not just sadness, but fury and humour and even mischief, in his mind. Isherwood doesn’t spare his views on politics, race (very dated, but for an Englishman in mid-60s California, illuminating), culture, and gender – he characteristically thumbs his nose at the entire female species. It’s interesting that the lead is ‘George’, and not ‘Christopher Isherwood’ as in many of his other works. Apparently he was inspired by re-reading Mrs Dalloway, which was a nice coincidence for me as I read that right afterwards.

For all the bleakness of the subject matter, it’s an extraordinarily vital work.

P.S. I watched the movie shortly after reading this, and absolutely loved it.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBR5 Review #1: Down There on a Visit by Christopher Isherwood

Image  I’ve been on an Isherwood kick lately, years after first reading The Berlin Stories. His prose is so crisp and perfect, and he seems to have attended every kind of party and debaunch available in the early twentieth century. Down There on a Visit (the mundane title clicks into place in the final pages) is a series of four interconnected character studies, all narrated by “Christopher Isherwood”, from 1928 to 1940. They cover London, provincial Germany, a tiny Greek island, Los Angeles, but circle Berlin – in the book he only visits the city once, briefly. But the rise of the Nazis and WWII are shown in their psychically insidious and brutal effect on everyone, particularly the writer, who chronicles his attempts to find sanctuary. Isherwood doesn’t spare us his ego, and he unpicks his own failings with the same crisp brilliance he examines the people around him.

Each section is more or less about the confrontation between him and those parts of the world he dreads but can’t quite resist. The first section is about Mr Lancaster, a pompous old fart who he endures a tragi-comic visit with as a young, ambitious & horny upstart. He shows how desperate he was to throw off the weight of history and the sheer bore of what the older generation considered sacred. In a throwaway line, he mentions the germ of his fateful decision to visit Berlin, based entirely off of Mr Lancaster’s denunciation of the city as a moral-free cesspool teeming with deviants.

The next section has the narrator leaving Berlin and the Nazis behind for a seeming idyll in Greece, funded by a young wastrel called Ambrose. He’s one of Isherwood’s grotesques, you think at first, another monster like poisonous blonde Maria, socialite and parasite, or braying fool Geoffrey. But as everything on the island descends to squalor, he witnesses the toll of not belonging to anything that has wrenched them both adrift. That sense of estangement continues to haunt the third section, named after his German friend Waldemar. With the war, Isherwood hunches in London. He struggles with relentlessly human failings, resentment at not being able to indluge in self-pity, admiration for E.M. Forster, angry sex, and constant frantic newspaper reading (he would’ve been a devil on twitter).

The final section is a virtuosic piece of writing. Named after another monster, Paul, a southern Dorian Grey clone he encounters in Hollywood, he manages to write about spirituality and his quest for enlightenment without ever becoming soggy or indulgent. The last meeting with Paul is a devastating scene, unstintingly beautiful as it unfolds and we watch him disappear into the Parisian night.

Down There on a Visit is as witty and sharp as Evelyn Waugh at his best, but it’s also sad and sometimes sublime. A masterpiece by a writer who was there for the hangovers as well as the parties.