Glimpsing solidarity: Christopher Isherwood, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)

berlin-stories-last-mr-norris-christopher-isherwoodTo be honest (and unlike Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues), I never much intended to read Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), but then along came the opportunity when scoping out possible material for a new module (on the city in fiction and film). And to be honest some more, it turns out I prefer Isherwood’s companion volume Goodbye to Berlin (1939), and might even use the opening of its final story, ‘A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)’ on the module. But his debut novel does contain one particular passage that I really admire.

I like the way it struggles to articulate a collective subjectivity, which should be much easier than it is, since all subjectivity is really intersubjectivity. I like the the tension between the narrator’s desire to be part of that collective and to be its voice and to maintain both his outsiderness and his sense of superiority, which he clings to at the same time as feeling he shouldn’t. It tries to capture something special even if it cannot quite get inside of it. It takes a chance. It goes like this:

The hall was very full. The audience sat there in their soiled everyday clothes. Most of the men wore breeches with coarse woollen stockings, sweaters and peaked caps. Their eyes followed the speaker with hungry curiosity. I had never even been to a communist meeting before, and what struck me most was the fixed attention of the upturned rows of faces; faces of the Berlin working class, pale and prematurely lined, often haggard and ascetic, like the heads of scholars, with thin, fair hair brushed back from their broad foreheads. They had not come here to see each other or to be seen, or even to fulfil a social duty. They were attentive but not passive. They were not spectators. They participated, with a curious, restrained passion, in the speech made by the red-haired man. He spoke for them, he made their thoughts articulate. They were listening to their own collective voice. At the intervals they applauded it, with sudden, spontaneous violence. Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched by the railway station, seventeen years ago. And the little man finished his speech and went back to his place at the table amidst thunders of clapping. (Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1963. 48-49)

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