To 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)
I’d been meaning to read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues for years when scoping out potential material for a new module suddenly gave me the opportunity. There was even a reasonably-priced second-hand copy waiting in my abebooks shopping basket. But before I could get to it, Feinberg died, someone snaffled my cheap copy, and prices for this disgracefully out-ot-print novel went through the roof. On a long shot, I checked my university’s library – and somehow its single copy had survived a series of recent purges (cos, you know, the last thing you want cluttering up libraries is books). It is a hard novel to describe, since all my reference points seem a little out. It is a bit like one of those Charles Bukowski novels in which incident follows incident and insecure job follows insecure job and characters appear and disappear in a quite specific marginal setting. The factory work Feinberg describes, and the cultures around it, recall Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991) and a section of John Sayles’ Union Dues (1977), as well as scattered chunks of Bukowski. But it is also nothing like them. Probably the closest thing I can think of off the top of my head are the sequences from Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissmann’s documentary Forbidden Loves: The Untold Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992) in which nine women recount some of their experiences growing up queer in Canada in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe the reason I am reminded of that film is that it also looks at mid-century lesbian pulp fiction, and there is a pulp quality to Feinberg’s writing at times, which is one of the many things I love about it (and which kind of brings us back round to Bukowski again, although I only really loved him when I was fourteen or so, and even then I had my doubts). One of my other favourite things about Stone Butch Blues is this passage, so I thought I would share it:
We talked all day long too. The owners only rented our hands, not out brains. But even talking had to be negotiated when it was on the bosses’ time. If we seemed to be having too much fun, laughing and enjoying ourselves too much, the foreman would come up behind us and hit the solid wooden worktables with a lead pipe while he growled, “Get to work.” Then we’d all look at our hands as we worked and press our lips together in silent anger. I think the foreman sometimes got nervous after he’d done that, sensing the murderous glances he received moments after he turned his back. But he was assigned to keep us under control. That required keeping us divided. We came from many different nationalities and backgrounds. About half the women on the line were from the Six Nations. Most were Mohawks or Seneca. What we shared in common was that we worked cooperatively, day in and day out. So we remembered to ask about each other’s back or foot pains, family crises. We shared small bits of our culture, favorite foods, or revealed an embarrassing moment. It was just this potential for solidarity the foreman was always looking to sabotage. It was done in little ways, all the time: a whispered lie, a cruel suggestion, a vulgar joke. But it was hard to split us up. The conveyor belt held us together. Within weeks I was welcomed into the circle, teased, pelted with questions. My differences were taken into account, my sameness sought out. We worked together, we talked, we listened. And then there were songs. When the whistle first blew in the mornings there was a shared physical letdown among all the women and men who worked between its imperative commands. We lumbered to our feet, stood silently in line to punch in, and took our places on the assembly line – next to each other, facing each other. We worked the first few moments in heavy silence. Then the weight was lifted by the voice of one of the Native women. They were social songs, happy songs that made you feel real good to hear them, even if you had no idea what the words meant. I listened to the songs, trying to hear the boundaries of each word, the patterns and repetitions. Sometimes one of the women would explain to us later what the song meant, or for which occasion or time of year it was sung. There was one song I loved the best. I found myself humming it after I punched out in the afternoons. One day, without thinking, I sang along. The women pretended not to notice, but they smiled at each other with their eyes, and sang a little louder to allow me to raise my own voice a bit. After that I started looking forward to the songs in the morning. Some of the other non-Native women learned songs, too. It felt good to sing together. One wintry Friday night, before we punched out, Muriel invited me to go to an indoor pow-wow on Sunday. I said yes, of course. I felt honored. There were a few other Black and white workers at the social – friendships too valuable to explore solely on company time. I began to go regularly and got strung out on fry bread and corn soup. (Alyson 2003: 77-78)
Stone Butch Blues is not really remembered as a novel of working class life, since its greatest urgency lies elsewhere, but this is one of several things that it is, and the politics of a passage such as this one are not a supplement. They are not detachable. They are intrinsic.