Tag Archives: Vintage Books

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

Back in April 2016 I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, a brilliant book that made my end-of-year highlights – you can read my review here. First published in 1927, The Hotel was Bowen’s first novel. It’s a striking debut, a story of unsuitable attachments and the subtle dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, all cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera in the 1920s.

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In many ways, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties. Sydney has come to the hotel to accompany her older cousin, Tessa Bellamy, who in turn is trying to deal with a gastric condition. Sydney’s family are delighted that she has travelled to Italy with Tessa, viewing it is an ‘inspired solution of the Sydney problem’, in their eyes something to counterbalance the girl’s leaning towards the neurotic and her tendency to be ‘so unfortunate in her choice of friends’. For her part, Sydney has developed a rather unhealthy attachment to another resident, Mrs Kerr, an intriguing, self-assured woman in her forties. While Mrs Kerr is a widow, she appears to act more like a divorcee; at least that’s the opinion of several of the other guests at the hotel who seem enjoy speculating about Mrs Kerr and the nature of her relationship with Sydney. I love this next quote, a passage of dialogue so indicative of Bowen’s penetrating tone. In this scene, Tessa is in conversation with several other ladies in the hotel drawing-room.

Tessa continued: ‘Sydney is very affectionate.’

‘She is very much…absorbed, isn’t she, by Mrs Kerr?’

‘I have known other cases,’ said somebody else, looking about vaguely for her scissors, ‘of these very violent friendships. One didn’t feel those others were quite healthy.’

‘I should discourage any daughter of mine from a friendship with an older woman. It is never the best women who have these strong influences. I would far rather she lost her head about a man.’

‘Sydney hasn’t lost her head,’ said little Tessa with dignity.

‘Oh but, Mrs Bellamy – I was talking about other cases.’ (p. 62)

And so the discussion continues in a similar vein.

Other notable guests at the hotel include Mr and Mrs Lee-Mittison, the Ammerings and their son Victor and the Lawrence girls, Veronica, Eileen and Joan. Mr Lee-Mittison is determined to surround himself with the beautiful, refined young people, and there are some classic scenes involving a picnic he attempts to orchestrate with mixed results. While the Lee-Mittisons are very happy for Sydney and the Lawrence sisters to attend, they are none too pleased when Victor Ammering shows up on the scene, much to Veronica Lawrence’s amusement when she goes off with the young man. For her part, Mrs L-M, a devoted wife, will do anything she can to ensure her husband’s social events are a success. It’s all quite amusing to observe.

Also staying at the hotel are Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, genteel elderly ladies very much of the type depicted in Fawlty Towers, and two sisters-in-law, the Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton, who have paid extra to have exclusive use of the bathroom opposite their rooms. When middle-aged clergyman James Milton arrives at the hotel following a long train journey across the continent, unaware of the bathroom arrangements he goes for a long soak in the Pinkertons’ bath, much to the consternation of the ladies on his floor.

James Milton’s appearance on the scene shakes things up a little in more ways than one. In the hope of attracting Sydney, he rushes out a terribly ill-judged proposal of marriage to her during a walk in the countryside (there is a sense that he is comfortable operating within his own relatively small circle of society, but much less so in this wider sphere). Sydney declines, giving James the impression that there is no point in his holding out any hope of a change in heart; but then the situation changes once again with another arrival, that of Ronald, Mrs Kerr’s twenty-year-old son. Before long, Sydney realises that Mrs Kerr has given her the brush off in favour of Ronald, a fact that becomes painfully clear to her during a conversation with Veronica Lawrence. Once again, Bowen demonstrates great insight and precision in painting this scene; here’s a brief extract from the extended discussion between these two girls.

‘Well, she has so absolutely given you the go-by, hasn’t she?’ said Veronica, replacing the alabaster lid of the powder-bowl, then looking down to blow some powder off her dress. ‘It was “Sydney this” and “Sydney darling that” and “Where’s Sydney?” and “Sydney and I are going together,” and now he’s come she simply doesn’t see you.’

Sydney, after an interval, leant sideways to push the window farther open. She seemed to have forgotten Veronica, who energetically continued: Of course I’m sorry for you. Everybody’s sorry for you.’

‘Oh,’ said Sydney.

‘Do you mind the way she’s going on?” asked Veronica curiously.

‘It hadn’t occurred to me that there was anything to mind,’ said Sydney with a high-pitched little laugh and a sensation of pushing off something that was coming down on her like the ceiling in one of her dreams. It seemed incredible that the words Veronica had just made use of should ever have been spoken. (p. 117)

In a rebound response to being sidelined by Mrs Kerr, Sydney agrees to marry James Milton, a development also prompted, at least to a certain extent, by Veronica’s attitude towards marriage. In many ways, Veronica sees marriage to a man as an inevitable outcome for a woman in her position – so if she has to marry someone it may as well be Victor Ammering, to whom she has just become engaged.

It is from this point onwards in the novel that Mrs Kerr’s cruel, manipulative steak really starts to show itself. When James reveals his engagement to Sydney, Mrs Kerr carefully plants the seeds of doubt in his mind. To say any more might spoil the story, but it’s a brilliant scene, beautifully observed.

The Hotel feels incredibly accomplished for a debut novel, full of little observations on human nature and the dynamics at play. In some ways, it could be seen as a cold book as there is very little warmth or affection in most of the relationships depicted here. That said, I certainly don’t mean this as a major criticism – it seems to be a function of the characters and the society in which they find themselves. These people are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability. Veronica seems to be making do with Victor; while happy enough, she doesn’t appear to be in love with him, although that might come in time. James is on the lookout for a wife, and Sydney seems to fit the bill. As for Sydney herself, I feel for her even though she behaves rather foolishly, especially towards James. She is young and inexperienced, and the worldly Mrs Kerr has clearly toyed with her affections. By the end of the story, Sydney sees her sophisticated friend for what she really is: a rather spoilt, insensitive woman.

This is a novel to be read slowly. At times, Bowen’s prose can appear rather dense and intricate, but it does rewards the investment in time and concentration. As one might expect, Bowen is excellent when it comes to capturing the atmosphere of this elite world, complete with its tennis matches, picnics and tiresome excursions to places of interest. She is particularly good on hotel etiquette. I’ll finish with a passage on the social codes at lunch, so typical of this author’s keen eye for detail.

Beyond, down the long perspective to the foot of the stairs, one could see visitors take form with blank faces, then compose and poise themselves for an entrance. Some who thought punctuality rather suburban would gaze into the unfilled immensity of the room for a moment, then vanish repelled. Others would advance swimmingly and talk from table to table across the emptiness, familiarly, like a party of pioneers. Men came in without their wives and did not always look up when these entered. Women appearing before their husbands remained alert, gazed into an opposite space resentfully, and ate with an air of temporizing off the tips of their forks. When the husbands did come in it seemed a long time before there was something to say. It seemed odder than ever to Sydney, eyeing these couples, that men and women should be expected to pair off for life. (pp. 23-24)

I read this book with Dorian (of the excellent Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog). You can find his terrific analysis here.

The Hotel is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

First published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin consists of a series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by the author’s time in the city during the early 1930s. Originally destined to form part of a large episodic novel focusing on the pre-Hitler era, Goodbye can now be viewed as a companion piece to Isherwood’s earlier novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Together, the two books form The Berlin Novels, published in the UK by Vintage Books. Given the fact that Mr Norris made my end-of-year highlights in 2016, I had high hopes for this second instalment – luckily it did not disappoint.

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Goodbye opens with A Berlin Diary, a series of vignettes taken from the autumn of 1930 when Isherwood was living in a room at a traditional boarding house in the heart of the city. It’s an interesting place, full of colourful characters, all of whom remain under the watchful eye of the landlady, the inquisitive but kindly Frl. Schroeder. Christopher – or ‘Herr Issyvoo’ as she calls him – is clearly her favourite. This chapter acts as an excellent scene-setter, giving the reader a brief flavour of some of the inhabitants of the house: there is the young lady of the night, Frl. Kost; the butch music-hall singer, Frl. Mayr; and the smartly-dresser mixer from the Troika bar, Bobby. It all makes for an eclectic mix, especially given the fact that Bobby and Frl. Kost are having an affair, a development that may well explain Frl. Schroeder’s jealousy over the girl.

Without a doubt, the standout piece in this novel is the second story, Sally Bowles. An English girl by birth, 19-year-old Sally came to Berlin with a girlfriend in the hope of finding work as a singer/actress. By the time she meets Christopher through a mutual friend, Sally is just about scraping a living, singing (quite badly) at one of the city’s bars, the Lady Windermere. Nevertheless, she makes quite an impression on Christopher, dressed as she is in black silk ‘with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head’. Here’s a brief excerpt from Christopher’s first encounter with Sally, a meeting which takes place at their friend’s flat – Sally has just asked her friend Fritz if she can use his phone.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’ Her mouth opened in a fatuously sweet smile. Fritz and I sat watching her, like a performance at the theatre.

[…]

She hung up the receiver and turned to us triumphantly.

‘That’s the man I slept with last night,’ she announced. He makes love marvellously. He’s an absolute genius at business and he’s terribly rich –’ She came and sat down on the sofa beside Fritz, sinking back into the cushions with a sigh. ‘Give me some coffee, will you, darling? I’m simply dying of thirst.’ (p. 269, The Berlin Novels)

I love that passage as it seems to capture the essence of Sally’s character – in particular, her alluring voice and provocative behaviour.

Fairly soon after their first meeting, Sally invites Christopher to tea at her lodgings a gloomy semi-furnished place presided over by a rather eccentric old landlady. Before long the pair strike up a somewhat unlikely friendship, spending time with one another on a fairly regular basis, much to the delight of Frl. Schroeder who imagines Sally as a potential partner for her favourite boarder.

The afternoon Sally came to tea with me, Frl. Schroeder was beside herself with excitement. She put on her best dress for the occasion and waved her hair. When the door-bell rang, she threw open the door with a flourish. ‘Herr Issyvoo,’ she announced, winking knowingly at me and speaking very loud, ‘there’s a lady to see you!’ (p.280) 

While she longs to be a famous actress, Sally never makes much of an effort to find any suitable work. Instead, she falls for a handsome musician, Klaus, the pianist from the Lady Windermere. In time, this relationship breaks down, but Sally soon gets over it. She gets by on a diet of cigarettes and Prairie Oysters, forever hoping that a rich lover might come along to keep her in the manner to which she aspires. It’s an utterly charming story, a wonderful tribute to this larger-than-life character from Isherwood’s past.

On Ruegen Island, the third piece in the sequence, tells of a summer Christopher spends by the Baltic Sea. While there he meets two other men: Peter Wilkinson, a rather nervous, uptight English chap of a similar age to Isherwood himself, and Otto Nowak, a 16-year-old working class boy from Berlin. Although Peter and Otto are living together, their relationship is far from solid. Otto, a gregarious, physical lad, is keen to go dancing most evenings, while Peter prefers to stay in their room (or to spend time with Christopher, with whom he seems to have more in common). Somewhat inevitably, Peter and Otto’s relationship comes to an end, and the two men go their separate ways: Peter back to England and Otto to Berlin.

Once he is back in the capital, Christopher re-establishes contact with Otto in the hope of finding a cheap room in his part of the city. As it happens, Frau Nowak (Otto’s mother) takes a shine to her son’s rather cultured friend, and Christopher ends up moving into the Nowaks’ crowded flat, a noisy, damp and smelly dwelling in one of the city’s dilapidated tenement buildings. What follows is a series of colourful vignettes as Christopher finds himself caught in the middle of the Nowaks’ antics. Young Otto proves to be a source of near-constant torment to his mother, forever lazing around the place and getting under her feet as she tries to manage the busy household. Otto, for his part, enjoys making mischief, winding up his mother in the process. It all makes for plenty of fun. Eventually though, Christopher finds life at the Nowaks too distracting; the time has come for him to move on.

At various points in the novel, Isherwood makes reference to the political climate in Berlin at the time. Here’s one of the earliest mentions, taken from the autumn of 1930.

One night in October 1930, about a month after the Elections, there was a big row on the Leipzigerstrasse. Gangs of Nazi roughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews. They manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians, and smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops. The incident was not, in itself, very remarkable, there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests. I remember it only because it was my first introduction to Berlin politics. (p. 409)

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, these instances increase in frequency. Berlin is changing, the atmosphere becoming increasingly uneasy and dangerous by the day, the Nazis more visible on the streets. The outlook is particularly uncertain for the Jews in the city, families like the wealthy and successful Landauers, the subject of the fifth section of the book. Natalia Landauer is a very forthright young lady, and Christopher strikes up a friendship with her by way of a letter of introduction to the household. Perhaps the most interesting character here is Natalia’s cousin, Bernhard, manager of the family’s upmarket department store in Berlin. There is something terribly tragic about Bernhard, a complex character who puzzles, intrigues and frustrates Christopher in fairly equal measure. Once again, the feeling of a world about to crumble is hovering in the background. In this scene, Christopher is at a garden party at Bernhard’s villa in the country. It is the day of a referendum to decide the fate of the Brüning government.

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought of Natalia: she has escaped – none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is a dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch. (p. 453)

As the book draws to a close in the winter of 1932-3, there is a sense of people slowly acclimatising to the new reality of the city, Berliners like Frl. Schroeder who seemed destined to remain there forever.

I really loved this novel with its wealth of engaging vignettes and striking cast of characters. As one might expect, Isherwood’s evocation of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures a little of the book’s humour. It’s typical of some of the passages in the Berlin diaries that bookend the novel. This passage makes reference to a letter Frl. Schroeder has received from one of her former boarders, the singer Frl. Mayr.

Frl. Mayr has also had trouble with her colleagues. At one town, a rival actress jealous of Frl. Mayr’s vocal powers, tried to stab her in the eye with a hairpin. I can’t help admiring that actress’s courage. When Frl. Mayr had finished with her, she was so badly injured that she couldn’t appear on the stage again for a week. (p. 471)

My thanks to Max who persuaded me to read the Berlin novels in the first place – you can read his excellent review of Goodbye here.

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

In 1928, German schoolmaster Hans Herbert Grimm anonymously published his first and only book, the semi-autobiographical anti-war novel, Schlump. Despite its obvious literary merits, Schlump was somewhat overshadowed at the time by the success of another WW1 novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (somewhat ironically, the two books were issued within weeks of each other). In the early 1930s, Schlump was burned by the Nazis. In an effort to keep his authorship of the book a secret, Grimm concealed the original manuscript of Schlump in the wall of his house in Germany where it remained until its discovery in 2013. Now, thanks to the efforts of Vintage Books, NYRB Classics and the translator Jamie Bulloch, a whole new generation of readers can experience this rediscovered classic for themselves. Given the book’s history, it seemed a fitting choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month which is running throughout November.

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The novel itself focuses on the wartime experiences of Emil Schulz (known to all as ‘Schlump’), a bright and eager young man who volunteers for the German infantry on his seventeenth birthday. In August 1915, Schlump sets off for the barracks in readiness for the adventures ahead. Perhaps like many other young men at that time, he has a rather romanticised vision of life as a soldier, a view which is typified by the following passage.

He could picture himself in a field-grey uniform, the girls eyeing him up and offering him cigarettes. Then he would go to war. He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded. Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end. (pp. 6-7)

As luck would have it, Schlump’s first experience of war turns out to be a fairly gentle one. Armed with his school-leaver’s certificate and a grasp of the local language, Schlump is posted to Loffrande in France where he is put in charge of the administration of three villages, a task he soon gets to grips with, overseeing the work of the villagers and intervening in various matters in need of his attention. A good man at heart, Schlump gets on well with the locals, especially the rather high-spirited young girls who see to it that he is not short of female companionship.

Everything is relatively peaceful here in the countryside, so much so that it would be relatively easy for our protagonist to forget his true status as a soldier were it not for the faint rumble of cannons in the background. Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, and after a season in Loffrande, Schlump hears that he is to be sent to the Front. Somewhat understandably, he feels a mixture of anger and disappointment; in some ways, it is almost like leaving home for a second time. As a sergeant from the service corps says before Schlump departs for the battlefield, ‘Only fools end up in the trenches, or those who’ve been in trouble.’

The relative calm of Schlump’s introduction to life as a soldier only serves to accentuate the horrors that follow. Like Remarque, Grimm doesn’t hold back on the true nature of life in the trenches; the physical and mental effects of war are conveyed here in a fair bit of detail. In this scene, Schlump’s regiment is under attack from the British (the Tommies).

One, two! Those were the small shells; now the heavy one would be on its way. Yes, there it was. A terrible explosion, and Schlump was given a sharp jolt by the wall he was leaning against. A loud boom came from the dugout. Schlump teetered forward. The heavy shell had hit the machine-gun nest and the hand grenades had exploded. Two soldiers shot high into the sky; Schlump had a clear view of them, their arms and legs spread-eagled. And around the two bodies innumerable tiny black dots reeled: fragments of stone and dirt. Everything landed on the Tommies’ side. The trench was completely destroyed. There was no trace of the other two machine gunners. Schlump crawled out of the rubble and checked that his legs were still in one piece. (pp.114-115)

Grimm is particularly strong on the gruelling, precarious rhythm of life in the trenches: the constant exhaustion from operating on two hours sleep; the additional discomfort from rampant infestations of lice; the seemingly never-ending periods of standing guard; the perpetual feeling of exposure; the fetching and carrying of food, most of which gets spilled on the battlefield (that’s if it makes it at all – in some instances the carriers will die or suffer severe injuries en route).

Schlump does not escape the war unharmed; there are a couple of occasions when he is hospitalised and sent back to Germany to recuperate, periods which also serve to highlight the debilitating effects of war on those left behind. During a brief visit home, Schlump finds his father a mere shadow of the man he once was, forced to work in a factory as no one is in need of the services of a tailor any more.

In spite of everything the war has to throw at him, Schlump remains, for the most part, optimistic. Only once or twice does his spirit come close to fracturing, most notably when a pregnant girl is killed by a bomb while crossing the marketplace in her village, an act which provokes a sense of outrage and dismay at the cruelty of war. Moreover, Schlump is not blind to the hypocrisy of those in charge of the foot soldiers, the higher-ups who shield themselves from any personal danger or discomfort. The contrast in the following passage is plain to see.

And then that time when they’d been resting, when the first company had returned from the front trenches, those wretched fellows had looked ghastly: emaciated, ashen-faced, grubby chalk worked around the stubble, stooped, utterly worn out, filthy, terribly filthy, lice-ridden and bloody, and only twenty men left of the sixty who’d been positioned on the front line. These men were standing by their quarters when the fat sergeant major came out, who’s spent each one of the twelve nights playing cards and getting drunk. This sergeant major, the mother superior of the company came and ranted at them as if they were common criminals. If that wasn’t contempt, then what was? (pp. 120-121)

The somewhat episodic nature of this novel makes it difficult to capture in a review. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes centering on Schlump’s experiences of the war from 1915-18. My Vintage Books edition of Schlump comes with an excellent afterword by the German writer Volker Weidermann – author of Summer Before the Dark, a book set before the start of WW2 – who describes Grimm’s novel as a docu-fable. It’s an apt description, particularly given the nature of the some of the episodes in the book. There is a fable-like quality to several of the tales and stories peppered throughout the narrative. Almost every character Schlump encounters has a story to tell, an anecdote or myth of some sort, a feature which adds to a feeling of the margins being blurred. In certain instances, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is meant to be ‘real’ and what is more likely to be a horrific nightmare or fantasy of some sort.

I’m very glad to have discovered this book via Grant’s excellent review last year. Schlump is a very endearing character, forever the scallywag, the chancer and the dreamer, always looking to sneak away from his place of confinement in search of girls. In spite of the undeniable horrors of war, Grimm brings a great deal of humour to this story, especially the first part of the book when his protagonist is stationed in France. There is a sense of universality about this story, almost as though Schlump could have been any soldier in any regiment in the Great War. It’s one of the things that makes this novel so relevant to readers everywhere, irrespective of their nationality.

The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald

The Ivory Grin (1952) is the fourth book in Ross Macdonald’s series featuring the Los Angeles-based private eye, Lew Archer. I’ve been trying to read them in order, so here are links to my reviews of the second and third novels in the series, The Drowning Pool and The Way Some People Die, both of which I would wholeheartedly recommend – they can be read as standalone works.

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Back to The Ivory Grin. As the story begins, Archer receives a visit in his office from a rather strange, mannish-looking woman named Una. Here’s how the novel opens – I was hooked from the get-go:

I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn’t the type you’d expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she’d been up all night.

As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm. (pg. 3)

Una claims she is looking for a former employee – a young ‘coloured’ maid named Lucy – who has disappeared along with a pair of ruby earrings and a gold necklace. At first, Archer proposes that this is a matter for the police; Una, however, doesn’t want them involved, keen as she is to talk to the girl to see what she’s up to. Archer is none too keen on Una and remains rather sceptical about her stated motivations for wanting to find Lucy. That said, curiosity gets the better of him and he agrees to do a little surveillance, at least in the short term. According to Una, Lucy has been seen at a restaurant in Bella City, so Archer heads off to find the girl to monitor her movements for a while.

Archer finds Lucy and follows her for most of the afternoon, the trail taking him from the bungalow where she’s been renting a room to a seedy motel in the same area. When she hears of Lucy’s whereabouts, Una decides to pay the girl a visit at the motel, giving Archer instructions to resume his surveillance once she has left. As Archer continues to follow Lucy, the journey takes him to the office of a certain Dr Benning, whom the girl consults before heading to the railway station. Along the way, Archer realises that there is someone else on Lucy’s trail, another private eye named Max Heiss, who tries, rather unsuccessfully, to persuade our detective to collaborate on the case. In the meantime, Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, pulls up to the station in his car, picks up the girl and drives off, losing Archer in the process. When he returns to the Mountview Motel later that afternoon, Archer discovers that Lucy has been murdered, her throat cut from ear to ear.

At this point, we meet one of my favourite characters in the novel, the world-weary police chief, Lieutenant Brake. Here he is, talking to Archer at the scene of Lucy’s murder, a passage that illustrates Macdonald’s skill with dialogue.

“Who hired you?

“I don’t have to answer that.”

“You weren’t hired to kill her, by any chance?”

“You’ll have to do better than that, if you want any co-operation from me.”

“Who said I wanted any co-operation from you? Who hired you?”

“You get tough very quickly, lieutenant. I could have blown when I found her, instead of sticking around to give you the benefit of my experience.”

“Can the spiel.” He didn’t needle easily. “Who hired you? And for God’s sake don’t give me the one about you got your client’s interests to protect. I got a whole city to protect.”

We faced each other across the drying moat of blood. He was a rough small-city cop, neither suave nor persuasive, with an ego encysted in scar-tissue. I was tempted to needle him again, to demonstrate to these country cousins how a boy from the big city could be hard in a polished way. But my heart wasn’t in the work. I felt less loyalty to my client than to the dead girl on the floor, and I compromised. (pg. 53)

Alongside this first strand, a second one starts to open. When Archer finds Lucy’s body in the motel room, he also discovers a newspaper clipping in her purse – namely, an article advertising a $5,000 reward for information on the whereabouts of a young socialite called Charles Singleton. Some two weeks earlier, around the same time as Lucy’s disappearance from Una’s employ, Singleton had also vanished (he was last seen in the public rooms of a local hotel). As a rather reluctant heir to the family business, Singleton had been trying to break away from his wealthy mother and her money for years – ideally, he wanted to create a life of his own. So, following the discovery of the clipping, Archer heads off to Arroyo Beach to visit Mrs Singleton in her home. Once there, he is hired by the lady’s young companion, Sylvia Treen, with the aim of finding Charles, hopefully still alive.

The two cases are of course connected, but I’m reluctant to reveal how – let’s just say that they intersect in unexpected and complex ways. Lieutenant Brake is convinced that Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, is responsible for his girlfriend’s death, especially when the murder weapon turns out to be the boy’s knife. Archer, however, isn’t buying this, especially once the details surrounding the Singleton case start to emerge.

I had been trying to decide all morning whether to give Brake everything I knew. I decided not to. The frayed ends of several lives, Singleton’s and his blonde’s, Lucy’s, and Una’s, were braided into the case. The pattern I was picking out strand by strand was too complicated to be explained in the language of physical evidence. Brake’s understanding was an evidence box holding the kinds of facts that could be hammered through the skulls of a back-country jury. It wasn’t a back-country case. (pg. 148)

The Ivory Grin is a story of fear, desire and the lure of money (there are links to mobsters and collection rackets rumbling away in the background). It’s another very fine entrant in Lew Archer series. The plot is tight yet complex enough to keep the reader guessing; the lead characters are intriguing and just a little different to the usual types one tends to find in this genre. One of the highlights is the interplay between Archer and Lieutenant Brake, the police chief who’s been dealing with guys and girls from the wrong side of the tracks for nigh on thirty years. Brake is weary and frustrated, tired of ‘trying to fit human truth into the square-cut legal patterns handed down for his use by legislators and judges.’

Another high point is Lew Archer himself, a detective I’m growing to love more and more with every novel in the series. On the whole, Archer treats people with respect. He is a good judge of character, keen to observe and scrutinise wherever possible, but compassionate too. Archer’s treatment of the black characters is very sympathetic; he is on the side of decent people, irrespective of their colour, race and gender. There are some very nice touches with some of the minor characters too, most notably an elderly next-door neighbour who proves useful to Archer in his surveillance of Lucy, and a homely milliner who lives with her cat. Macdonald captures their personalities with just the right amount of colour.

The novel is very strong on the sense of place and period. Small-town America in the 1950s is portrayed in vivid detail, a community divided into ‘lighter and darker hemispheres’ by the highway that runs through it. Archer finds himself in the bottom half, a run-down place packed with laundries, warehouses, and dilapidated houses.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage. (pg 12)

Alongside this picture of the small-scale environment, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian landscape are as evocative as ever. I’ll finish with a final quote on the scenery surrounding Bella City – Archer is driving there in search of Lucy.

From the top of the grade I could see the mountains on the other side of the valley, leaning like granite slabs against the blue tile sky. Below me the road meandered among brown September hills spattered with the ink-blot shadows of oaks. Between these hills and the further mountains the valley floor was covered with orchards like vivid green chenille, brown corduroy ploughed fields, the thrifty patchwork of truck gardens. Bella City stood among them, a sprawling dusty town miniatured and tidied by clear space. I drove down into it. (pg 11)

The Ivory Grin is published by Vintage Books – Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

Continuing with my aim of working my way through the canon of one of my favourite writers, I recently turned to Richard Yates’ third novel, Disturbing the Peace. Following its publication in 1975, critics considered the book to be something of a disappointment, possibly even his weakest. While it may not be as accomplished and as devastating as Revolutionary Road, or as subtle and as melancholic as The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace is still a very fine novel. It’s a brilliantly realised portrait of one man’s descent into the depths of total despair. Here’s how it opens:

Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960. And the worst part, she always said afterwards, the awful part, was that it seemed to happen without warning. (pg. 1)

Janice is married to John Wilder, the central figure in Yates’ novel. At thirty-five, John finds himself stuck in a comfortable but utterly stifling middle-class existence in New York. Despite his success as a salesman, John doesn’t really enjoy his job selling advertising space in The American Scientist magazine. His marriage to Janice is comfortable but dull, so he plays around a bit; plus he is losing any real ability to connect with his only child, ten-year-old Tommy. In other words, he feels very frustrated with his life.

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As the novel opens, John has just arrived back in NYC following a week-long business trip to Chicago. Unable to face the thought of returning home to Janice, John calls her from a hotel bar. It soon becomes clear that John has been drinking fairly heavily, and he is spoiling for a fight.

“Okay, here’s another thing. There was a girl in Chicago, little PR girl for one of the distilleries. I screwed her five times in the Palmer House. Whaddya think of that?”

It wasn’t the first news of its kind – there had been a good many girls – but it was the first time he’d ever flung it at her this way, like an adolescent braggart trying to shock his mother. She thought of saying What would you like me to think? but didn’t trust her voice: it might sound wounded, which would be a mistake, or it might sounds dry and tolerant and that would be worse. Luckily he didn’t wait long for an answer. (pgs. 2-3)

The remainder of the phone call leaves Janice feeling very concerned about John’s state of mind, so much so that she calls their close friend, Paul Borg, and asks him to go and talk to John at the Commodore – hopefully Paul will be able to sort things out, to talk to him man-to-man. When Paul arrives on the scene, John claims he is suffering from exhaustion brought on by a bad case of insomnia in Chicago. In reality, John is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown; he just doesn’t know it, or maybe he cannot admit that he needs help. When Paul persuades him to check into a hospital for some much-needed rest and recuperation, John ends up arguing with one of the doctors, an action that results in his transfer to the Men’s Violence Ward at Bellevue, a psychiatric unit which sounds more like a prison than a place of care. With it being Labour Day weekend, John ends up spending the best part of a week in Bellevue, an experience that is relayed in vivid and gruelling detail in the opening section of the novel.

When John is finally released from Bellevue, Janice arranges for the family to take a short break at their second home in the country. As with certain other family pleasures, John knows that expectations of the trip will almost certainly outweigh actual fulfilment. Janice gives it her best shot, playing the role of the concerned and devoted wife, talking away in an attempt to fill the silence. Meanwhile, John spends much of his time drinking bourbon, looking out of the window and gazing at pretty young girls as they dive into the nearby lake. At one point, he seems fit to burst with it all.

One good thing: there was plenty of bourbon on the kitchen shelf. As soon as he was dressed he got out the ice and made himself a double that was more like a triple.

“Feel like a drink?” he asked Janice.

“No thanks.” She was sitting on a tall kitchen stool in her slacks with a colander in her lap, snapping string beans for dinner, and didn’t look up. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?”

“Seems late enough to me.”

And not until he’d gone outdoors for the first few greedy swallows did he figure out why he was so angry. It wasn’t because of the girl on the raft (the hell with the girl on the raft), or because Janice had asked if it wasn’t a little early, or because her crisp little snap-snap of string beans had always been an irritating sound; it was because the stool she sat on, with her tennis shoes hooked over its middle rung, was exactly like the cop’s stool at the door in Bellevue. (pgs. 59-60)

This scene ends with John imagining just what he’d like to do with that stool, and it’s not a pretty picture.

As a condition of his release from Bellevue, John agrees to see a psychiatrist. At first, talking therapy seems to provide him with a brief release, a way of delving into the past, but it’s not long before he gets fed up with his physician. There is also the requirement to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but most of the time John’s heart isn’t in it, and he sneaks off for sly drinks immediately before and after each session.

Things start looking up for John when he begins an affair with Pamela Hendricks, an attractive, bright, young girl whom he meets through work. Everything is rosy for a year or so as Pamela seems to offer John some hope in life. The couple share a mutual love of movies, and, with the help of some of Pamela’s old college friends, they begin work on a film based on John’s stint in Bellevue. In time (and following a few developments I won’t go into here) John leaves Janice and moves to California with Pamela with the aim of finalising the movie and getting it into distribution.

The remainder of the novel charts John’s downward trajectory as everything around him unravels. Fuelled by an addiction to alcohol and tormented by his past failings, John systematically destroys pretty much everything that is bright and promising in his life; ultimately he sinks into a depression, one that makes his earlier breakdown seem mild by comparison. Interestingly, there is a direct parallel between John’s own life and that of the protagonist in the final version of the film (the one the producers consider to be more commercially viable than the inside story of Bellevue itself).

As with Yates’ other novels, Disturbing the Peace chips away at the façade that is The American Dream. In this scene, during a brief ‘second honeymoon’ period with Janice, John reflects on the sham of his marriage. It is all merely an act, and he wonders how long they can keep it up.

We’re having Tommy’s favourite tonight,” she said when he was settled at the table. “My own very special meat loaf, baked potato with sour cream, and a simple tossed salad. It used to be one of your favourites too, John. Is it still?

“Sure is. Especially the meat loaf. You suppose I could have another slice?”

“Why, certainly kind sir,” she said. “I’m very flattered.

As the conversation continues in a similar vein, John comes to the following realisation:

Was this really happening? Was she sitting there forking meat loaf into her mouth and dabbing at her lips with a napkin, and was Tommy really there across the table? How could any family as unhappy as this put on such a show every night, and how long could it last? (pg. 149)

Yates is also very strong on the small disappointments in life: John’s frustration at his lack of height; the fact that he never learned to swim; an uneasy game of catch with Tommy that fails to satisfy both father and son. I love this description of a stole that John bought for Janice, a minor tragedy that seems to capture his feelings about the marriage itself.

That stole, too, was a heartbreaker. He had given it to her as a birthday present years ago, after seeing one just like it slung from the shoulders of a pretty girl at the office. But the girl at the office had known how to wear the thing, as a sort of elegant loose shawl, and Janice hadn’t. From the moment she’d rushed from her birthday celebration to pose with it at the hall mirror (“Oh, I love this, John…”) he knew she would never to wear it – it looped and dangled from  her elbows like a rope – and every time she tried only made it worse. (pg 161)

Set as it is in the early 1960s, the novel also touches on the Kennedy phenomenon. John dislikes the Kennedys and everything they represent. When John F. Kennedy is shot dead in 1963, John Wilder realises he feels a degree of sympathy with the assassin. Kennedy had been too tall, too young, too good-looking and too damn successful; ‘he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse.’ Kennedy had been everything John Wilder knew he couldn’t be.

The period detail is wonderful, too. There is a scene where John’s boss takes him out for lunch, a long, languorous, martini-fuelled discussion that could have easily served as the template for one of Don Draper’s liquid lunches with Roger Sterling in Mad Men.

Disturbing the Peace is a more self-analytical novel than Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade. It is clear that Yates has drawn on his own experiences for inspiration here. There is a bitterness running through John’s narrative, and the ending, when it comes, is pretty bleak. Even so, it leaves me all the more eager to read more of this author’s work in the future; it’s just a question of deciding which one to read next.

Update: MarinaSofia has also reviewed this novel – click here to read her review.

Disturbing the Peace is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I have long wanted to read Elizabeth Bowen; her 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart, has been calling me for quite a while. By rights I should have read it earlier in preparation for Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club (which took place last week) but time got the better of me in the end. Nevertheless, I’m hoping this review might count as a late entrant.

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When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their large house near Regent’s Park in London. It was her late father’s wish that Portia should live with Thomas and his wife for a year, after which time she might move on to stay with an aunt. In truth, neither Thomas nor Anna is particularly keen to have Portia, although Thomas, for his part, does feel some sense of duty towards the girl. Portia was born out an affair between Thomas’ father and the woman who became his second wife, Irene. After their marriage, the couple spent their lives in the south of France, moving from one hotel to another with Portia in tow, effectively in a sort of exile from Thomas’ mother and the family. With Portia now living in London, her presence in the house cannot help but remind Thomas of the shame and embarrassment he experienced over the affair, emotions that always came to the fore whenever he visited his father and Irene in France.

In those sunless hotel rooms, those chilly flats, his father’s disintegration, his laugh so anxious or sheepish, his uneasiness with Irene in Thomas’s presence, had filled Thomas with an obscure shame – on behalf of his father, himself, and society. From the grotesqueries of that marriage he had felt a revulsion. (pg. 39)

There is no real warmth or affection in the Quayne household with very little sense of anyone taking any form of pleasure from their activities. All in all, it’s a rather strange and unwelcoming place for a young girl who has recently lost her parents. At 36, Thomas is much older than Portia; and with no children of their own, Thomas and Anna have no real experience of dealing with adolescents, nor any appreciation of how to incorporate Portia into their lives. Anna, in particular, is a rather cold, unsympathetic creature, more concerned with taking tea with her own friends than with trying to forge any kind of connection with Portia. She finds Portia somewhat unnerving, convinced as she is that the girl is stealing furtive glances at her and Thomas from a distance (although in truth Portia is simply curious and somewhat unsure of herself). As a consequence of all this, Portia is pretty much left to her own devices most of the time, her closest ally in the house being Matchett, the family’s maid.

Bowen is brilliant at capturing the sheer awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence. Portia has very little understanding of how to behave around Anna, Thomas and their friends, no real sense of the workings of the adult mind. (And why should she? After all, her upbringing was somewhat unconventional and very different from the upper-class world in which she finds herself now.) In this scene, Portia is present while Anna takes tea with her friend, St Quentin – I think it’s an excellent illustration of Portia’s situation at the Quanyes’.

Getting up from the stool carefully, Portia returned her cup and plate to the tray. Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them – and they, waiting for her to be quite gone, watched. She wore a dark wool dress, in Anna’s excellent taste, buttoned from throat to hem and belted with heavy leather. The belt slid down her thin hips, and she nervously gripped at it, pulling it up. Short sleeves showed her very thin arms and big delicate elbow joints. Her body was all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out. At the same time she looked cautious, aware of the world in which she had to live. She was sixteen, losing her childish majesty. (pgs. 26-27)

With very little support or affection coming from her half-brother and his wife, Portia falls in with Eddie, an acquaintance of Anna’s who also happens to work in Thomas’ office. Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. Portia, in her childlike innocence, is unable to see this, and so she falls in love with Eddie, believing everything he tells her without question.

Things take a different turn for Portia when Thomas and Anna decide to go to Capri for a month. Instead of taking the girl with them, the Quanyes pack her off to the Kentish coast to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccomb, and her stepchildren, Daphne and Dickie, both of whom are in their twenties. The Heccomb household – the house is called Waikiki – represents a marked change of pace for Portia. It is welcoming, lively and somewhat chaotic, full of the sounds of doors banging, plates clattering and music playing away in the background. Quite soon after her arrival, Portia find herself drawn into the Heccombs’ friendly social set and their world of dances, cafés, and walks along the coastline. In some ways, it all starts to feel like a new beginning for the young girl.

However, there is trouble in the air when Portia invites Eddie to stay at the Heccombs’. From the moment she sets eyes on him, Mrs Heccomb detects something fishy about Eddie and is visibly distracted by his presence. Her view of Anna is rather idealised, and there is something about Eddie’s manner which seems quite at odds with this. In this scene, Eddie has just sat down to tea following his arrival at Waikiki.

He could not be expected to know that his appearance, and that the something around him that might be called his aura, struck into her heart its first misgiving for years – a misgiving not about Portia but about Anna. […] A conviction (dating from her last year at Richmond) that no man with bounce could be up to any good set up an unhappy twitch in one fold of her left cheek. Apprehensions that someone might be common were the worst she had had to combat since she ruled at Waikiki. No doubt it must be in order, this young man being Portia’s friend, since Porta said that he was a friend of Anna’s. But what was he doing being a friend of Anna’s? … Portia, watching the cheek twitch, wondered what could be up. (pg 209)

The weekend continues on a note of confusion for Portia as she struggles to understand Eddie’s behaviour around Daphne, especially when the two of them end up sitting next to one another at the cinema. It is a defining moment in the story as Portia finds herself in a world where people don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say. Furthermore, once she returns to London, Portia discovers the true extent of the betrayals by those around her, not just by Eddie, but by others close to her as well.

The Death of the Heart is a wonderful novel, a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for someone to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. Eddie is a cruel, insensitive young man who takes advantage of Portia’s naivety and desire for affection, crushing her hopes and dreams in the process. In turn, Anna and Thomas are little better than Eddie, failing to offer Portia the support and protection she so desperately needs.

In some ways, Heart reminds me very strongly of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly A Game of Hide and Seek and At Mrs Lippincote’s (review to come). Both Bowen and Taylor pay close attention to character development, creating complex but realistic individuals the reader can invest in. Like Taylor, Bowen is an acute observer of the social interactions between people, and this novel is full of beautifully rendered scenes, rich with detail and latent emotions. The secondary characters deserve a mention as well, particularly Major Brutt, an acquaintance of the Quanyes who finds himself ridiculed by the couple (Anna in particular).

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the novel’s London setting. Bowen’s description of this cold afternoon in January reflects something of the atmosphere in the Quanyes’ house, a cold, brittle, shallow place with little warmth inside.

The circle of traffic tightens at this hour round Regent’s Park; cars hummed past without a break; it was just before lighting-up time – quite soon the All Out whistles would sound. At the far side of the road, dusk set the Regency buildings back at a false distance: against the sky they were colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle, and cold. The blackness of windows not yet lit or curtained made the houses look hollow inside. (pg. 9)

Karen, Ali and Harriet have also reviewed this novel.

The Death of the Heart is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

While working as a private tutor in Berlin in the 1930s, the English author Christopher Isherwood wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains, a novel set in the city during the final years of the Weimar Republic. Despite the troubled times of its setting, Mr Norris is a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train.

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The novel is narrated by William Bradshaw, a young Englishman living in Berlin. As the story opens, Bradshaw is returning to the city from Holland by train. Faced with the prospect of a long and tiresome journey, he strikes up a conversation with the man in his carriage, Mr Arthur Norris, a gentleman of ‘independent means.’ Right from the start it is clear that there is something a little odd about Mr Norris. His features are somewhat out of kilter, not least his chin which appears to have slipped sideways ‘like a broken concertina,’ plus he’s wearing a wig. And then, as the train approaches the border with Germany, Norris becomes visibly agitated, even more so once the passport officials board the train to begin their rounds.

He was extremely nervous. His delicate white hand fiddled incessantly with the signet ring on his little finger; his uneasy blue eyes kept squinting rapid glances into the corridor. His voice rang false; high-pitched in archly forced gaiety; it resembled the voice of a character in a pre-war drawing-room comedy. He spoke so loudly that the people in the next compartment must certainly be able to hear him. (pg. 8)

After a tense and lengthy examination of Norris’ passport, the border officials seem satisfied with his credentials and move along to the next carriage. Mr Norris is most relieved. Bradshaw, on the other hand, is left feeling rather protective of his companion. He imagines Norris to be guilty of nothing more than a little petty smuggling, a line of silk for his wife or a box of cigars here and there, certainly nothing more sinister. As a thank you for the provision of some much-needed moral support, Norris invites Bradshaw to join him for lunch, and by the time the train pulls into the city station the two men have struck up a rather unlikely friendship, agreeing to meet for tea at Norris’ flat the following Saturday. Little does he know it at the time, but the feeling of affectionate protectiveness Norris inspires in Bradshaw that day is set to characterise their relationship over the next three years…

On his arrival at Norris’ flat, Bradshaw soon discovers that his new friend runs an import-export business. Although it’s never quite clear exactly what is being imported or exported, whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be entirely above board. This feeling is only heightened when a client comes knocking at the door, an action which prompts Mr Norris to go into hiding in the hope that the caller will go away. At one point in the novel, Bradshaw reflects on his impressions of Mr Norris, a very telling passage as it turns out.

Certainly, I rather enjoyed playing with the idea that he was, in fact, a dangerous criminal; but I am sure that I never seriously believed it for a moment. Nearly every member of my generation is a crime-snob. I was fond of Arthur with an affection strengthened by obstinacy. If my friends didn’t like him because of his mouth or his past, the loss was theirs; I was, I flattered myself, more profound, more humane, an altogether subtler connoisseur of human nature than they. And if, in my letters to England, I sometimes referred to him as ‘a most amazing old crook’, I only meant by this that I wanted to imagine him as a glorified being; audacious and self-reliant, reckless and calm. All of which, in reality, he only too painfully and obviously wasn’t. (pg. 44)

One of the many delights of this novel is the character Isherwood has created in Mr Norris. He is a rather delicate and fussy individual, used to the finer things in life even though he seems to have little money of his own to indulge in such luxuries. (His daily grooming regime is very precise and elaborate, not unlike that of a grande dame with lotions and face creams aplenty.) That said, when he is flush, he is more than generous to his friends, buying them little presents whenever he can. As he gets to know Bradshaw, Norris reveals a little of his childhood and the years he spent travelling around Europe with his adoring mother prior to her death. I loved this description of how Mr Norris frittered away his inheritance in the space of a couple of years, in the days of his early twenties when he didn’t know any better.

It disappeared with magic speed into the mouths of horses and the stockings of ballet girls. The palms of servants closed on it with an oily iron grip. It was transformed into wonderful suits of clothes which he presented after a week or two, in disgust, to his valet; into oriental knick-knacks which somehow, when he got them back to his flat, turned out to be rusty old iron pots; into landscapes of the latest impressionist genius which by daylight next morning were childish daubs. Well-groomed and witty, with money to burn, he must have been one of the most eligible bachelors of his large circle; but it was the Jews, not the ladies, who got him in the end. (pg. 50)

In addition to his business interests, Norris also has links with the Communist Party, an activity that brings Bradshaw into contact with one of the movers and shakers in the group, a certain Ludwig Bayer. As the novel progresses, Bradshaw gets drawn into one of Norris’ schemes. At first it appears as though Bradshaw must travel to Switzerland in order to facilitate a meeting between a mutual friend, Baron von Pregnitz, and Mr Norris’ business contact from Paris, a man known as ‘Margot’. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, there is more to this connection than meets the eye, and the somewhat naïve William Bradshaw is all set to get caught up in it!

I really loved this novel. The two central characters are superbly drawn. Even though it’s abundantly clear that Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. Alongside Bradshaw and Norris, the novel also features a cast of colourful characters, all of whom are drawn with great care and attention to detail: there is Mr Norris’ menacing secretary, Schmidt, a thug and a bully, a man who seems to show scant regard for his employer at the best of times; there is Baron von Pregnitz (known to his friends as ‘Kuno’), a man with a penchant for boys’ own adventure stories; and finally there is Bradshaw’s landlady, Frl. Schroeder, a motherly type who takes quite a fancy to Mr Norris with all his charms.

Set as it is in the Berlin of the early 1930s, the novel takes the reader to the restaurants and nightclubs of the city, the atmosphere heavy with a mix of dust, perspiration and cheap perfume. There is the occasional decadent party or two, most notably a New Year’s Eve bash where Bradshaw meets Norris’ lady friend, Anni, a dominatrix complete with black jacket, black skirt and knee high boots to match, a kind of uniform of sorts. As the novel progresses, the mood in Berlin darkens quite visibly. The city can be a dangerous place as is made clear in the following passage.

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared. (pgs. 107-108)

Ultimately, Mr Norris is a portrait of pre-war Berlin, a story that is by turns charming, witty and tragic. The character of Mr Norris was inspired by the memoirist, critic and internationalist, Gerald Hamilton, a friend of Isherwood’s from his Berlin days. I’ll finish with a short quote that sums up Mr Norris’ approach to business – he is speaking to Bradshaw at this point.

‘I think,’ he continued at length, ‘I may safely claim that in the course of my whole career I have very seldom, if ever, done anything which I knew to be contrary to the law….On the other hand, I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself. I hope you’re with me there?’ (pg. 48)

My copy of Mr Norris Changes Trains was published by Vintage Books in an edition which also contains Goodbye to Berlin, Together the two books are known as Isherwood’s Berlin Novels. Max has also reviewed this book, and you can read his excellent review here.