79. Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood (1935)

I find it almost impossible to view Christopher Isherwood subjectively. He was the first properly gay author I ever read in my teens, and I found him absolutely intoxicating. I read everything I could get my hands on, including the rather dreary (I think) A Single Man, and this is the book that made the most lasting impression. Its evocation of pre-War Germany is really exciting, and the character of Norris, with his ill-fitting wig, his camp dialogue and whiff of sexual impropriety, was one of my first encounters with true eccentricity, on the page or off. It’s hard to disconnect Isherwood’s fiction from his life – Christopher and His Kind came out a couple of years after I read this, revealing the truth behind the detached narrative – and, of course, from the stage and film works he inspired. I don’t know if I’d ever have bothered if I hadn’t known he was queer, nor how I’d feel about Herr Norris if I was to read the book for the first time today. But this book was a watershed moment for me, when I realised that there was a whole hidden culture out there for me to discover without the assistance of teachers.

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Filed under My top 100 novels

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