The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood (1935)

‘I must say, Bill, you’re a nice little chap, but you do have some queer friends.’
(journalist Helen Pratt to the narrator William Bradshaw, page 187)

Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood (b.1904) was a key member of the Auden Generation. In fact he first met its leader, W.H. Auden, when they went to the same prep school. Christoper went on to a jolly good public school (Repton – modern boarding fees £37,000 per annum), where he became lifelong friends with the novelist Edward Upward – and then onto Cambridge.

Throughout the 1930s Isherwood wrote novels and essays and collaborated with his friend from prep school, W.H. Auden, on three experimental plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as writing an extended prose account of their joint visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, which was published along with Auden’s poems as Journey to a War (1939).

In January 1939, along with Auden, he sailed for America to make a new life. Auden stayed in New York but Isherwood moved onto California and to a long, successful career as a novelist, critic, screenwriter, devotee of Indian religion, and lived long enough (he died in 1986) to become a gay icon in Reagan’s America.

Right back at the start of his career, though, he wrote the books for which he’s most famous, the autobiographical accounts of his time in Weimar Berlin. (From 1918 until its overthrow by Hitler in 1933, Germany was a parliamentary democracy which came to be named after the town of Weimar where Germany’s new government was formed by a national assembly after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918. Thus anything from this era is referred to as ‘Weimar’ Germany, ‘Weimar’ Berlin etc).

Berlin had, by the late-1920s, become a byword for sexual, and especially homosexual, license, offering a freedom of lifestyle and sexuality which couldn’t scarcely be imagined in starchy, repressed, between-the-wars England, and which still hasn’t really arrived in Puritan England nearly a century later.

The first of the Berlin novels was Mr Norris Changes Trains, published in 1935. It is often combined with its 1939 sequel, Goodbye to Berlin into a single volume, The Berlin Stories, and together these formed the basis of the well-known 1972 movie, Cabaret. I remember arriving at them as a schoolboy having already read quite a lot of French literature with its explicit descriptions of sex and drugs, and being bitterly disappointed at their utter tameness and their prissy, public schoolboy tone. Now, returning to them years later, I appreciate them for what they are, hilarious social comedies.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

This is a bloody funny book. For the first 100 or so pages I smiled or laughed out loud regularly.

The narrator is William Bradshaw. He is an English tutor in Berlin. He appears to be 27 when the novel begins, for he is 28 a year later (p.129). It is autumn 1930. He is on a train back into Germany he meets ‘Arthur Norris, gent.’, a much older man, fat, fussy, nervous, who wears an outrageous wig, worries about his passport, his papers, is widely travelled, calls everyone ‘dear boy’.

William returns to his Berlin boarding house and his pupils but we hear next to nothing about them or his work. Instead the narrative focuses almost entirely on the larger-than-life figure of Arthur Norris. He is an eccentric, a posing exponent of out-of-date values and manners, he ‘risks’ the poor wine on the train, orders champagne with everything, delights in gossip and fine art.

Soon after his return to Berlin William goes round to Arthur’s flat (at 168 Courbierestrasse, a real Berlin street) where the eccentricity builds up. Arthur’s apartment has two doors right next to each other, one is the private entrance, one is marked ‘Import/Export’. A sinister young man with a big head opens the door, takes his coat, and visibly disapproves of his visit. Arthur flusters though, takes William by the hand and escorts him round the oddly arranged flat.

Over the course of successive meetings at cafes and restaurants, William learns that Mr Norris is a relic of the legendary Oscar Wilde circle from back in the 1890s. That’s when his beloved mother died and he came into a small fortune which, however, he managed to blow in just two years (p.45). Two years during which he met the divine Oscar and his circle, gossip is made about the scapegrace Frank Harris, and Mr Norris has a fund of stories which date from the late 1890s or the early 1900s, or the glory years just before the war when he had a large apartment overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, with decorations designed by himself and a unique collection of whips! (p.51)

Now he has very much fallen on hard times and tries to keep up the appearance of a cultured and flamboyant man of business, but in reality he is up to his neck in debt (£5,000!) and Schmidt – the sinister young man who opened the door – is his minder, receiving all the money deriving from Mr Norris’s dubious and mysterious ‘business ventures’, managing the numerous debtors in a blunt brutal manner which Mr Norris could never bring off, and in exchange taking 10% of the transactions.

He was one of those people who have not only a capacity, but a positive attitude for doing their employer’s dirty work. (p.46)

In fact, over scattered conversations in cafes, restaurants or his flat, Arthur slowly reveals he has had quite a few brushes with the law and then that he actually went to prison, Wormwood Scrubs, for 18 months. Something to do with embezzlement or misappropriated funds.

So the humour derives mostly from the outrageous pretensions, lies and evasions of Mr Norris, as well as his humorous turns of phrase. He is, in his way, a sort of Falstaff, pompously fond of all the good things in life while completely unable to afford them. He is a great comic character.

Arthur certainly gave things away with an air. He knew how to play the Grand Seigneur. (p.173)

But the humour is aided by Isherwood’s stone cold, precise and sometimes malicious eye for detail. The narrator reports everything with exceptional lucidity. Not only that but he disarms us with suddenly blunt turns of mind, which are often very funny, and which Arthur comments on:

‘Really William, you’re so unkind. You say such sharp things.’ (p.37)

For example:

As he spoke he touched his left temple delicately with his finger-tips, coughed, and suddenly smiled. His smile had great charm. It disclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks. (page 7)

These moments are designed to show us that Isherwood has a kind of unblinking, unflinching clarity of observation. But their tactlessness, and their abrupt surprising appearance are also very funny.

‘This is Olga, our hostess,’ Arthur explained.
‘Hullo, baby!’ Olga handed me a glass. She pinched Arthur’s cheek: ‘Well, my little turtle-dove?’
The gesture was so perfunctory that it reminded me of a vet with a horse. (p.32)

Key to all these effects is the William/narrator persona. He laughs at everyone’s jokes, he gets on with (almost) everyone, he dances, he drinks but doesn’t get angry or maudlin. He knows what to wear, how to eat correctly at smart restaurants, he is tactful and polite. Quite a few paragraphs start with the simple sentences: ‘I smiled’, ‘I grinned’ or ‘I laughed’. He is flattering company. He is the perfect, well-mannered English house party guest and excellent company.

(I took the trouble of counting and the word ‘smile’ appears 80 times in the novel, ‘laugh’ 55, and ‘grin’ 14. The point being that all this smiling and laughing subconsciously nudges you towards reading the book in a good mood — rather as the hundreds of mentions of ‘death’ and ‘blood’ make the Penguin Book of Civil War Verse such a grim read.)

The cast

  • Arthur Norris – ‘I’m generally at my best in the witness box’ (p.42)
  • Schmidt – Arthur’s malicious assistant or minder (p.18)
  • Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno – a scary drawling nightclub denizen, rimless monocle screwed intimidatingly into his pink face as if by some horrible operation (p.28)
  • Anni with the thigh boots who Arthur likes being whipped by (p.32)
  • Fraulein Schroeder – William’s ancient landlady, who enjoys dressing up and flirting with Arthur
  • Helen Pratt – Berlin correspondent to one of the weekly political magazines, tough as nails, no-nonsense, statistics and Freud, very earnest about Sex (p.38)
  • Fritz Wendel – German-American man about town, likes playing bridge (p.39)
  • Olga – enormous, wobbling hostess of decadent parties i.e. everyone gets blotto, men dance with men

Events, dear boy

Things happen. They have to in a novel. Early on Mr Norris takes William to a New Year’s Eve party to see in 1931 (p.30) at the house of a certain Olga, an enormous good-natured woman. Everyone is very drunk and Isherwood describes being drunk at a party very well. People appear, disappear, he finds himself with his arms round someone, dancing with two or three people at once. He is introduced to the slightly sinister Baron von Pregnitz, then to Anni a bored prostitute wearing leather boots up to her knees. Later on William staggers down the hall, blunders into a room and finds her standing with a whip in hand while fat Mr Norris is on his hands and knees polishing her boots and she is whipping him for being such a naughty boy. Neither of them minds him blundering in, in fact Anni says he can be next.

Anni lives with Otto, her pimp, an enormously strong, good-natured working class man, middleweight champion of his local boxing club (p.57). It is a recurring comic motif that he insists on shaking William’s hand whenever they meet, and crushes it so hard, it takes a while for William to recover feeling in it. Or slaps people so hard on the shoulder that they nearly fall over.

In a surprise development, Mr Norris takes William along to a Communist Party meeting, a hall full of Berlin’s working class, to which he makes a surprisingly impactful plea of solidarity with the poor peasants and workers of China!). William goes along and meets Anni and Otto there (chapter five). It is very funny when all four of them return to Arthur’s flat, open a bottle of wine,m and jovially refer to each other as Comrade Arthur, Comrade Otto and so on.

It is, of course, a scam. Desperate to pay off his debts, Mr Norris has fibbed to the head of the Berlin Communists, a short extremely self-contained man named Bayer, that he has ‘important contacts’ in Paris etc. He never explains it properly to William but the general idea is that he becomes some kind of go-between or messenger.

Mr Norris plans to host a party on his 53rd birthday but William gets there to find everyone gone – Arthur pawned his carpet to pay for it but when Schmidt saw what he’d done and he demanded all the money from the pawnbroker and only left Arthur a few marks.

Arthur tells William that Otto and Anni broke up after they argued about the Party and Otto smacked Anni so hard he knocked her back over the bed and against the wall so hard she dislodged the picture of Stalin which fell to the floor and its glass shattered. Anni runs off and next thing Otto knows she’s shacked up with a guy he knows who quit the Communist Party to join the Nazis. Otto goes right round to the bar or Lokal where this guy, Werner Baldow, and is just being thrown out for the second time when some police passing by and, when he starts attacking them too, arrest him so that he ends up sending a couple of weeks in gaol. (pp.72-73)

As it happens William and Arthur glimpse Otto from a window when Arthur is summonsed to Berlin police headquarters for a, er, meeting. Arthur is so nervous he asks William to accompany him, which our man does. There’s a typically light-hearted / facetious exchange as they emerge from the restaurant where they have a boozy lunch before going into police HQ:

‘Be brave, Comrade Norris, think of Lenin.’
‘I’m afraid, ha ha, I find more inspiration in the Marquis de Sade.’ (page 64)

It turns out to be a friendly enough chat with the authorities but it is just to let Arthur know that they know that he is linked with the Communists and they’re keeping an eye on him.

Half-way hiatus

There is a hiatus half-way through the book, a caesura. Arthur suddenly disappears. William goes round to discover the flat in Courbierestrasse empty and abandoned. A few weeks later William receives a letter from Prague in which he apologises for his sudden disappearance (p.83).

The political situation in Germany deteriorates with more violence in the streets and hysteria in the newspapers (pp.90-92). Nearly six months later William himself goes back to England for an extended break, which includes ‘four months in the country’. He promises to write but doesn’t.

When he finally returns to Berlin in October 1932, and tramps up the familiar stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house, he is delighted to discover Arthur has returned! Not only that but he seems to be surprisingly flush and so, being the bon-viveur that he is, insists on immediately taking William to a wildly expensive restaurant. William gives us an amusing description of Arthur’s morning toilette which goes on for some time and involves plucking and make-up.

Mr Norris takes William to dinner at a restaurant where they find Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno. They’ve had some kind of a fight and Mr Norris rather desperately tries to be the life and soul of the conversation, before making his excuses and leaving, making it clear he’s dumped William for Kuno to seduce, which the latter tries to do in a taxi home, while William successfully fights him off (chapter ten).

(It’s worth remembering that in an earlier chapter, Arthur and William had visited Kuno at a wonderful lakeside mansion he has and discovered it packed with a collection of almost naked, beautiful, tanned and fit young men, who oil themselves, sunbathe, swim in the pool and play practical jokes on Kuno. Gay paradise.)

November 1932. Germany’s confused political situation deteriorates. Everyone is making backroom deals, including Hitler. There is another general election and communist party support increase while the Nazis lose two million votes.

Mr Norris’s murky affairs appear to go downhill. He had been receiving mysterious telegrams from Paris which William and Fraulein Schroeder steamed open. They appeared to come from a woman named Margot and described his presents to her – must be a code, William decides.

One thing leads to another and finally, in a coy and roundabout way, Arthur explains to William that Kuno aka Baron von Pregnitz, now something in the German government, has an interest in a German glass manufacturer. Now his contact in Paris – ‘Margot’ – is interested in going into business with him. What they need to do is to arrange for Margot and Kuno to meet, not on German soil. Slowly Arthur reveals that he himself cannot go because he would find it ‘difficult’ to return to German soil, so, er, would William very much mind accompanying Kuno to Switzerland. Even more suspicious is when Arthur explains that Kuno mustn’t know – the rendezvous when it happens, must appear to be chance.

And so William finds himself kitted out with a new dinner jacket on a train to Switzerland. it didn’t take much persuading to get Kuno to agree to go – after all, we’ve seen that he’s already made one pass at William, he must have thought his chance had come. Their first morning in the sweet Alpine resort is Boxing Day 1932 (p.141).

Here, in chapter thirteen, the book veers into spy thriller / Eric Ambler territory. Over the coming days our duo (William and Kuno) meet several characters – a Mr van Hoorn and his son Piet, tall blond and striking in a Viking way – a French popular novelist Marcel Janin who Isherwood satirises for the brisk superficiality of his research (maybe it’s a lampoon of someone famous – this book has no notes or introduction, it would be nice to know).

The point of the chapter is that William is on tenterhooks trying all the time to guess who ‘Margot’ is that Kuno is supposed to be making contact with. There are various distractions, for example Piet and Kuno seem to form a gay friendship based on athletic skiing, and William has a hair-raising conversation with Piet who explains that Europe needs to be cleansed of its rotten Jews by a strong leader. Eventually, on day three of this mystery, William comes across Mr van Hoorn and Kuno deep in a whispered conversation in a corner of the lounge. Aha. He must be ‘Margot’.

It is just at this moment that William is handed a telegram which triggers the final crisis of the book. It simply reads: ‘Please return immediately’ and is signed Ludwig, an alias used by Bayer, head of the Berlin Communist Party. Something is up. William makes his excuses, packs his bag, catches a train back to Berlin, takes his bags to the flat – Arthur is out – takes a taxi to Communist Party headquarters. Here there is:

The big reveal

Bayer reveals that Arthur has, all this time, been spying for French security – on the communists or anyone else he can information about – sending reports to ‘Margot’ in Paris (p.157). Not only that, but the communists have been using him to send disinformation to the French. Not only that, but the Berlin police know all about it, as they made clear on a visit to Bayer a few days earlier. And now Bayer is, very generously, passing it on to William.

The ‘business’ trip to Switzerland was arranged so that ‘Margot’ – an official from French security – could make an approach to Kuno, not because he is a businessman (I didn’t think he was) but because he is now in the German government. The French are approaching him to see if he wants to spy for them. Bayer calmly lucidly explains that this makes William an accessory to an attempt to suborn an official of the German government. (It’s why Arthur didn’t want to go or be involved.) In other words – William could find himself in a German prison sentenced as a spy.

Listening to this William passes through the gamut of emotions – humiliation, embarrassment, mortification – but with this final revelation blazes with anger. Bayer restricts himself to advising William to be more careful how he picks his friends, and mildly suggests he might want to pass this all on to Arthur and shakes his hand. In a daze in a dream in a dazzle William stumbles down the stairs, out the building, into a taxi and charges up the stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house.

Arthur has (conveniently for the theatrics of the situation) returned and William lets him have it with both barrels. Arthur tries to manage it all with his ‘dear boys’ and pooh-poohing but as William reveals that the communists know he’s been betraying them and the police know, too, Arthur’s confidence wilts and then collapses.

Arthur looked up at me quickly, like a spaniel which is going to be whipped. (p.161)

Eventually William’s rage blows over and he starts feeling sorry for the shattered old man before him.

He sat there like a crumpled paper bag, his blue eyes vivid with terror. (p.161)

He says there’s only one thing for it. Arthur has to get out of the country before he’s arrested. Already William’s noticed a detective has been posted outside the boarding house. They discuss it then William packs Arthur along to a travel agency (where the detective follows him) and he returns declaring he has, rather improbably, bought tickets for Mexico. He’ll catch a train to Hamburg, then get the boat.

There is then a Big Psychological Moment – a moment when the scales really drop from the narrator’s eyes:

Mr Norris tentatively asks William whether – given the fact the police don’t know everything yet and that there might be a big reward for more information and William stands to gain from it – whether… he’s going to tell on him…

And in a flash William and the reader realise that Arthur judges everyone by his own standards, thinks everyone can be bought and corrupted, that anyone is willing to betray his friends if the price is right.

William is at first scandalised and insulted by the imputation, by even the suspicion that he might betray his friend. But then he realises… he is the one at fault. All the time he had been projecting his own public schoolboy, English code of honour onto someone who really is from a different time and set of values. His bad. (There is also the deeper implication – that William might not understand anything which is happening around him).

Arthur washes and brushes up and they go for a last meal together but, although they giggle like schoolboys at the detective who so blatantly follows them and even enters the restaurant and has his own meal, the old spirit, the old closeness has gone.

Next morning Arthur liberally gives away those of his belongings he’s not taking with him, dispensing gifts to the porter, the porter’s wife and the porter’s son, and some of his wonderful silk underwear, incongruously, to Fraulein Schroeder.

After a final lunch (these characters and their eating out!) Arthur has packed his bags and moved them into the hall ready to depart when there’s a flurry of excitement. After banging on the door  Schmidt his old minder-bully bursts in, very drunk, looking down at heel, demanding his money and, when he sees Arthur has packed his bags, accusing him of doing a runner. Real violence might have broken out except that, in a moment of Joe Orton farce, it is feeble old Fraulein Schroeder, so angry at having her lovely Herr Norris threatened like this, who runs at Schmidt from behind, taking him unawares, pushing him into the front room (‘like an engine shunting trucks’) and quickly locking the door on him.

William accompanies Arthur to the train station. There is a prolonged and excruciatingly embarrassing farewell during which Arthur pours out wishes and regrets which make William’s toes curl. ‘He was outrageous, grotesque, entirely without shame.’

Coda

The last chapter is a sort of coda or envoi. The Falstaffian figure of Mr Norris departs early in January 1933. His departure disenchants William who for the first time looks around him and sees the dire situation Germany is in. On 30 January 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg, as a result of backroom deals, appointed Hitler as Chancellor. It is William’s acquaintance, the tough journalist Helen Pratt, investigating the uptick in arrests and rumours of torture, who tells William that Bayer, the communist leader, is dead. A Jewish friend suddenly becomes very fearful.

The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear. I could feel it, like influenza, in my bones.

William realises he’s got various Communist Party papers in his possession, which Bayer had given him to translate into English, and realises how incriminating these would be if the authorities discovered them. He and Fraulein Schroeder hide them. He lies awake at night hearing vans driving past wondering if one will stop and he’ll hear the thunk of Nazi boots on the stairs.

Otto turns up on their doorstep, dirty and dishevelled. His old rival, Werner Baldow, had turned up with six of his stormtroop but Otto escaped through the skylight and has been on the run ever since. They feed and wash him and in a few days he says he’ll leave and try to make his way to the French border. He has a list of comrades who are said to be dead. Of Anni his whore he knows nothing and doesn’t care. Olga the big hostess was protected by having an important Nazi as a client. She’ll be fine.

There is a wonderful bittersweet moment when William shows Otto a postcard from Arthur in Mexico. Otto’s face gleams, he is convinced Arthur is still true to the communist faith, is out there in Mexico making speeches and raising money, old Hitler had better look out when Arthur gets back. ‘Yes of course that’s what he’s doing,’ William lies, with the perfect poise we’ve come to expect of him.

He and Fraulein Schroder give him some food, a penknife and a map of Germany and wave him off. William never hears from him again. Three weeks later William returns to Britain, Helen Pratt comes to visit him, immensely fired up by her award-winning journalism about the new Nazi regime, full of scoops and insider info. She tells him that the police caught Baron von Pregnitz (Kuno) for spying, tailed him to a train station and then chased him into a public lavatory where he locked himself in a cubicle and tried to blow his brains out.

Helen also introduces the final thought and lasting motif of the novel, which is she discovered Pregnitz was being blackmailed by none other than Schmidt, Arthur’s venomous minder-blackmailer. This leads us into the final sequence where the narrator shares with us a series of hilarious-gruesome postcards from Arthur which recount how he moved from Mexico to California where he was hoping to manage a tidy little deal, but who should turn up and ruin it but SCHMIDT. Arthur elopes to Costa Rica – but Schmidt follows him there – ‘may try Peru’ says one brief postcard. But even there Schmidt follows him. He cannot shake him off. By this time the pairing has become allegorical, mythical, the two are tied together like Faust and Mephistopheles, condemned to torment each other for all time. In his very last postcard, Arthur is forced to admit that they are, reluctantly, going into partnership.

And thus the book ends on this complex note, all the preceding frivolity seriously undermined by the final ten pages detailing Nazi brutality and murders, and then this quasi-religious final image of a pair of rascals ‘doomed to walk the earth together’. The very last sentence returns to the comic mode, but now with all kinds of complex overtones.

‘Tell me William,’ his last letter concluded, ‘what have I done to deserve all this?’

Very funny. A comic masterpiece.


Gay culture

Knowing that Isherwood was gay, and would go on to become something of a gay icon, changes the way we read the book. There is the obviously gay character, Baron von Pregnitz and his villa full of tanned half-naked young men. That’s quite a hauntingly sensual image.

Mr Norris himself is a more complex creation. On the one hand he is very associated with the 1890s and the Oscar Wilde circle – what could be more gay? On the other hand Isherwood – presumably because he had to because of the times – makes his peccadilos solidly heterosexual – he may have naughty French erotic literature and he may like to be whipped as he polishes his dominant’s boots – but the naughty books are about schoolgirls and the person holding the whip is definitely a woman (Anni). I.e. the latent homosexuality of the character has been changed into acceptable, if still risqué, heterosexuality.

Despite this camouflage, the book can be seen as a kind of handing on of the torch. Mr Norris educates, shows and displays the camp values and behaviour of that older, late-Victorian and Edwardian, gay generation. William observes and analyses them, and in some measure absorbs them into his good-humoured schoolboy-in-Berlin persona, before taking them with him to sunny California.

The novel stands alone, but can also be interpreted as part of a gay lineage, a tradition, handing on the torch of a subterranean set of behaviours. In his introduction to a recent edition of this book, the gay American novelist Armistead Maupin describes meeting Isherwood at the end of his life, who was kind enough to read the manuscript of his first novel. Like Mr Norris Changes Train, Maupin’s novel rotates around a number of characters in a boarding house and thus, at one remove, invokes the outrageous, camp, very funny and sad persona of Mr Norris. It’s really Maupins idea that he was taking part in a gay lineage or tradition, I’m just pointing out that the entire novel can be read in this light.

Isherwood disowned it

Like many of the 1930s writers, Isherwood came to dislike and even despise his younger self and his early works, for their shallowness and immorality. Not their sexual immorality, the deeper immorality of seeing the real suffering, poverty, prostitution and violence around him in Berlin but thinking it was all frightfully exciting and fun, purely the raw materials for an Englishman’s novels – which is pretty much what the Berlin stories do.

Twenty years later, when Isherwood was invited to write an introduction to a memoir by the real-life person Mr Norris is based on, the memoirist, critic and crook Gerald Hamilton, he took the opportunity to put the record straight:

What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The ‘wickedness’ of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. … As for the ‘monsters’, they were quite ordinary human beings prosaically engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.

On this reading, the narrator’s endless good humour and incessant laughing is not a sign of his wonderful bonhomie but of his ignorance and superficiality. It encourages us to remember the couple of places where Isherwood explicitly refers to the narrator’s behaviour as immature, callow and schoolboyish.

We sniggered together, like two boys poking fun at the headmaster. (p.168)

Well, maybe this attitude of regret was appropriate enough for Isherwood in later life, but I don’t think we need to be limited by his perspective. Things have moved on since he wrote that. I can think of at least two comic movies about the Nazis which have been well received in our times (Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful) and nobody seems to have questioned the 1972 movie Cabaret for its comic or silly interludes.

And then, the ending of the book, the last chapter, doesn’t at all treat the dangerous times, the Nazis’ arrival in power, the terror of his Jewish friends, at all frivolously. I thought he was being hard on himself.

Lastly, this novel is funny, and funny is good. We need more humour and less anger in the world. For a lot of the book the German background is irrelevant, it could have been set in Paris or any other European capital, any of which would have had communists and fascists fighting against a sense of looming disaster. And wherever it had been set, any novel describing a bunch of posh, amused characters drinking and diletantting against the backdrop of the Great Depression might have prompted the author to later berate himself for not being more sensitive to the poverty and sufferings of the poor, or to the political catastrophe just round the corner.

Don’t beat yourself up, Christopher. It’s a very funny book, Mr Norris is a comic masterpiece and the crisp witty prose it’s written in is a delight to read.


Related links

Weimar Germany

Novels from or about the 1930s

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