G.K. Chesterton - The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Rating 7.2

Unusual and engrossing The Napoleon of Notting Hill kept me company amidst the chaos of Terminal 3 in Heathrow while waiting to embark on the first long distance flight of my life.
My impression is that Mr Chesterton was too much far ahead for his times but didn't care a bit having a good sport in poking fun at defying literary conventions.

This odd little novel could be read in many ways: as a satire of British politics and the frail concept of modern democracy, as a dystopian entertainment or as a book poking fun at those who worshipped heraldry and the Middle Ages as an age of unsurpassed heroism and valour.
If you think about the success gained by works of semi-historical fiction such as Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, it's pretty clear how the clang of armours and the bang of swords into shields had many followers back in the 19th century.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is an allegory of all that passion for the Middle Ages feuds ridiculing them as a mere clash of snazzy liveries, but also and perhaps foremost a tale about London, an original tribute to its boroughs and its streets soaked up in a very peculiar and very Chestertonian sense of humour.
Even though the events narrated in the novel take place in a future dated 1984, don't look for Newspeak or Rooms 101 here as there is no anticipation of Orwell in Chesterton.

And yet, this novel could have a modern and contemporary interpretation.
In reading about the skirmishes and battles taking place on the edge of Notting Hill I couldn't help but thinking more to the recent London riots and its episodes of urban guerrilla more than to the barricades of the French revolution.
It's just a stroke of luck that no one of the London rioters and looters seemed to have studied Chesteron much: otherwise there would have been massive floodings rather than fires in the August of 2011.


Christopher Isherwood - Mr Norris Changes Trains

Rating 7.0

When a friend of mine heard that I was reading a book titled Mr Norris Changes Trains, the first thing he said was "Chuck, I suppose?".

Poor Christopher Isherwood! Had he known about the main badass character of Walker Texas Ranger kicking his Arthur Norris out of common knowledge, I'm sure he would have chosen to call him differently.
By the way, popular culture betrayed Isherwood twice here. Just tell a female friend of yours what given name the surname "Bradshaw" (the main narrator of this novel) brings to her mind and there you are: Carrie.

Does this ring a bell? I sincerely hope it doesn't.
But I'm afraid it does. Now, don't deny it!

Anyways, let's put first and second names aside for a moment. And let's forget that - Chuck or not Chuck - Mr Norris Changes Trains is a very unfortunate title. If I could rechristen this novel, I would call it "The Fairy Godfather" (sorry Daniel Pennac) or, on a more silly note, "The Wig and the Moustache". But Isherwood thought it otherwise.

This is an odd novel. Here we have a book which is at the same time a relic from the past and something modern.
Whereas Arthur Norris' look, speech and manners wouldn't displease Thackeray, the little Isherwood tells us about the foreign correspondent Helen Pratt is enough to make a Orianna Fallaci or a Katie Adie out of her.

This contrast is just the effect Isherwood wants.
For "Mr Norris Changes Trains" is set in a very well-defined place and moment of recent history: Berlin in the mid-thirties. That is precisely when Hitler seized power tightening his grip on a whole nation and - quite soon - changing for worse Europe as we knew it.
And that Berlin was caught between the carefree hedonism of its cabarets (heirloom of the 1920s) and an economic and political crisis which quite helped the Nazis to kidnap Germany and throw it to the dogs.

Isherwood is masterful in writing: no doubt about this. And where he excels is in Mr Norris himself. This affected Barry Lyndonesque man with more than a touch of effeminacy and seeking for sadistic pleasures is a marvelous creation.
Far less successful is how the British author writes about Mr Norris' business between Paris and Berlin: plotting and intrigues are definitely something Graham Greene is more apt to work on than his compatriot. Isherwood tries to tell us more about German communists but he somehow fails to be very convincing in that respect.

Nevertheless, this is a good and enjoyable novel, if only for Arthur Norris' antics. I would have liked Isherwood saying more about Berlin in the 1930s but the German capital stands pretty much in the background here with the exception of a chapter or two. I guess how I should pick up Goodbye Berlin by the same author or try the earlier Berlin Stories cooked up by Robert Walser to get more of what I want


Jan Kjærstad - The Conqueror (Erobreren)

Rating 7.8

I had a brief but very deep romance with Oslo in the summer of 2005.
It was my first experience of life abroad all by myself and this made it unforgettable even though it lasted for less than five months.

I remember how I left the town on the first snowy day of that autumn only to come back a year later, but without the same motivations to stay. It's now six years since the last time I've been there.
And - herregud! - I miss that place quite a lot.

To me, Oslo is much more than the capital of Norway and one of the most expensive cities in the world (but with an awesome quality of life).
Oslo means memories. Which I will not recall here.

(Please be advised that I actually deleted twenty lines of a walk along Memory Lane I had previously written down here. Lucky you!)

Suffice to say that I was so mesmerized by the time I spent in Oslo that I kept a sort of Norwegian diary while there covering up around 600 pages of notes, impressions, observations, fictional dialogues and a good deal of frustrated romantic impetus. Back to Italy, I tried to make a novel out of those diaries, but somehow the plot overrun me involving too many things I didn't know that much about. And drafts after drafts of chapters of a novel titled Line Three found room in a drawer.

Now you know the reason why I will never be a good reviewer of The Conqueror.
For Jan Kjaerstad here wrote what I was not able to  accomplish. And rightly so. Had I spent 500 months instead of only 5 in Oslo, perhaps I could feel ashamed.
Not only Kjaerstad made what I couldn't make, but he did it 10 years before my clumsy Line Three.
And finally, he delivered a novel built on childhood episodes which equals to ensnare me under a spell. Curse you, Jan Kjaerstad!

You see? I simply cannot be impartial in looking at this book. On the one hand I'm very envious about it and on the other quite charmed by a novel who brought back a ton of Oslo-related moments.
True, The Conqueror is the second part of the so called Jonas Wergeland Trilogy (from the name of its protagonist), but given the impossibility of putting my hands over the ouverture of The Seducer, I began with this one. Believe me when I say that this book could actually work by itself.

This is a novel revolving around Oslo and pretty much all you could call typically and quintessentially Norwegian. From politics to television, from pop culture to geography, from local habits to the way Norwegians see themselves and Norway in this wide world.
I mean, don't be surprised if you don't know a good half of the 20 great Norwegians that Jonas Wergeland chose for his programme "Thinking Big". And there are some subtleties that seem to work only in Norwegian like "fra hytte til hytte" which becomes "from hut to hut" in English, but doesn't explain the social and cultural importance of this way of saying and way of trekking in Norway.
And the reason why the novelist and Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun doesn't deserve to be printed on any Norwegian banknote (you will find that part in the book) is that he became a Nazi collaborator in his elderly years making him an enemy for his nation.
To name just the first two references which came to my mind.

Nevertheless, if you read the English translation don't believe the Scottish translator when she calls the district of Bygdøy "an island". Please be aware that, as stated by this reader and confirmed by the Oslo resident Mr Irwan S, Bygdøy is actually a peninsula.

A key point now. Jonas Wergeland here calls his compatriots "a nation of spectators" meaning that they're never invited at the high tables or in the control rooms of planet Earth, but quite enjoy having a look at them comfortably sprawled out on a sofa or on a stressless chair. This sort of Peeping Tom attitude means that Norwegians are also accused by the protagonist of this novel of merely witnessing dramatic events without trying either to shape or to stop them.

I would call these accusations of being lazy and craven a bit too harsh.
After all Norway hosts only 5 million people and what these few Norwegians can do in a world scenario of 7 billion human beings? Norway should be content of having had sons and daughters like Ibsen, Nansen, Amundsen, Grieg and Sigrid Undset. That's not too bad, I think, but not enough for Wergeland - and I suspect for Mr Kjaerstad too.

Uh, I forgot to tell you. The Conqueror includes plenty of sex in pretty much all the combinations you can wonder. And, I must add, most if not all of this sex, targets Jonas Wergeland giving you the impression that Norwegian women always take the initiative. Don't jump to the same conclusion too fast! To be honest, more than a "conqueror" Jonas Wergeland in this book is "conquered", sexually and wistfully.

To make a long story short, this novel is not a masterpiece overall, hence I cannot reward it with a five stars rate. But this is the kind of book that means an awful lot to me. Now you know why I had to write this neverending review. A review which will not be very helpful to you, I'm afraid. Apologies for my biased effort!