Political meetings were well attended; they were cheaper than going to the movies or getting drunk.

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris Changes Trains was published in 1935. It’s a funny and well observed novel of a Berlin lost in decadence and violence, before the horror that was soon to come.

Norris

William Bradshaw is a young man living in Berlin (any resemblance to Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood is I understand entirely intentional). On the train into the city he finds himself in the same carriage as a Mr Norris. They strike up a conversation, with Bradshaw innocently wondering why Mr Norris seems quite so concerned at the prospect of border checks. It’s the first sign that whatever it is that Mr Norris does for a living, it’s not entirely legitimate.

Here’s Mr Norris:

He had a large blunt fleshy nose and a chin which seemed to have slipped sideways. It was like a broken concertina. When he spoke, it jerked crooked in the most curious fashion and a deep cleft dimple like a wound surprisingly appeared in the side of it. Above his ripe red cheeks, his forehead was sculpturally white, like marble. A queerly cut fringe of dark grey hair lay across it, thick, and heavy. After a moment’s hesitation, I realized, with extreme interest, that he was wearing a wig.

Mr Norris is an absurd figure, but oddly likable and one of the many charms of this book is that I found myself liking him even though there’s really very little reason why I should. Norris is a petty schemer, a political opportunist, self-pitying and grandiose in turns and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, he has a certain absurd charm, and Isherwood’s great talent here is to let Norris’s character shine through the page.

By the time we had reached Bentheim, Mr Norris had delivered a lecture on the disadvantages of most of the chief European cities. I was astonished to find how much he had travelled. He had suffered from rheumatics in Stockholm and draughts in Kaunas; in Riga he had been bored, in Warsaw treated with extreme discourtesy, in Belgrade he had been unable to obtain his favourite brand of toothpaste. In Rome he had been annoyed by insects, in Madrid by beggars, in Marseilles by taxi-horns. In Bucharest he had an exceedingly unpleasant experience with a water-closet. Constantinople he had found expensive and lacking in taste. The only two cities of which he greatly approved were Paris and Athens. Athens particularly. Athens was his spiritual home.

Norris is fond of privately-published books featuring schoolgirls and spanking. His secretary is a menacing figure who seems to hold more power over his employer than vice versa. Norris has an extraordinary array of contacts from Communist organisers to influential aristocrats, but very rarely any money. He’s generous with what he has though, when he has it, and there’s no real meanness to him.

Literature and history both are full of men like Mr Norris. People who are rogues, but not monsters. They may do harm, but not from malice. In another time and place a Mr Norris could look much more blameworthy than he does here – if he were to appear today for example making money from insider trading and dodgy investment schemes I doubt he’d seem so comic. In 1930s Berlin though well, there are much worse sins than greed and vanity.

In 1966 Isherwood looked back on Mr Norris Changes Trains and condemned it as “a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation.” I think that’s too harsh. Yes, Bradshaw is depicted as something of an innocent abroad in a city of grotesques, but the book has for me more compassion than Isherwood later came to see in it. The characters are mostly thugs, dominatrices and wheeler-dealers but I could easily imagine each having their own novel following them as this one follows Mr Norris. If Isherwood had written those novels, I’d read them.

As the novel continues the situation in Berlin worsens. Behaviour that was already risky becomes downright dangerous. It’s no place for a gentle crook like Mr Norris with his schemes and fantasies.

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.

The newspapers were full of deathbed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner, and Communist.

This is a world where the Nazis are the authorities. What do Mr Norris’s peccadilloes count for against that?

Far from being heartless, for me this was a warm and affectionate book. It’s barbed, but Mr Norris would understand that friendship can be genuine without having to be blind to the friend’s faults, as long as everyone behaves with discretion …

Isherwood’s prose-style is clean and lucid. He’s a good writer in a very classic sense – credible characters, evocative descriptions, wit and intelligence showing but never showy. This is writing which repays attention, but never requires it and because of that it makes a surprisingly relaxing read.

Four years later Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin (the book the film Cabaret is based on). It’s often published in a single volume alongside Mr Norris Changes Trains, and is closely linked to it. I’ve already bought Goodbye and look forward to it, and hopefully to more Isherwood after that.

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16 Comments

Filed under Berlin, Isherwood, Christopher

16 responses to “Political meetings were well attended; they were cheaper than going to the movies or getting drunk.

  1. I didn’t know that Isherwood had condemned his own writing so harshly in later life. I think he’s too tough on himself here: ““a heartless fairy-story about a real city”. If he wrote Mr Norris in the way that he felt at the time, that is more interesting than pretending to have felt worse than he did.
    For me, the terrifying thing about the growth of Nazism is how ordinary it all was. I visited the former SS cells in Cologne once, and it is chilling that the prisoners were cramped in tiny cells within earshot of a quiet suburban street. People went happily about their everyday business whilst torture was taking place beneath their noses.
    It’s also interesting to read Isherwood’s non-fiction memoir of these years. Christopher and his Kind. It puts a very different light on the fictional tales of Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin.

  2. It seems that many writers are quite hard on themselves… they only see the flaws. Unfortunate.

  3. I guess he remembered the reality, and judged the book against that. I’m just judging the book, which is arguably fairer.

    He captures the growing political violence very well. There’s a three page or so sequence which really brings out a sense of things spiralling out of control.

    The ordinariness of it, the banality of evil as the phrase goes, that is terrifying. It’s part of what struck me in this – the characters here are political agitators, crooks, prostitutes, thugs and profiteers, but compared to the ordinary world they’re apart from they’re really not that bad – the ordinary folk are complicit in far worse crimes (or actively participating in them).

    Is the memoir good?

    Literary, I guess they can see too what they dreamt of writing and looking at the page see the gap in what they actually wrote. We have the benefit of just seeing the page, and therefore sometimes perhaps seeing it clearer than those who wrote it.

  4. The memoir is really good and it covers things that he couldn’t write about in the novels, due to the moral standards of the time. On the other hand, Goodbye to Berlin takes a much tougher look at the rise of Nazism and the suffering of people as the movement grew.
    Stephen Spender has also written quite a bit about this time. I remember his comment on the film Cabaret, that Isherwood and his friends never went to places like that because the Cabaret theatres were well out of their price range!

  5. Thanx to your review, I’m pretty sure I will read this book. I love novels where fortuitous encounters happen in trains or during vacations, or novels where most of the action takes place in confined places, a room, a pension, a monastery. I can never be bored with them.
    I also love the cover, which is why I will resist the temptation to get this on Kindle; Mr. Norris seems quite effeminate to me, and this adds more to the intriguing title.
    I’m actually glad Isherwood thought this novel was “a heartless fairy-story”. This tells me that he was truthful in portraying Berlin and this period in his book. I suppose people should be forgiven for not anticipating the horror that was to come, or reacting to what was happening; either we find ourselves depressingly helpless in front of people and events, or we truly wish that our daily lives will end up resembling a nice fairy-tale.
    I will be looking forward to your review of Goodbye to Berlin.

  6. The cover’s marvellous isn’t it?

    This would be a hard novel to get bored by. I can see how after what happened next in real life one might look back and wish one had seen more clearly what was happening, but actually it does show horror and violence. It doesn’t show so much of it that the tone of the book becomes despairing, but it is there.

    I’ll be looking forward to reading Goodbye to Berlin. Thanks for the comment.

  7. leroyhunter

    It’s years since I read this one, but I read Goodbye to Berlin fairly recently, which was very good as well. One of the things that strikes me is the relative squalor of the narrator’s situation, certainly in the second book. A lot of the energy and chaos in Berlin comes from people trying to (or convinced they can) escape their lot through association with the violent factions that are constantly arising and popping like bubbles of poisonous vapour.

    I like the point you make (and agree completely) that Isherwood is a writer where a very high standard of writing is a given – style, tone etc. are all almost unnoticeably fine – “writing which repays attention, but never requires it” is a fine way to put it. An often undervalued quality I think.

  8. It’s fairly squalid here too. Mr Norris is generally short of money, but as the word squalid suggests it’s more than that. There’s often a grubbiness to it, and when there is security and comfort a sense of it being impermanent, unstable.

    Isherwood’s style of writing is slightly out of fashion, but not utterly. It’s the same tradition that say Colm Toibin is in. Unshowy but actually very skilful.

  9. Great review.
    I have Goodbye to Berlin on the shelf and now I wonder if I can read it without reading this one first. What do you think?

    PS: See how Constantinople is a European city for Mr Norris while Istanbul isn’t European enough to enter the EU these days.

  10. I’d probably read this first, as I think some of the characters may recur in Goodbye, but I may be wrong in that.

    I’d happily see Turkey in the EU personally. It’s time we all moved past the sixteenth century. Good point though, I’d missed that. Of course, back then it had been the capital of the Ottoman Empire within living memory.

  11. I still need to read Isherwood. We were in Berlin last year – been to Germany before but that was out first visit to Berlin – there were several exhibitions there about Berlin in 1933 including one at Alexanderplatz Railway Station called “1933 From Red to Brown”. It was about the railway’s relationship to the war and was described as “an exhibition about the dark chapter of BVG history”. The early to mid 1930s in Germany is a fascinating era but I think I’ve seen more films about it than read fiction about it. I must try to rectify that – these two Isherwood novels would be a great place to start wouldn’t they?

  12. The Isherwood’s would be. That said, if you fancy a “difficult novel” Berlin Alexanderplatz (which I review here) is excellent. I’d probably read this first though, it’s very well written and much more accessible. If the period then grabs you could move on to BA if the mood took you.

  13. acommonreaderuk

    I read this many years ago and you have reminded me of how much I enjoyed it at the time – definitely not a “heartless fairy tale” in my view. I must get into Berlin Alexanderplatz one day – the Amazon version seems to be Kindle only which I don’t mind, but the translator seems to have a few idiosyncracies

  14. Berlin Alexanderplatz is very much worth reading. The translation I read worked fairly well, though looking at my review (http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/berlin-alexanderplatz-by-alfred-doblin/) I don’t seem to have said who the translator was which is unusual for me. I’ll have to check and update the review accordingly.

    I note the kindle edition, if I’m looking at the same one as you, uses Northern English slang and colloquialisms. That doesn’t sound necessarily a bad idea to me – the one I read was an American translation and it used a lot of then contemporary US slang. I think the original in the German is very slangy. A “clean” translation could I suspect actually be less faithful to the original.

  15. acommonreaderuk

    Thanks for that – I’ll now go across and read your article on Berlin Alexaderplatz

  16. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

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