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.
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.