Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) by Christopher Isherwood – a second review

By ARP.

Isherwood’s story Mr Norris Changes Trains is set in pre-war Berlin between 1935 and 1939. The story is filled with mystery from the beginning due to the illusive protagonist ‘Herr Norris’ and a rather young and naïve narrator, William Bradshaw, who takes everything and everyone at face value. The two characters meet, by chance, on the train to Berlin and over time become good friends. It can be interpreted to be a friendship of convenience as all gatherings tend to be for Norris – when needs something or it is convenient for him. Norris is apparently involved in the communist party, which he invites William to join. The novel is almost a chronological account of their friendship, which includes Norris’ frequent disappearances and reappearances and fluctuating finances, whilst William speculates about the reasons behind this with rather naïve assumptions. As the novel reaches its climax Norris is out of money again and being blackmailed by a former associate who obviously wishes him ill. He manages to persuade William to help him, omitting most of the details of what this might entail. Eventually William is brought into Norris’ secrets and is left to confront him. However, the ending is questionable as to whether Norris ever really pays for the consequences of his actions.

The novel is greatly concerned with deception, communism and submission. It is centered around the growing tension between communism and fascism in the lead up to the war. The perspective is taken from the side of the communists with Norris as a speaker for the party and his acquaintances Otto, Olga and Anni as keen advocates – William tags along and becomes involved as usual. The omission of major details leads to the creation of half-known characters. Isherwood draws on this chiefly through Norris and his crook-like character. He has ‘…uneasy blue eyes..’ and a voice that ‘…rang false…’. Isherwood ensure that we are constantly told half-truths and Norris’ ‘riddles’ ensures his deceptiveness. As a reader we are driven crazy with imagination – I found myself guessing he was numerous things from a Nazi in disguise to a murderer! Eventually we begin to form our own sense of what and why they are hiding. The reader is constantly uncomfortable; they feel as if they are not seeing the whole picture.

In my opinion, Isherwood’s use of deception and uneasiness throughout the novel is symbolic of how the German population felt in pre-war Germany. In any election there is arguably an air of deception as each candidate promises the world, whilst an uneasiness is felt about how the vote will affect the future. Norris holds many characteristics like that of Hitler. He is manipulative and is constantly manipulating William. As William confronts him over his sins we are told he ‘…looked…like a spaniel which is going to be whipped’, which also links to my later point on submission, and subsequently leads to William half forgiving him and even helping him! I have to wonder if Norris is a representation of Hitler, whilst William represents the population with his naïve intent. Presumably the population, post the first world war, wanted desperately to believe in something good, and this is portrayed through William’s character and how he sees Norris.

Notably there is also sexual content included in the novel. Norris seemingly has a fetish for boots, and finds enjoyment in sadomasochism with Olga as his mistress. He also has a collection of fantasy novels on this, one of which he states he wrote himself! In relation to a main concern of the novel, submission, it is by this apparently sexual content that a different concern is vocalized. The German population were submissive to the powers of Hitler and the Nazi party. It is worth noting that this was a brutal party that murdered innocents and built concentration camps. Isherwood may be using this form of sexual content to show the difference between fantasy and reality.

Mr Norris Changes Trains deserves a wider modern readership. I believe that this novel gives a clear, and perhaps alternative view to most, of what the German population really thought and felt towards Hitler and fascism. What makes this novel an extremely accurate account of Berlin at the time is the fact that Isherwood, also named Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood, wrote this novel whilst himself whilst living in Berlin in 1935. Isherwood is therefore highly qualified to recall the population and atmosphere at the time. To me, the use of Isherwood’s own name for William’s character, enforces Isherwood’s real association with this character and how, through William, he is able to retell his own experiences in Berlin.

As a reader this novel shocked me. It has left me with a very different view of the attitudes of Germany in the late 1930s and was very educational. Whilst one could argue that this novel is a biased view of attitudes from its communist perspective, it undisputedly gives a clear view of a proportion of the population which some people may not be aware of. Isherwood himself finalizes this viewpoint, quoted in Isherwood: a Life by Peter Parker (2005), by stating his novel is a ‘…story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence…’.

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One thought on “Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) by Christopher Isherwood – a second review

  1. Mr Norris Changes Trains is actually set in pre-Nazi Berlin in the period before 1933. It’s probably best read along with its companion, Goodbye to Berlin, which contains the famous story of Sally Bowles. Mr Norris’s “original” was Gerald Hamilton, described (by himself) as “the wickedest man in the world”, who served prison sentences for various offences and wrote several mutually contradictory autobiographies.

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