Mr Norris Changes Trains is a novel by Christopher Isherwood set in the early 1930s during the inter-war period. It’s a highly entertaining romp through life during the time that Hitler rose to power, seen through the eyes of the main character, William Bradshaw, which coincidentally are Christopher Isherwood’s own middle names.
It begins in an old-style corridor train carriage, with William making the acquaintance of an ‘interesting’ character, Arthur Norris, with whom he is sharing a train ride into Berlin from Holland. The novel is written in the first person, allowing the reader to experience events from William’s perspective. Intrigued by the stranger, William asks for a match, to start a conversation, ostensibly to help pass the time of the journey as he has nothing to read to keep him otherwise occupied. At first highly reticent, Norris is drawn in and reveals himself to be widely travelled and a reasonably comedic raconteur. The humour is gentle by modern standards but manages to be subtle and intelligent at the same time. It softly draws the reader in until he/she is fully absorbed in what happens to Bradshaw. Isherwood’s style of writing is understated. He doesn’t over-describe events and situations and he allows the reader great latitude in forming their own impressions of events and characters.
I formed the impression of Bradshaw being an innocent abroad, at the start, being sucked in to adventures without taking note of the potential consequences or dangers of the period. He has a childlike enthusiasm, always willing to see the best in people and thinking of ways he can help others. He feels sorry for Norris and protective of him. When Norris is faced with a passport inspection at the German Border, he shows symptoms of alarm. Misreading the situation as a poor old man who has perhaps some minor personal contraband in his belongings, Bradshaw gets ready to support him and perhaps offer to take the goods into his belongings, if that would help. William doesn’t verbalise this – the reader is treated to his innermost thoughts – and it’s perhaps just as well as he has totally misread the situation. As William finds out later in the novel, Norris is well known to the authorities and is under surveillance.
This incident sets the tone for the adventures which follow. Bradshaw finds himself in situations with Norris, totally misreads events and gets himself in all sorts of bother. On one occasion, William is with Norris at a late-night venue in a disreputable part of Berlin and has been offered drink and other things that leave him in a stupor. Semi-conscious, he becomes aware that Norris and his female companion are no longer in the main salon with him, hears Norris scream, rushes out into the dark corridor and bursts into a room to save Norris, entering a scene of Norris, partially clothed, being excitedly and enjoyably chastised by two ladies of the night with whips and boots.
Thus, William meets Olga, with the whip, and Anni, the girl with the boots. By this time, William is aware of Norris’s predilections, having been introduced to his library in this passage from earlier: “‘I’ve got some very valuable books here,’ he told me. ‘Some very amusing books.’ His tone coyly underlined the words. I stopped to read the titles: The Girl with the Golden Whip. Miss Smith’s Torture-Chamber. Imprisoned at a Girls’ School, or The Private Diary of Montague Dawson, Flagellant. This was my first glimpse of Mr Norris’s sexual tastes.”
Other characters flit in and out of the plot as it lurches from scene to chaotic scene; Frl. Schroeder, the housekeeper who has a poorly canary and a soft spot for Norris; Ludwig Bayer, who speaks at the Communist Party gathering; Schmidt the burly aggressor of few words who is Norris’s ‘private secretary’; Helen Pratt, Berlin correspondent to one of London’s political Weeklies and part time English Tutor; Baron von Pregnitz, a close and very rich friend of Norris’s and Fritz Wendel, a young German-American friend of William’s who has a taste for painters. There are many more – it is a feast of character portrayal. All the characters are exquisitely described, sufficiently rounded to enable the reader to understand the seedy underbelly of the city at that time, the political and spying intrigue that abounded and the dangers that lurk at every turn when the world is undergoing massive political and economic upheaval.
I found myself drawn in easily to the anecdotal style of writing, which didn’t infer judgement on any of the characters but just left the decision on that to the reader. I enjoyed it and at the same time, couldn’t help be alerted to parallels between this time and current events. Much has been written about Nazism, particularly about the time immediately before the 1939-45 war and during it, but there is much less about how it arose and what life was like during the rise of Hitler. This book covers just that scenario and paints the picture of a fractured society, where things happen ‘under the radar’ whilst the powers-that-be become more and more adept and forceful at discovery. Hitler rose to power in Germany as it struggled to recover from the punitive reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. He promised a better life for Germans. He was anti-Semitic, charismatic, racist and a bully. America has just elected a President who is charismatic, overtly racist, sexist, ant-Muslim and a bully, having risen to power promising to make America great again. It’s timely to read this book, now.