While working as a private tutor in Berlin in the 1930s, the English author Christopher Isherwood wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains, a novel set in the city during the final years of the Weimar Republic. Despite the troubled times of its setting, Mr Norris is a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train.
The novel is narrated by William Bradshaw, a young Englishman living in Berlin. As the story opens, Bradshaw is returning to the city from Holland by train. Faced with the prospect of a long and tiresome journey, he strikes up a conversation with the man in his carriage, Mr Arthur Norris, a gentleman of ‘independent means.’ Right from the start it is clear that there is something a little odd about Mr Norris. His features are somewhat out of kilter, not least his chin which appears to have slipped sideways ‘like a broken concertina,’ plus he’s wearing a wig. And then, as the train approaches the border with Germany, Norris becomes visibly agitated, even more so once the passport officials board the train to begin their rounds.
He was extremely nervous. His delicate white hand fiddled incessantly with the signet ring on his little finger; his uneasy blue eyes kept squinting rapid glances into the corridor. His voice rang false; high-pitched in archly forced gaiety; it resembled the voice of a character in a pre-war drawing-room comedy. He spoke so loudly that the people in the next compartment must certainly be able to hear him. (pg. 8)
After a tense and lengthy examination of Norris’ passport, the border officials seem satisfied with his credentials and move along to the next carriage. Mr Norris is most relieved. Bradshaw, on the other hand, is left feeling rather protective of his companion. He imagines Norris to be guilty of nothing more than a little petty smuggling, a line of silk for his wife or a box of cigars here and there, certainly nothing more sinister. As a thank you for the provision of some much-needed moral support, Norris invites Bradshaw to join him for lunch, and by the time the train pulls into the city station the two men have struck up a rather unlikely friendship, agreeing to meet for tea at Norris’ flat the following Saturday. Little does he know it at the time, but the feeling of affectionate protectiveness Norris inspires in Bradshaw that day is set to characterise their relationship over the next three years…
On his arrival at Norris’ flat, Bradshaw soon discovers that his new friend runs an import-export business. Although it’s never quite clear exactly what is being imported or exported, whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be entirely above board. This feeling is only heightened when a client comes knocking at the door, an action which prompts Mr Norris to go into hiding in the hope that the caller will go away. At one point in the novel, Bradshaw reflects on his impressions of Mr Norris, a very telling passage as it turns out.
Certainly, I rather enjoyed playing with the idea that he was, in fact, a dangerous criminal; but I am sure that I never seriously believed it for a moment. Nearly every member of my generation is a crime-snob. I was fond of Arthur with an affection strengthened by obstinacy. If my friends didn’t like him because of his mouth or his past, the loss was theirs; I was, I flattered myself, more profound, more humane, an altogether subtler connoisseur of human nature than they. And if, in my letters to England, I sometimes referred to him as ‘a most amazing old crook’, I only meant by this that I wanted to imagine him as a glorified being; audacious and self-reliant, reckless and calm. All of which, in reality, he only too painfully and obviously wasn’t. (pg. 44)
One of the many delights of this novel is the character Isherwood has created in Mr Norris. He is a rather delicate and fussy individual, used to the finer things in life even though he seems to have little money of his own to indulge in such luxuries. (His daily grooming regime is very precise and elaborate, not unlike that of a grande dame with lotions and face creams aplenty.) That said, when he is flush, he is more than generous to his friends, buying them little presents whenever he can. As he gets to know Bradshaw, Norris reveals a little of his childhood and the years he spent travelling around Europe with his adoring mother prior to her death. I loved this description of how Mr Norris frittered away his inheritance in the space of a couple of years, in the days of his early twenties when he didn’t know any better.
It disappeared with magic speed into the mouths of horses and the stockings of ballet girls. The palms of servants closed on it with an oily iron grip. It was transformed into wonderful suits of clothes which he presented after a week or two, in disgust, to his valet; into oriental knick-knacks which somehow, when he got them back to his flat, turned out to be rusty old iron pots; into landscapes of the latest impressionist genius which by daylight next morning were childish daubs. Well-groomed and witty, with money to burn, he must have been one of the most eligible bachelors of his large circle; but it was the Jews, not the ladies, who got him in the end. (pg. 50)
In addition to his business interests, Norris also has links with the Communist Party, an activity that brings Bradshaw into contact with one of the movers and shakers in the group, a certain Ludwig Bayer. As the novel progresses, Bradshaw gets drawn into one of Norris’ schemes. At first it appears as though Bradshaw must travel to Switzerland in order to facilitate a meeting between a mutual friend, Baron von Pregnitz, and Mr Norris’ business contact from Paris, a man known as ‘Margot’. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, there is more to this connection than meets the eye, and the somewhat naïve William Bradshaw is all set to get caught up in it!
I really loved this novel. The two central characters are superbly drawn. Even though it’s abundantly clear that Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. Alongside Bradshaw and Norris, the novel also features a cast of colourful characters, all of whom are drawn with great care and attention to detail: there is Mr Norris’ menacing secretary, Schmidt, a thug and a bully, a man who seems to show scant regard for his employer at the best of times; there is Baron von Pregnitz (known to his friends as ‘Kuno’), a man with a penchant for boys’ own adventure stories; and finally there is Bradshaw’s landlady, Frl. Schroeder, a motherly type who takes quite a fancy to Mr Norris with all his charms.
Set as it is in the Berlin of the early 1930s, the novel takes the reader to the restaurants and nightclubs of the city, the atmosphere heavy with a mix of dust, perspiration and cheap perfume. There is the occasional decadent party or two, most notably a New Year’s Eve bash where Bradshaw meets Norris’ lady friend, Anni, a dominatrix complete with black jacket, black skirt and knee high boots to match, a kind of uniform of sorts. As the novel progresses, the mood in Berlin darkens quite visibly. The city can be a dangerous place as is made clear in the following passage.
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. (pgs. 107-108)
Ultimately, Mr Norris is a portrait of pre-war Berlin, a story that is by turns charming, witty and tragic. The character of Mr Norris was inspired by the memoirist, critic and internationalist, Gerald Hamilton, a friend of Isherwood’s from his Berlin days. I’ll finish with a short quote that sums up Mr Norris’ approach to business – he is speaking to Bradshaw at this point.
‘I think,’ he continued at length, ‘I may safely claim that in the course of my whole career I have very seldom, if ever, done anything which I knew to be contrary to the law….On the other hand, I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself. I hope you’re with me there?’ (pg. 48)
My copy of Mr Norris Changes Trains was published by Vintage Books in an edition which also contains Goodbye to Berlin, Together the two books are known as Isherwood’s Berlin Novels. Max has also reviewed this book, and you can read his excellent review here.