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Christopher Isherwood: Mr. Norris Changes Trains

This was Isherwood’s first Berlin book and while as not as famous as the later one, it is still an interesting book. The story is narrated by William Bradshaw, a young Englishman who is going to Berlin to teach English and get to know the city, at the beginning of the 1930s. On the train to Berlin, his travelling companion is Arthur Norris, an older man, with an obvious wig and of nervous disposition, particularly as they approach the German frontier. Once passed the German border, he becomes more relaxed and they start talking. It seems that Norris has lived for some time in Germany but he also seems to have lived everywhere else. He invites Bradshaw to dinner and they soon become friends.

Gradually, Bradshaw realises that Norris is not quite what he seems. On his first visit to Norris’ flat, for example, Norris’ secretary, Schmidt, has a major argument with a man who insists on seeing Norris, while Norris and Bradshaw are listening on the other side of the door. On New Year’s Eve, Norris introduces Bradshaw to the mysterious Kuno, the nickname of Baron Pregnitz. Bradshaw later finds Norris in bondage being whipped by a semi-naked woman. Norris is certainly not ashamed and later shows Bradshaw his collection of bondage literature. It is the time of the rise of the Nazis and Norris introduces Bradshaw to Beyer and the Communist Party, who are opposing the Nazis. Norris even makes a well-received speech (in German) at a party meeting.

Norris’ finances clearly are a mess and his source of income unclear and vague. The role of Schmidt, who is particularly aggressive, is also unclear. Kuno turns out to be gay, interested in a relationship with Bradshaw (he is rejected) and in reading English schoolboy books that feature only boys and no adults. However, his political career starts to take off when the Nazis take power. Norris disappears for a while and then turns up again, sans Schmidt and takes a room at Fräulein Schroeder’s, where Bradshaw is staying. He receives mysterious telegrams from Paris (which Bradshaw and Fräulein Schroeder often steam open) from someone called Margot. He also seems to be financially in better shape than before, till Schmidt turns up, demanding money with menaces. With the Nazis on the rise, Norris plans one last coup, with the help of Bradshaw, to put his finances on sound footing. Of course, it doesn’t work out as planned and he turns out to be more pathetic than dangerous.

Isherwood evokes the Berlin of the early 1930s as the Nazis are on the rise but are opposed by others, particularly the Communists. He clearly does not have a great deal of faith in the Communists, who are almost as much schemers as the Nazis. However, his portrait of Norris is superb. Here is a man, oily, dishonest, deceitful, of not particularly pleasant appearance, always out to make some money, even if at the expense of others, including his friends, yet we cannot help but have a soft spot for him. This is partially because there are those worse than him (the Nazis and Schmidt) and partially because we see him through Bradshaw’s eyes who, despite Norris’ behaviour, clearly also has a soft spot for him.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Hogarth Press