Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Mr. Norris Changes TrainsOn a train from the Netherlands to Berlin, some time in the 1930s, William Bradshaw, an English expatriate (named, rather transparently, for his author, Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) encounters Arthur Norris, an eccentric whose personality provides the novel’s driving force. Here is how Isherwood describes that fateful first encounter:

My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared. Startled and innocently naughty, they half reminded me of an incident I couldn’t quite place; something which had happened a long time ago, to do with the upper fourth form classroom. They were the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules. Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything except his own thoughts: perhaps he imagined I could read them.

Having finished the novel, I am struck at how aptly both “innocently naughty” and the image of a disobedient schoolboy describe Isherwood’s Norris, who is paranoid enough to believe a stranger could read his thoughts precisely because he has no idea what it is like to enjoy a clean conscience. Arthur Norris wears a toupee, derives sexual pleasure from being dominated by scolding women brandishing leather whips (and has authored a book on the joys of masochism – anonymously, of course), and finances his active social life and strange tastes by trading in smuggled goods and stolen information, shedding his political allegiances as easily as he changes hair pieces.

But Bradshaw and Norris must navigate the precarious setting of 1930s Berlin, where Nazis and Communists battle for political power among a population struggling to recover from economic turmoil, burdensome war debts and a crisis of identity and spirit.

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 death-bed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner and Communist.

Those not intimately involved with the struggle for political power are too busy scraping together a living or escaping into the nightclubs, dance-halls and dinner parties. Arthur Norris is the dispassionate exception, a man whose business is politics but whose interests are purely hedonistic. “Even in the wilds of Asia,” he tells our narrator, “I have never shaved myself when it could possibly be avoided. It’s one of those sordid annoying operations which put one in a bad humour for the rest of the day.” How does such a man survive in 1930s Berlin? By being utterly shameless. Take, for example, his early dalliance with Communism; the aristocrat with the lavish wardrobe and expensive tastes might seem like an odd choice for Man of the People, but he rather enjoys the respect his Comrades bestow upon him when he makes the usual denunciations and pronounces “bourgeois” with a sneer. Still, we can gauge the extent of his commitment when he concludes a summary of one of his missions for the Party: “Do you know, I’m still owed for my trip to Paris? I had to pay the fare out of my own pocket; and imagining, naturally enough, that the expenses, at least, would be defrayed, I travelled first class” – or by his hygiene habits: “Coming into daily contact, as I do, with members of the proletariat, I have to defend myself against positive onslaughts of microbes.”

Arthur Norris is hardly the lone eccentric Isherwood conjures for us. There is also Fräulein Schroeder, our narrator’s landlady, who’s convinced her heart palpitations may be alleviated by a breast reduction surgery; or the Baron Pregnitz, who finances some of the most lavish of parties but can scarcely conceal his homosexuality; or Helen Pratt, an intrepid reporter undaunted by threats against her life, who “loathed being reminded that she was a woman; except in bed.” We know, as Isherwood’s narrator does not, what is about to be visited upon Berlin, and what Berlin will visit upon the world. And yet we smile anyways, delighted, like the citizens of Berlin, to escape what’s right in front of us.