Thursday, 3 March 2011

Penguin no 321: Mr Norris Changes Trains
by Christopher Isherwood

"They smiled approvingly at these youngsters in their big, swaggering boots who were going to upset the Treaty of Versailles. They were pleased because it would soon be summer, because Hitler had promised to protect the small tradesman, because their newspapers told them that the good times were coming. They were suddenly proud of being blonde. And they thrilled with a furtive, sensual pleasure, like schoolboys, because the Jews, their business rivals, and the Marxists, a vaguely defined minority of people who didn't concern them, had been satisfactorily found guilty of the defeat and the inflation, and were going to catch it."

Why does William Bradshaw cultivate the friendship of Arthur Norris? William is a young and detached narrator, describing the people at the centre of this novel, and the political events in Berlin during the early 1930s. This sense of detachment, of William as observer, is the aspect that gives the novel is strength. But at the same time it becomes difficult to conceive of William as participator. Why this friendship with Norris, and why the friendship with the Baron, and why does he undertake work for the Communist Party? It is as though William is being carried along passively by the events he is narrating. I found the book unsettling at the start, because the warnings that these people were distasteful and dangerous were in his words, and yet he sought out their company. There was something not being explained.

William meets Mr Norris on a train heading for Berlin. They share a carriage; William is bored, desiring conversation. But as he talks he also observes, and all the while mentally searches for a solution that explains the unusual appearance and unusual behaviour he witnesses. The physical descriptions of Mr Norris are all distasteful: the wig, the bad teeth, the chin like a fallen concertina, and the teeth picking and chin scratching. Elsewhere in the book the allusion is to his nose like a snout. Mr Norris is a man of contradictions: fashioning himself as an aesthete, he also has a taste for masochism and tawdry erotic literature. He dissembles and manipulates, but William remains detached, amused, mocking and protective.

And how to understand the attraction of the Baron's friendship. In describing him William alludes to the slipperiness of fish and always refers the staring monocle. He is clearly homosexual, with tastes and fantasies derived from children's adventure stories of young boys fending for themselves. For a while I wondered if it made sense to assume that the relationships were sexual. But it is a short novel, yet pages are devoted to dialogue  which emphasises William's lack of interest, and the separateness of  the sleeping arrangements on a shared holiday. In the end I could only understand it as a semi-autobiographical representation of the author, interested by intriguing personalities, remaining always detached and observant.

The momentum of the novel accelerates, and political events intrude into the story. It is still William as observer, but here observing the things that happened in Germany during the early 1930s. And the detached tone he has taken works perfectly, for he describes the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, and the attitudes of the German people, in the same understated way. This is simply what he saw. This is a novel published in 1935 and I wish it was possible to know how it was received at that time, because its condemnation of Hitler is absolute. Ironically, he puts the final statement in Norris's mouth, a man who has spent his life dissembling:
It is indeed tragic to see how, even in these days, a clever and unscrupulous liar can deceive millions.


  1. The only Isherwood I have read is Goodbye To Berlin. That too has a narrator who observes rather than getting involved. I studied it at school, and if I remember rightly the narrator describes himself as a camera, simply recording the events around him.

  2. I checked, and I have that Christopher Isherwood book sitting unread on my shelves as well. Although I found this one perplexing, the description of the events unfolding in the background, and the knowledge of how important these events turned out to be, makes it a powerful book. I will look forward to reading the other one now.

  3. I thought that he was involved in some sort of relationship with the baron and then it fell apart. When the baron was playing the footsie under the table he was trying to rekindle the affection but it wasn't working anymore.

    I read that Isherwood didn't want to explicitly talk about the narrator's homosexuality (and William Bradshaw was Isherwood's alter ego) for fear of scandal and financial consequences (his uncle would've most likely cut him off)



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