Monday, September 01, 2008

Mr Norris Changes Trains

by Christopher Isherwood

I first encountered Christopher Isherwood's writings in the second half of the 1990s through a couple of female acquaintances. I remember how my interpretation of their way of discussing him and his writings was as if they were part of some sort of fan cult. It was however, with all certainty, my naivety rather than factual circumstances that caused such a deriving from my part. I recall a coach trip to Prague with those ladies around that time, and I believe, though I could be mistaken as my memory of it is vague, that I already on that trip had read a library copy of Down There on a Visit, the book they so much talked about. Later I bought a paperback of Goodbye to Berlin. Since then it has several timed crossed my mind that I wanted to read those two novels again, but it was not until I stumbled upon the first of The Berlin Novels, this one, in Winchester that things really seemed to happen.

Mr Norris Changes Trains is narrated by William Bradshaw, whom encounters Arthur Norris in the opening chapter, taking place on a train trip to Berlin. It is plausible that it starts out when the train travels through either Belgium or Holland. William, lacking something to read, foresees a seven or eight hour tedious journey, and rather than remaining in utter silence he demands attention from the stranger with the unusually light blue eyes. This happens to be the start of a friendship running through the two years that follows. The book was published in 1935 and the background storyline follows that one of the early 30s in Germany which means Nazi national socialism in confrontation with Leninist-Stalinist Communism, public antisemitism growing strong and similar forms of sinister political manoeuvres. Mr Norris, whom really is an exciting character growing increasingly odd as the chapters passes not only seems to be a masochist but also joins a Red Front sect, claiming to be part of the Third International.

The reader is given clues to the Berlin society around Mr Bradshaw: Proletarian Lokale where people go for beer are some being communist and others being governed by the Hitler-Jugend; prostitutes with elaborate sexual services; Baron von Pregnitz dreaming of a Pacific island for him and seven boys, ages ranging from sixteen to nineteen. In the midst of this is the polite gentleman adventurer telling us the story. The well meaning and naive William Bradshaw is lured into one of Norris' schemes for funds and is used as a decoy in order to get the Baron on a holiday to Switzerland. In the Alps Norris' plan is they will meet up with the apparent French spy Margot, disguised as a Dutch gentleman calling himself van Hoorn. Bradshaw returns to Berlin and finds out the plot through one of the Communist leaders. Subsequently Arthur Norris escapes in a hurry to south America and not long after the Reichstag is on fire. A lot of his Communist friends are being eliminated by the Nazis and William returns to England. The final pages of the book are excerpts from letters Mr Bradshaw receives from Mr Norris, whom does not seem to have the best of his times.