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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. 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 s 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.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

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.

By being utterly shameless.

Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains

Arthur Norris is hardly the lone eccentric Isherwood conjures for us. He completed work on the novel on 12 August of that year. Initially Isherwood planned to write the novel in the third person , but when he decided to narrow the novel's focus to Norris he changed to first person. He believed that this would allow the reader to "experience" Mr Norris as Isherwood had experienced Gerald Hamilton.

In subsequent novels Isherwood changed the narrator's name to "Christopher Isherwood", having come to regard "William Bradshaw" as a "foolish evasion".


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Isherwood did not explicitly claim that he was William Bradshaw although the novel describes Isherwood's own experiences. He sought to make the narrator as unobtrusive as possible so as to keep readers focused on Norris. Although Isherwood was living more or less openly as a homosexual, he balked at making Bradshaw homosexual as well. In part this was to help the average reader identify with the narrator by minimising the differences between the narrator and the reader. Not to do so meant that "The Narrator would have become so odd, so interesting, that his presence would have thrown the novel out of perspective.

The Narrator would have kept upstaging Norris's performance as the star.

Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Yet Isherwood had no interest in making Bradshaw heterosexual either, so the Narrator has no scenes of a sexual nature. The novel was still titled The Lost when Isherwood mailed the manuscript to Hogarth Press for publication, but the title was eventually changed to Mr Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood meant to evoke with that title not only Norris's continual moves from country to country to avoid his enemies and creditors, but also his constantly shifting political alliances and interests.

Although Mr Norris Changes Trains was a critical and popular success, Isherwood later condemned it, believing that he had lied about himself through the characterisation of the narrator and that he did not truly understand the suffering of the people he had depicted. What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness.

It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The "wickedness" of Berlin's night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market.

This paragraph introduces us to Mr. It also introduces us to the narrator William Bradshaw. And the plot is somewhat complex. This, I confess, is where I started wanting to hop off the train. The characters were so interestingly formed, whether comic the landlady is amusing; there is also a definite dark comedy to the professional sado-masochist , tragic, or — as with Mr. Norris — a combination of the two.

Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with goings-on of the communist party and the Nazis — mostly the former — with various people exposed as double-crossing each other, and lots of talk of smuggling things across borders and saying the right things to the wrong people, etc. Flappers, maybe, being spikily witty over cocktails. The ins and outs of communists… not so much. And yet I told you I was on the fence the writing was wonderful. As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes. Here were no windows to the soul.

They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shellfish in the crevices of a rock. There was nothing to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam. Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin.

Christopher Isherwood – Mr Norris Changes Trains

After three or four attempts, I gave it up. It was no good. There was nothing for it but to take Arthur at his word. But, on the whole, I neither loved nor hated it. But I do think this is an excellent short novel, great for teaching, and great for seeing the dismal misery of pre-Nazi Germany if you were an outsider. Mr Norris reminds me of the grubby slithery con-men in Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, not heroic at all, and why should he be.

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Yes, his prose is wonderful, but…. Ah, that opening paragraph would have pulled me in! Beautiful writing. It was my first and so far only Isherwood experience, and it left quite an impression on me. It was one of my top ten books for It is about a man who travels to India to make contact with his brother who has gone there to become a Buddhist monk.