Rating: 4 stars
This time two years ago I read Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s collection of short stories that describe life in Berlin in the years leading up to Hitler seizing power. Mr Norris Changes Trains is an earlier novel that deals with the same period. It’s part comedy of manners, part espionage thriller. William Bradshaw meets the apparently bumbling Arthur Norris on a train from the Netherlands to Germany. Bradshaw immediately recognises that there is something shifty about Mr Norris, from his almost convincing wig to his nervousness over the passport check at the German border.
Bradshaw decides to have some fun with this awkward fellow Englishman to help pass the time on his journey and as a result becomes embroiled in his life and mysterious mercantile machinations.
The serious concerns of the day are hidden beneath a veneer of humour for most of the book. Bradshaw is a young man, earning a crust in Berlin through teaching English and carrying out translation work. He has some friends, but not many, and the few he does have warn him off Mr Norris. Bradshaw is intrigued by Norris, though, and begins to experience a different Berlin, full of prostitutes, debauchery, S&M parties and the clandestine behaviour of Mr Norris and his unexpected Communist comrades.
Mr Norris’s wig is almost as large a character as Norris himself. Bradshaw is a little obsessed by it.
As usual, when left to my own devices, I began studying his wig. I must have been staring very rudely, for he looked up suddenly and saw the direction of my gaze. He startled me by asking simply:
‘Is it crooked?’
I blushed scarlet. I felt terribly embarrassed.
‘Just a tiny bit, perhaps.’
Then I laughed outright. We both laughed. At that moment I could have embraced him. We had referred to the thing at last, and our relief was so great that we were like two people who have just made a mutual declaration of love.
The early days of their unusual friendship, in which it’s hard to tell who is using whom and for what purpose, are full of surreal moments. At a New Year celebration, Bradshaw becomes drunk while eating supper with his landlady and fellow lodgers, then heads to a party where he becomes aware of just how drunk he is.
I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose.
Disguise is a subtext to the wider story. Characters are either not quite what they seem, or are employing a persona to get what they want from others or, like Bradshaw, don’t quite know yet who they are.
There are things about the story and its setting that made me think of Sex And The City and also Girls. Isherwood’s Berlin is full of bright young things and grifters who are living beyond their means in an effort to be somebody. It’s a shallow existence, and the only people who actually make something of it are the rich, because they don’t need to think about where the next pfennig is coming from. A good example of this is Fritz Wendel, who could be Charlotte in SATC or Marnie in Girls.
Fritz was a German-American, a young man about town, who spent his leisure time dancing and playing bridge. He had a curious passion for the society of painters and writers, and had acquired status with them by working at a fashionable art dealer’s. The art dealer didn’t pay him anything, but Fritz could afford this hobby, being rich.
This made me ponder the history of New York, and in particular the Lower East Side, which I learned on my tour of The Tenement Museum was the area of NYC where German, Prussian and Bohemian immigrants made their home in the 19th century. It made me wonder whether NYC’s Germanic past was a reason for the present day culture having similarities to that of interwar Berlin.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that a novel written during and partially about the Nazis’ rise to power should have its share of anti-Semitic sentiment. Mr Norris’s misspent youth and subsequent downfall is laid not at the door of his profligacy and penchant for “the ladies” but at that of “the Jews”. When Mr Norris is summoned to an interview with the police about his activities, Bradshaw waits for him on a bench “shared by a fat Jewish slum-lawyer”. Towards the end of the novel, when the Nazis are in power and the Holocaust underway, anti-Semitism flows thick and fast, expressed by Bradshaw’s acquaintances as Jews ruining countries which aren’t theirs, Jews being guilty of causing Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the inflation that followed, Jews being the creators of the Weimar Constitution.
It’s hard to draw a conclusion about what Isherwood believed from the way he drops this hate into his story. It could be simple reportage, it could be naïve acceptance, it could be shared belief. A couple of sentences make me think it was naïve acceptance, that Isherwood is describing in Bradshaw his own lack of awareness of the deeper evil behind Berliners’ casual anti-Semitism. The first comes when Mr Norris, in an attempt to cover his tracks, takes Bradshaw to the Kaiserhof, where Bradshaw is excited by the thought of seeing Hitler.
To my disappointment, we didn’t see Hitler or any of the other Nazi leaders.
I suppose at this stage of their rise, before they gained power, while they were saying the less inflammatory things that would win over voters and gain them a foothold in popular politics, the Nazis might have seemed to some to be celebrities of a sort. Looking back with full knowledge of what the Nazis did, it’s hard to acknowledge that a lot of people at the time would have embraced their less heinous policies, in the way a lot of people in the US embraced the values represented by Trump and a lot of people in the UK embraced the lies told by Cameron, Johnson and Gove before and during the EU Referendum.
The second sentence refers to a change in the environment in the days following the burning of the Reichstag and the Nazis’seizing of power.
Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky.
Eventually, Isherwood makes his disdain for the Nazis, and for the sleepwalking Germans who chose not to oppose them, a little more obvious. He waxes regretfully poetic about the violence of the SA, and the way the whispers about that violence were drowned out by the propaganda machine. He also writes effectively about the unspoken fear.
The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear; I could feel it, like influenza, in my bones.
Isherwood even has the oblivious Norris deliver a moment of ironic awareness of the situation in Germany.
It is indeed tragic to see how, even in these days, a clever and unscrupulous liar can deceive millions.
The comedy in the book is by turns whimsical, surreal and acerbic. Mr Norris is the main source of amusement. He is a ridiculous figure. He becomes involved with the Communists, along with one of the young men who run the girls that Norris employs to indulge his masochistic fantasies. Otto ends up in prison. Something Otto says after being released made me laugh because of a childhood memory.
Otto turned up at Arthur’s about a week later, unshaved and badly in need of a meal. They had let him out of prison the day before. When I went round to the flat that evening, I found him with Arthur in the dining-room, having just finished a substantial supper.
‘And what did they use to give you on Sundays?’ he was asking as I came in. ‘We got pea-soup with a sausage in it. Not so bad.’
The phrase pea soup and sausage is a Proustian one for me. Bachelor’s Thick Lincoln Pea Soup out of a packet with a full pack of skinless pork sausages heated up in it (yes, sausages boiled in pea soup, you read that right) was one of the Saturday ‘treats’ my dad used to cook for us. It was one of the strangest things that I ate as a child. I can smell it whenever I think about it, so it made me laugh to read that it was a special Sunday meal for prisoners in 1930s Berlin. Perhaps it was a 1930s thing generally. My dad was born in 1931, and a lot of the food he liked was the food his mum used to make when he was growing up, based around rationing and lack of fresh goods. Another weird thing we ate for Saturday tea was butties made from tinned salmon made to go further with the addition of brown breadcrumbs and made to taste less bready with the addition of vinegar. This odd pseudo rationing cuisine carried on right into my teenage years in the 1980s.
Further amusement came in the form of Bradshaw’s bitchy description of a writer he encounters while attempting to assist Norris in one of his secret plots. M. Janin is the celebrated author of sensational erotic fiction.
He had just finished his eighth, he told us: it dealt with the amours peculiar to a winter sport hotel. Hence his presence here. After his brusque self-introduction, he proved most affable and treated us, without further request, to a discourse on his career, aims, and methods of work.
‘I write very quick,’ he informed us. ‘For me, one glance is sufficient. I do not believe in the second impression.’
There is an amount of pathos at the end of the novel, when Bradshaw realises Norris’s true colours and hopes for a more honest discourse. Bradshaw tries to be angry with Norris, but Norris is too good a performer for Bradshaw’s anger to take hold, and they quickly fall back into a familiar way of being. It makes Bradshaw realise that their friendship will not be the same again.
It was no good; we had returned to our verbal card-playing. The moment of frankness, which might have redeemed so much, had been elegantly avoided. Arthur’s orientally sensitive spirit shrank from the rough, healthy, modern catch-as-catch-can of home-truths and confessions; he offered me a compliment instead. Here we were, as so often before, at the edge of that delicate, almost visible line which divided our two worlds. We should never cross it now. I wasn’t old or subtle enough to find the approach.
I started reading Mr Norris Changes Trains as part of the summer book challenge on The Reader’s Room, but I haven’t felt as compelled to chain read like I usually do this summer, so I didn’t finish the challenge. I’m really glad that I made it as far as Germany, though. I still think about many of the stories collected in Goodbye to Berlin, and I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on the contents of this novel in a similar way.