English writers and artists have often looked abroad to find either inspiration or a more congenial existence, away from our many social restrictions. In the period after the First World War, the combination of a society which seemed to be ever more enclosed and repressed and the lure of apparently more open and permissive lifestyles on the Continent led many writers and artists to Europe in search of an environment in which they, and their art, could flourish. In particular, young homosexuals were drawn to cities like Berlin, where their sexuality could be tolerated much more openly than in this country. (Few remained there long, for the rise of Hitler and fascism soon reversed public toleration.) One such author in search of that freedom was the young Christopher Isherwood, who moved to Berlin in 1929 along with W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and a host of other English authors.
Mr Norris Changes Trains is the title of the first book in the series of Berlin-based novels by Isherwood which reflect and document his time in the city during the early 1930s. Berlin is depicted as a place of both excess and poverty, and Isherwood’s books sketch an impressionistic view of a now long-lost metropolis. Filled with characters who are loosely based on the real people whom Isherwood encountered while he lived there, the first novel in the series is still strangely disquieting for the way in which it portrays the city in turmoil. It was a time that we now know was a key historical turning point, with extreme political factions, Communists and Nazis, vying for power. Within the structure of the novel we find numerous impressions of life in Weimar Berlin, with references to random violence (a very real threat at the time) and also to the sexual licence that had attracted Isherwood to the city in the first place. Despite this, the details are not elaborated upon: excesses are hinted at, and mostly left to the reader’s imagination.
William Bradshaw, the narrator, is witness to the events that he describes, but he is rarely engaged other than as a spectator. (Isherwood himself is thinly disguised here, for these were his middle names.) Bradshaw’s relationship with Mr Norris, an enigmatic figure, dominates the narrative, albeit in ways that are not always fully explained nor easily understood. Norris is an ‘exporter’ of unnamed goods with a fondness for kinky sex and an extensive collection of whips and pornography. He wears expensive silk underwear, several layers of skin cream and make-up, and finely made wigs which do not always fit properly. He likes to travel first-class and eat in the finest restaurants, and yet has to leave Berlin quickly at one point to escape his creditors. He is an associate of the Berlin communist leader Bayer (based on Willi Münzenberg), and receives mysterious telegrams from Paris which seem to be in code. The source of his income is never fully revealed and Bradshaw seems oddly uninterested in the subject.
The relationship between Norris and Bradshaw is central to the narrative, and it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. They meet on a train and, as travelling companions, seem to attract one another. What follows are shared experiences which deepen the friendship but into which are folded secrets which Norris withholds from his young friend. Their conversations follow a pattern that threads throughout the book: Norris enjoys talking about himself, especially in generalised terms which allow him to present himself as a successful man of the world, yet he becomes anxious when circumstances threaten to reveal the true nature of either his character or his activities. He is like a chameleon who can change his colours to adapt to his social circumstances, and uses this disguise to attempt to baffle those around him. However, it is one of the book’s many ironies that Isherwood litters the narrative with characters who are not taken in by Norris, and who can see through his deceptions. The only one who cannot, and who makes no attempt to do so, is the narrator Bradshaw.
The character of Norris was squarely based on Gerald Hamilton, a man whose life seems destined to be portrayed in a novel. Isherwood first met him when Hamilton was running the Berlin office of The Times, but the latter lost his job after news reached London that he was supporting the Berlin Communists. He had also failed to pass on subscription funds, and had run up an extensive expenses account for which there was no justification. Hamilton is an illusive character who could give even the term ‘disreputable’ a bad name. He was imprisoned in England, Germany and Italy at various times for — amongst other things— bankruptcy, theft, fraud, gross indecency and (twice) for being a threat to national security, and he had absolutely no hesitation in stealing or embezzling funds from close friends. While Isherwood clearly used Hamilton as the basis for Norris, there is much more to the novel than a real-life narrative (although my Folio edition has lovely illustrations by Beryl Cook, who has clearly based her images of Norris on photographs of Hamilton).
If the book has a theme it is that of deception. While Bradshaw describes the events that he witnesses, he does not make any real attempt to understand their context or wider meaning. The first example of this can be seen when the two men meet for the first time on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin. At first Bradshaw believes that Norris is frightened of the customs police because he might be engaged in some kind of petty smuggling. When the officials examine the luggage they find nothing, and Norris seems confident and calm. It is only when his passport is held up to the light that Norris becomes nervous. Bradshaw fails to see that the passport might be a false one and that Norris might be something other than what he claims to be. This is the start of the multiple deceits that become the core of the narrative. Within the setting of 1930s Berlin this is entirely fitting: Isherwood was attempting to sketch a city in transition, and everywhere he met with people and declarations that were not as they seemed on the surface. Indeed it was a feature of the struggle between the Communists and Nazis, and of the latter’s rise to power, that truth became a very flexible commodity: the bigger the lie, the more likely it was to be believed.
Bradshaw and Norris become firm friends, but their friendship depends entirely on the young narrator accepting the inconsistencies of his older acquaintance. Early on in their friendship Bradshaw visits Norris’s apartment, and several details which should have raised questions are passed over without comment. The apartment has two doors, one marked Arthur Norris. Private, the other Arthur Norris. Export and Import. On entering the flat Bradshaw notices that the two sides of the entrance hall are divided by a heavy curtain. Some might enquire after the purpose of the two name plates: clearly they are meant to deceive in some way, given that the doors lead to the same space. Bradshaw merely observes without comment.
Later in the visit, a man bursts into the flat to see Norris, obviously angry and demanding money. Schmidt, Norris’s secretary, deals with the man as Norris and Bradshaw seek sanctuary in the bedroom. Again Bradshaw finds nothing worthy of comment about this social invasion, and accepts Norris’s vague explanations concerning the intruder. Finally, after revealing the secret of his wig (another form of deception) and his ‘amusing’ collection of literature, all of which passes without critical comment, Norris explains his secretary’s sudden departure by telling an obvious lie that he has gone to get a typewriter cleaned. Bradshaw admits to the reader that he knows this to be a lie, but rather than confronting Norris, he asks what it is that he exports. At first Norris answers that it would be easier to explain what he has not exported, but when pressed further says simply “clocks.” Upon being asked where these clocks go, Norris gives the evasive reply, “if you want to go into a lot of technical explanations, you must ask my secretary. I haven’t the time to attend to them. I leave all the more - er - sordid details entirely in his hands.”
In the much smaller day-to-day conversations and activities of the central characters, we find consistent deceit and duplicity. Everyone seems to have reasons to lie, and secrets to keep. Given that he lives in a city of political and social turmoil characterised by the very same unprincipled morality, it is difficult to accept Bradshaw’s naivety. Towards the end of his life Isherwood came to dislike the novel for this very reason: he found Bradshaw’s lack of perception a major flaw in the story’s structure. Yet there is a perverse kind of logic at play. As the narrative progresses, almost all the characters are shown to be deceitful, untruthful and thoroughly untrustworthy. The exception is our narrator, who blindly accepts everyone at face value; he is child-like in his innocence, and reports everything uncritically. If he were to question the motives or activities on which he reports, he would become a proactive participant and the dynamic of the book would change completely.
Despite the inconsistencies, this novel still fascinates. Isherwood had settled in Berlin due to the contemporary absence of homosexual persecution. He cast himself as an uncritical observer, giving the narrative an authenticity which may be accidental, but is no less persuasive for that. The descriptions of the nightclubs where male prostitutes openly vie for customers, or the depiction of ordinary Berliners engaged in activities which a well-regulated society would usually condemn as unacceptable, seem only to reinforce the themes of deception, mistrust and the manipulation of information, which now seem to be terribly prescient. Here, for example, is the description of Olga, girlfriend of Otto, a Communist sympathiser and friend of Norris:
“Not to put too fine a point on it, as Arthur was fond of saying, she was a procuress, a cocaine-seller, and a receiver of stolen goods; she also let lodgings, took in washing and, when in the mood, did exquisite fancy needlework.”
Of course, Hitler is generally believed to have used the same kind of moral vacuum to first seize power and then sustain it, and this gives the book an historical authenticity which far outweighs its structural flaws. While the plot and the portrayal of the central characters interweave fact and fiction, there is a realism to the depiction of the embattled city which seems completely authentic. Midway through the book there is this description, which even now makes one shudder:
“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..... 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 disappeared.”
Despite its flaws, the book retains a special place within our literary heritage. While not dealing directly with the issue of homosexuality at a time (1935) when it was still illegal in this country, and literature was subject to draconian obscenity laws, Mr Norris portrays unconventional sexuality simmering quietly in the background in a way that is not at all censorious. Although the first-person perspective may create some problems for the structure, it does allow Isherwood to strengthen the central themes of deception and mistrust, through the reported conversations and activities of the main characters. The book is much more than a snap-shot of Berlin at a critical period in its history: it is a study combining a strong sense of place with the current political and social themes. Mr Norris may not deserve a place at the highest table, but overall it is much more than the sum of its individual parts, and with Norris himself we have one of literature’s great amoralists. It is somehow fitting that the book ends with a series of postcards from Norris to Bradshaw, in which he laments his fate as he languishes in South America, unhappily reconciled with the hideous Schmidt, and pens a final observation seemingly aimed at Hitler, but which can still give us pause for thought today: “It is indeed tragic to see how, even in these days, a clever and unscrupulous liar can deceive millions.”--Paul Flux