Mr Norris Changes Trains is one of those books that I enjoyed reading, but then after I’d finished I didn’t really have a clue what it was I was reading about. It’s set in early 1930s Berlin and is told from the first person point of view of William Bradshaw. The Mr Norris in question is based on the real figure Gerald Hamilton, who may have been a communist but as you will soon find out I’m a little vague in this area. The character Mr Norris is William’s friend who he meets on a train, and the trains he changes refers both to his merry jaunts from country to country whenever bailiffs or the law come calling, as well as his frequently changing political alliances. He’s quite a comical character with a crooked wig and a penchant for being spanked, and is often shown as being self-deprecating and terrorised by his manservant Schmidt. He often manages to get both himself and William into some sort of scrape, which it seems I often failed to recognise the significance of. To be completely honest, there were parts of the book which remained quite a mystery to me, but I enjoyed it all the same.
I’ve read a couple of Christopher Isherwood’s books before – A Single Man and Goodbye to Berlin. A Single Man is completely separate, but Goodbye To Berlin features some of the same characters as Mr Norris Changes Trains and is told from the point of view of Christopher Isherwood himself (or ‘Herr Issyvoo’ as his charming landlady calls him). It’s because of this that I kept forgetting that the first person point of view in Mr Norris was not actually Christopher Isherwood, although I’ve since discovered that William Bradshaw are actually the middle names of Christopher Isherwood, perhaps suggesting that it is really from his point of view, and that in later editions he gave up the pretence completely and changed the character to that of himself.
Main ‘character’ aside, I’m a bit confused about what I am, as a reader, meant to take away from this book. Christopher Isherwood/William Bradshaw narrates the political activities of Mr Norris but without really passing judgement on them, and so I’m not really sure what he thought about, or wanted the readers to think about, communism and the general political situation in 1930s Berlin. It’s an area that I’m pretty hazy about anyway. Much as I’ve tried, I find it very hard to distinguish between all the different ‘isms’ and often get very confused between communism, fascism, socialism and pretty much every other ism under the sun. I will admit that I have a very limited understanding, which I have often been scorned for by friends and acquaintances (the same friends and acquaintances who were subsequently completely unable to explain to me even the most basic definition of any ism, and yet scorned me for my lack of knowledge anyway. Not that I’d dream of calling them hypocrites, of course. Quite seriously though, if anyone can explain any kind of ism to me in the most basic, moronic terms, I would really very much appreciate it).
What’s certainly clear is that early 1930s Berlin was a very troubled, confused and dangerous place, which I don’t think any of us ever doubted. There was obviously a real political power struggle which had a great impact on the lives of ordinary people, and there’s no mistaking that, while Christopher Isherwood often portrays it as party central, it could also be a very intimidating and frightening place. I won’t pretend to have understood it any more than I did; all I will say is that I thought it was an enjoyable read with memorable characters, and that I have always been a fan of Christopher Isherwood’s narrative style.