Sometimes it is hard not to judge a book by its cover. That is just what I did when picking up Christopher Isherwood’s book Mr Norris Changes Trains. The luxurious sleeve, together with the author’s reputation as the writer of A Single Man, was enough to buy it. But there is also has a hint of the ridiculous, something entirely in keeping with its contents.
Based loosely upon Isherwood’s own experiences and exploits in the Weimar Republic as the Nazis steadily rose to power, it focuses upon the character of Arthur Norris, an importer/exporter of delightful contradictions. He is a gentleman, a swindler, a masochist, a communist, a master of deception forever fooling himself. His behaviour is observed through the impeccable vacuum of narrator William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s middle names).
Isherwood reduces Bradshaw’s character to that of helpless but not hapless onlooker, slipping into the background to allow Norris sufficient space to flourish in this most intriguing of settings. Through a series of lightly played scenarios, the combination of sexual freedom and political intrigue in Berlin is deftly explored. Hackneyed commies and closeted government officials give rise to plenty of comedic set ups, which Isherwood delights in exploring for comic effect. Boozy nights out are sketched with Cabaret grotesques and light-hearted capers. Much is made of Norris’ distinctive bedroom tastes and silly wig.
His politics are given even lighter shadings. While he speaks at communist meetings and often pops abroad to do Party work, the severity of the situation is never addressed. Communists appear a little bloodied and brown shirts begin appearing more regularly. However, the backdrop of Germany’s wider upheaval is played with the same wry smirk as Mr Norris’ own mysterious travails. Isherwood walks a tightrope between reportage and yarn, leaving the reader feeling the meatier material got cut. Bradshaw himself appears asexual and, though he dabbles with translation for the communists, apolitical.
More menacing than the Nazis is an unsavoury character named Schmidt, formerly in Norris’ employ. He blackmails Norris into taking one risk too many – but even his threat is dismissed in comic fashion by the landlady. Tension and danger are never properly established, so appreciation of the extremity of the situation is sadly lacking. The book started life as part of a wider, more substantial novel to be called The Lost. Mr Norris was torn from that narrative and placed solo; that move leaves him as the punchline of a joke only Isherwood knows.
There are wryly observed asides aplenty; bawdy scenes in which to revel in Isherwood’s stylish prose. But you feel he is always holding out on you. Like its protagonist, Mr Norris Changes Trains is ever the charmer, but falls short of really delivering. Mind the gaps.