BOOK REVIEW – CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD – MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS 1935 Minerva Books.
A novel often considered being a companion volume to his short story compilation, Goodbye To Berlin, with which it shares some minor characters.
Narrator, William Bradshaw, an Englishman teaching in Germany, (the Goodbye To Berlin stories having Isherwood himself in this role) is traveling to Berlin by train, which is crossing Europe, and currently passing through Holland, and gets into conversation with fellow traveler, Arthur Norris, who openly admits to traveling under a false passport. He manages to get through security checks easily, but in considerable panic.
Norris is a shifty, treacherous. Evasive, but well-mannered individual, eccentric and though appalled by him, Bradshaw also finds him fascinating and intriguing. Norris invites his fellow traveler to dinner and Bradshaw goes along. He finds Norris, over the course of several meetings, to be heavily in debt, and yet willing to throw expensive parties. Norris is also a petty masochist, allowing himself to be dominated by prostitutes. Norris reads pornography, and as later discovered, even wrote a work considered to be a minor classic in the genre.
Norris has a brutal servant, Schmidt, who seems to be blackmailing his master. Norris is unable to get rid of him due to his debts. Schmidt has not been paid fully for many years. Norris attracts various other misfits and hangers on, including an affected English Baron figure, and Otto, a passionate young socialist who keeps getting arrested by the increasingly powerful Nazi party.
Norris himself seems to be a Champaign socialist, but as his plots and schemes increase, Bradshaw finds himself increasingly under pressure to keep an eye on the man by various friends, none of who trust the man. Norris also attracts the attention of various detectives, and eventually gives up even trying avoiding being followed by them. Bradshaw realizes that his friend is actually a double agent, willing to sell out on the doomed socialists in the new order, but with too many enemies, Norris is obliged to leave the country quickly. He flees to Mexico, and now communicates to Bradshaw only by postcard. Schmidt, who forces him after a chase across South America, to take him again into his employment, having soon traced him to Mexico. By now, Bradshaw is safely back in Britain, but somehow misses the sinister little man and his genuine sense that he deserves no one’s animosity and mistrust.
Mr. Norris Changes Trains is a lovely study of how we find the vulgar and repulsive somehow fascinating. Norris has no redeeming qualities, and yet comes across as a man who somehow enriches everyone’s lives. He is one of the most interesting characters in modern literature. See the companion review for Goodbye To Berlin at CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD - GOODBYE TO BERLIN
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