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Mr Norris Changes Trains - Christopher Isherwood ”What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The "wickedness" of Berlin's night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. ... As for the "monsters", they were quite ordinary human beings prosaically engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.” Christopher Isherwood

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Christopher Isherwood

Isherwood wrote the above quote in the forward to a book by Gerald Hamilton aptly called Mr. Norris and I that was published in 1956. Isherwood based the character of Mr. Norris on his friend Gerald Hamilton. Isherwood was being hard on himself. He originally went to Berlin in the 1930s to experience the deviant sexual lifestyle that was available to a young Englishman in search of expressing his sexual preferences, preferences that may have been considered deviant in the community he grew up in. In 1935 when this book was published very few people knew just how horrible things would become and those that could imagine some of it could not imagine the worst of it.

William Bradshaw, names that come from Isherwood’s middle names, comes to Berlin in search of adventure. He meets the enigmatic Arthur Norris on the train and despite the best efforts of the subject of his interest to warn him that all was not as it seemed, Bradshaw becomes fast friends with Norris. As Bradshaw learns more about Norris’s nefarious affairs, all revolving around Arthur’s frivolous use of money when he had some and a penchant for criminal behavior when he needed more, William expects to be kept abreast of the rise and fall of Norris’s fortunes. After all Norris and his peculiar behavior are a major form of entertainment for him. When Arthur is called away on “business” in Paris, or actually running away from a problem that has become...well...too problematic, William realizes that he has formed an unnatural attachment to his friend.

”My first reaction was to feel, perhaps unreasonably, angry, I had to admit to myself that my feeling for Arthur had been largely possessive. He was my discovery, my property. I was as hurt as a spinster who had been deserted by her cat. And yet, after all, how silly of me. Arthur was his own master; he wasn’t accountable to me for his actions. I began to look round for excuses for his conduct, and, like an indulgent parent, easily found them. Hadn’t he, indeed, behaved with considerable nobility? Threatened from every side, he had face his troubles alone. He had carefully avoided involving me in possible future unpleasantness with the authorities.”

Norris is a survivor so despite whatever noble characteristics that Bradshaw wishes to naively attach to Norris, ultimately, if need be, he would trade anyone or anything to avoid pain, unpleasantness, or imprisonment. Now on the other hand Bradshaw is basically a tourist on extended vacation in Berlin, tutoring people to keep himself in pocket money. He can feel some of the thrill of associating with criminals, communists, and people engaging in “perverted” behavior, but at the end of the day when the chips are down he can ring up the embassy and find himself safely back on a train to England. As Norris’s friends begin to disappear, some turning up dead, and others providing information that tightens the net around Norris’s activities Bradshaw begins to feel uncomfortable. The game has become all too real.

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Norris has a predilection to being dominated and beaten. A severe young lady named Anni with long boots and an assortment of whips provides him with the equivalent of sexual release in the form of controlled torture. To Norris, Anni is a beauty beyond earthly compare.

”Do you think it’s an exquisitely beautiful face? Quite perfect in its way. Like a Raphael Madonna. The other day I made an epigram. I said, Anni’s beauty is only sin-deep. I hope that is original? Is it? Please laugh.”

Isherwood decided not to make Bradshaw gay. He did not want to distract the reader or give the reader a reason not to identify with the character. He basically made him asexual. He is subject to an occasionally pawing or a game of footsy from time to time, but overall he is an observer, a keen observer of the behavior of others. You can almost sense the stories that Isherwood wanted to tell about his experiences in Berlin. They are there in this book just barely off stage. If you listen closely you might even hear an occasional muffled scream or cry of pleasure coming from a back bedroom or sifting through the floorboards from downstairs.

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The book did remind me of a class I had in sixth grade. The teacher’s first name was Francis which I remember because I had an Aunt named Frances and I couldn’t figure out why this guy was named Francis. He decided as a lesson in discrimination to take the most Aryan among us, blond and blue-eyed prefered, and drap construction paper billboards around us graffitied with anti-aryan rhetoric. We also had to wear dunce caps and for the length of the school day, one day only, we had to walk to all our classes wearing these ridiculous raiments. Students continued to scrawl their own thoughts of our unworthiness on us as the day progressed. I of course was an Aryan poster child, a bit gaunt, but you know the artist could have plumped me up a bit to promote a more healthy version of Hitler youth. It was one of the longest days of my life. I will never forget the feeling of being held apart, unable to escape even for a moment that I had been singled out for persecution.

It was horrible.
It scared the crap out of me.
And it made me a better person.

”They were suddenly proud to be blonde. And they thrilled with a furtive, sensual pleasure, like schoolboys, because the Jews, their business rivals, and the Marxists, a vaguely defined minority of people who didn’t concern them, had been satisfactorily found guilty of defeat and the inflation, and were going to catch it.”

This was really just an entertainment, a very good one with witty prose, and interesting characters. Mr. Norris in his assortment of vanity wigs and his troubles with an irate butler intent on his destruction will reside in my memory forever. Bradshaw, shadowy though he was, still provided us with a view of events filled with awe and excitement. He was a puppy let loose from his society shackles to explore whatever scent caught his attention. I do wonder what kind of gritty novel this would have been if Isherwood had not been afraid of losing the monetary sponsorship of an indulgent Uncle or of incurring the ire of his friends.

William receives a message from Arthur that may just sum up the whole novel. ”Tell me, William, his last letter concluded, what have I done to deserve all this?”