William Bradshaw is on a train to Berlin when he meets the eponymous Mr Norris. The two strike up a rapport over the course of the journey that turns into an intimate, if unlikely, friendship. Arthur Norris is a funny little man, as in funny peculiar. He is fastidious in his dress, secretive about his sources of income, prone to exaggeration and obfuscation, and the proud wearer of a selection of wigs. He is also embroiled with the Communist movement, a risky thing in a Berlin where Nazism is on the rise. Over the course of a couple of years, as their friendship deepens and Bradshaw becomes more tangled up in Norris’ shady and complicated life, he too gets involved with the Communists, plays his part in a mysterious business deal Norris has set up in Switzerland, and finally helps his friend flee the country.
Mr Norris Changes Trains was my first experience of the 1930s Berlin brought to life by Ishwerwood. This book and the subsequent stories that make up ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ (which in turn inspired the musical Cabaret), are based on Isherwood’s experiences whilst living in Germany as Hitler rose to prominence and power. At times the book is laugh-out-loud funny, and Isherwood’s descriptions of the demimonde that Bradshaw and Norris live on the edges of really tickled me:
I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose. The place was crammed. It was difficult to say who was dancing and who was merely standing up.
The novel is peopled with colourful characters. As well as Mr Norris, who is such an odd and untrustworthy chap that you do wonder why Bradshaw is friends with him, there is the Communist boxer Otto, gossipy landlady Fraulein Schroeder and dominatrix Anni, to name but a few. And while the book is very funny, it is also very sad, depicting as it does a city on the brink of irrevocable change.