Monday, September 30, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS” by Christopher Isherwood (first published in Britain in 1935; published in America as The Last of Mr Norris)

            When it comes to what journalists write about culture, I don’t take offence too easily as I realize most of them are out of their depth in such waters. But I do remember a phrase a journo slipped into an article some years back that got my goat. He was attempting to write about life in Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic, just before Hitler came to power; and he insisted on using the phrase “Isherwood’s Berlin”. This really annoyed me. If you wanted to attach some literary figure to pre-Hitler Berlin, then it would be more appropriate to refer to Hans Fallada’s Berlin [look up my review of Little Man, What Now? on the index at right] or perhaps Alfred Doblin’s Berlin, given that Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is by common consent regarded as the greatest German novel of that era.

            But “Isherwood’s Berlin”? Come, come! The Englishman Christopher Isherwood (1904-86) was at best a brief sojourner in Berlin, drawn there in the early 1930s mainly by the promise of open homosexual activity and gay bars at a time when they didn’t exist elsewhere.

            Isherwood parlayed his brief Berlin experience into two slim volumes, which were later published together as The Berlin Stories. The first – and I believe the more interesting – was the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains in 1935. It was published in America as The Last of Mr Norris, which caused great confusion as some purchasers thought the edition with the latter title was a sequel to the edition with the former title. The second, and slighter, of Isherwood’s productions was Goodbye to Berlin in 1939, being a collection of short stories one of which, “Sally Bowles”, was the genesis first for the play (and film) I Am A Camera, and later and more famously for the musical (and film) Cabaret. Both play and musical gamely pretended that the main male character, based on the exclusively homosexual Isherwood, was heterosexual, although the film version of Cabaret at least made him bisexual.

            This, I guess, would be why the journo had referred to “Isherwood’s Berlin”: because he had seen Cabaret and had no further cultural referents for Berlin in the early 1930s.

            I’ve had Mr Norris Changes Trains sitting on my shelf for years, in a very old and battered Penguin edition, the original white-and-orange cover having long since lost its lustre.

            Let’s consider it on its own merits.

            The novel is set in Berlin and specifically takes place between 1931 and early 1933. It is narrated by young William Bradshaw, a language teacher, who in the opening pages meets Arthur Norris on a train crossing from the Netherlands into Germany. Norris is in his early 50s. He is fat, pudgy and unhealthy and he wears a wig. He is a con-man and pornographer whose tastes run to flagellation. And he is also some sort of police spy.

            The novel follows Norris’s unedifying career in late Weimar Berlin as observed by Bradshaw.

            At one point Norris joins the Communist Party and gives a speech on the oppression of the workers. One of Norris’s associates is a Baron Kuno who is very obviously homosexual and makes plays for the narrator. The plot’s unravelling has Norris persuading Bradshaw to entice the Baron to holiday with him in Switzerland, so that a foreign agent can pump Kuno for information. It turns out that Norris is being paid by the French secret service to spy on both the German Communists and German government officials (such as Kuno). Norris, whose duplicities have become known to all, flees Germany just as the Nazis are coming to power. The last the narrator hears of him, he is being pursued around South America by the sinister figure of Schmidt, a servant who involved him in blackmail.

            The comic method of the novel is to present us with a character who has no redeeming features at all, and yet whose very effrontery and threadbare excuses for himself make him funny. Occasionally (but far too occasionally, I have to say) this is counterpointed by the realism of the background with some vivid journalistic vignettes of street brawls between Nazis and Communists and Berlin descending into political chaos.

            Yet throughout this novel, there is a certain awkwardness. In order to be close enough to Norris to observe him, the narrator has to be some sort of friend or associate of Norris. But the novel itself cannot convince us why an apparently intelligent and observant chap like Bradshaw would be taken in by, or play along with, the likes of Norris. As in Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country [look up my comments on it via the index at right] there is the sense that we are not being told something essential about the narrator, who appears to have no life independent of his relationship with Norris.

            Thus far, I have commented on the novel itself and “the words on the page”. My verdict on it would be that it is an amusing and slight historical artefact.

            Now I have to skip the rails and talk about something extraneous to the novel itself and its impact. In other words, I have to talk about its background.

            The most obvious point is that, like the stories of Goodbye to Berlin, the novel is lightly-dusted autobiography. Christopher Isherwood (full name = Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) is William Bradshaw. The thing that isn’t mentioned is Bradshaw/Isherwood’s homosexuality, which is what would probably have brought him into Norris’s orbit in the first place and kept him there, observing. For a mainstream novel of its time, Mr Norris Changes Trains is quite frank about sexual matters (not that there are any sex scenes, of course). But by avoiding this essential aspect of Isherwood’s own person, the narrator of the novel becomes opaque and quite incredible.

            As all the reference books now tell you, Arthur Norris was also based on a real person. This was one Gerald Hamilton. In real life, Isherwood regarded Hamilton as a crook because Isherwood paid Hamilton 1,000 pounds to get Mexican naturalization papers for Isherwood’s German boyfriend, whom he hoped to get smoothly out of the country as the political situation worsened. Instead, Hamilton pocketed the money and took off. None of this specific transaction appears in the novel.

            Years later, Isherwood’s anger at Hamilton had cooled. In the mid-1950s Hamilton wrote a memoir Mr Norris and I for which Isherwood wrote the preface. Isherwood virtually apologized for the novel, saying that it was frivolous and superficial and a young man’s silly evasion of the real horrors that Berliners were suffering at the time when the novel is set. Fair enough and, I think, a sincere expression of authorial regret. In fact I think it showed considerable courage on Isherwood’s part to dismiss his own novel when it still was earning him good royalties.

            I enjoyed reading Mr Norris Changes Trains but  - regardless of how much it was neutered by Isherwood’s self-censorship – it holds not a candle to Little Man, What Now? or other German works as a guide to what Berlin was like in those years.

            “Isherwood’s Berlin”?

            “Pfui!”, I say

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