Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Last Days of Weimar Republic: Christopher Isherwood's Mr. Norris Changes Trains

I have a fascination for books that have train journeys in them. So when I discovered a book that began with a train journey, I simply had to read it.




“Never mind. Never mind. In this brief life, one cannot always be counting the cost.”

William Bradshaw is a young English man making his way to Germany from the Netherlands. As the train crosses the border, he strikes up an acquaintance with a rather dodgy man named Arthur Norris who is the other occupant of the compartment. Norris, who has been living in Berlin for quite some time, invites Bradshaw for lunch even as they part at the railway station. That is the beginning of a strange friendship in which we visit clubs, restaurants, brothels, offices of political parties along with Norris and Bradshaw and become acquainted with a host of other characters like Baron von Pregnitz (Kuno) who has a fondness for young men adventure stories;  Fraulein Schroeder, the land-lady who has to struggle to make ends meet; Helen Pratt, the Berlin correspondent of a London political weekly; Otto, the pimp turned communist; the sinister Schmidt who is secretary to Norris, Anni, the dame, equipped with whip and leather.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, this is Isherwood's (Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) portrayal of fellow-homosexual Gerald Hamilton in the fermenting Berlin of the early thirties. The novel, lacking a coherent plot, is propelled by certain characters. And though they are interesting to a certain degree, I was more interested in the last days of the tottering Weimar Republic and wished there had been more descriptions like this:

Like a long train which stops at every dingy little station, the winter dragged slowly past. Each week there were new emergency decrees....Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere: at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming baths: at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared....The news-papers were full of death-bed photographs of rival-martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner and Communist...

The murder reporters and the jazz-writers had inflated the German language beyond recall. The vocabulary of newspaper invective (traitor, Versailles-lackey, murder-swine, Marx-crook, Hitler-swamp, Red-pest) had come to resemble, through excessive use the formal phraseology of politeness employed by the Chinese...

And morning after morning, all over the immense, damp, dreary town and the packing-case colonies of huts in the suburb allotments, young men were waking up to another workless empty day to be spent as they could best contrive; selling bootlaces, begging, playing draughts in the hall of the Labour Exchange, hanging about urinals, opening the doors of cars, helping with crates in the markets, gossiping, lounging, stealing, overhearing racing tips, sharing stumps of cigarette-ends picked up in the gutter, singing folk-songs for groschen in court-yards and between stations in the carriages of the Underground Railway. After the New Year, the snow fell, but did not lie; there was no money to be earned by sweeping it away. The shopkeepers rang all coins on the counter for fear of the forgers. Frl. Schroeder's astrologer foretold the end of the world. (129-132)

With Hitler's rise to power just a matter of time, definitely, the world as it had existed till then, was about to end.

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First Line: My first impression was that the stranger's eyes were of an unusually light blue.

Title: Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Alternate Title: The Last of Mr. Norris

Author: Christopher Isherwood

Publication Details: London: The Hogarth Press, 1960

First Published: 1935

Pages: 280

Other books read of the same author: None

Trivia: Appears on The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.

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Often cited as a contemporary classic, the novel is easily available, at times, as part of Isherwood's Berlin Stories. I borrowed it from the college library [823 I3M].



















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Submitted for various challenges. Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase.

10 comments:

  1. I like this one quite a bit - my editiion is the 'Berlin Novels' one, which I came to after watching CABARET, which is loosely based on them - thanks for the review, really enjoyed it.

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    1. How lucky Sergio, that means you have GOODBYE TO BERLIN too. Really want to read it.

      You enjoyed the review!! You are very kind. I thought it was just copy and type for the most part. :)

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  2. Neeru - I know what you mean about train journeys. And there's always an extra layer of sadness - or is it wistfulness - in depicting an era that's about to be bygone.

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    1. That's it Margot: Wistfulness. There is a perticular point in the novel when the narrator watches an acquaintance shuffle off (the man is being hunted by the new powers because he belonged to the communist party) and it is as though a chapter of Germany's history is coming to an end.

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  3. I like train journeys in films as well as in books. I've never read Isherwood, Neer. But the sample you provided intrigues me. Maybe one of these days when I have time. You know how it is when the pile of books waiting to be read totters dangerously. :)

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    1. It's a strange book Yvette, at times banal, at times wistful. Some of the passages are really haunting.

      I know what you mean about tottering TBR piles. :)

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  4. Great review. I was going to comment and say that this is on my wishlist, but then I remembered that I bought The Berlin Novels in a guilty charity shop haul a few months back and stashed it in the bottom of the wardrobe out of sight of my other half. Oh dear. I have TBR issues! But this review has reminded me to dig my copy out again as soon as possible!

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    1. Thanks Marie and Welcome back.

      I hope you dig out your copy soon. I'd love to read your views on this as well as on GOODBYE TO BERLIN.

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  5. Neer, where did this come from?! A touch of history in fiction is always fascinating, in this case the last days of Weimar that signalled the start of Nazi rule in Germany. Great choice and review.

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  6. Thanks Prashant. It came about because there was the word Train in the title. At that time I had no idea whatsoever about the content (The book was missing its jacket and there was no summary at the back).

    Since Isherwood lived through the times there is an authenticity in the way he describes things. For e.g. I am fascinated by this line: "The shopkeepers rang all coins on the counter for fear of the forgers." This rings so true.

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