MR NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS The first of Christopher Isherwood's classic 'Berlin' novels, this portrays the encounter and growing friendship between young William Bradshaw and the urbane and mildly sinister Mr Norris. Piquant, witty and oblique, it vividly evokes the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, and forcefully conveys an ironic political parable. GOODBYE TO BERLIN The inspiration for the stage and screen musical Cabaret and for the play I Am a Camera, this novel remains one of the most powerful of the century, a haunting evocation of the gathering storm of the Nazi terror. Told in a series of wry, detached and impressionistic vignettes, it is an unforgettable portrait of bohemian Berlin - a city and a world on the very brink of ruin.
In the end, it was eclipsed by other books.
I only go through this background to let you know that the book/novels/stories worked their way past my conceptions, preconceptions, or misconceptions (choose what you would like to call them) to make me understand why people have turned to them for inspiration in their private and creative lives. There is no doubt that you are hearing Isherwood’s true stories of his life in Berlin during the time of the rise of Hitler. And the intertwining of everyday situations with the important (but underplayed) events of the world makes for entertaining reading. As the blurb promises, the characters are entertaining – but never are they drawn too broadly. They are believable people. And never do world events overshadow the life of getting through life. In fact, events are just a backdrop. Hitler’s name is dropped. The previous war is mentioned. Events in England are glanced at. But these stories and these people are never about those events. And, although I’ve said it more than once in different ways, these stories are about people – people who come to life in the telling.
As a sidenote, I was reading this book on my trip through California, and while hanging out at my hometown beach, an older man approached me. (It's quite unusual to see anyone reading at the beach where I'm from). He was very surprised to see someone reading The Berlin Stories and declared that he used to know Christopher Isherwood before his death. This dude was an artist and met Isherwood at a party in Santa Monica during the 1970s. The one thing that this stranger had to say when I asked what Isherwood was like was: "He was an interesting man. While he was living in Berlin, his publisher had proposed that he write a biography of Hitler. He refused because he wanted to have nothing to do with the Nazis, but it turns out that he actually regretted that decision. He thought in hindsight it would have been so interesting to speak to a man that later became so infamous."
The Last of Mr. Norris - Mr. Norris is a mysterious man. Wealthy one minute, impoverished the next. A sexual deviant with prim and proper manners. Shady friends. He is the focal point and the most developed character of The Last of Mr. Norris. Indeed, Isherwood wanted his readers to focus solely on the character of Mr. Norris throughout the entire novel. The subtleties of this complex character needed to be teased out somehow. Isherwood found that vehicle through the first person narrative of Norris's English friend, William Bradshaw. From Bradshaw you learn there is something sinister and cunning yet beguiling about Norris. The only other "character" is Berlin in the 1930s. Hitler is beginning to gain power. Communism. Spies. Alliances. Blackmail. How Norris moves through this world is what makes the story interesting.
Goodbye to Berlin - Isherwood explained that in order to have the reader truly focus on Norris every other character needed to be culled from The Last of Mr. Norris. In Goodbye to Berlin those orphaned characters have found a home. Characters like Sally Bowels, Frl. Schoeder, Otto Nowak, and Peter ----. As an aside, the composition of Goodbye to Berlin is a little different from The Last of Mr. Norris. This time the chapters are titled: A Berlin Diary (1930), Sally Bowles, On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931), The Nowaks, The Landauers, and A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932 -3). Favorite lins, "With a mere gesture of wealth he could alter the whole course of our lives" (p 48) and "The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything" (p 90).
Christopher Isherwood lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933, the time when Hitler was working his way into power. A charming city of café life and a nighttime dark side of wild life and fantasts. Intrigue, vice, millionaires and poor people all to be found around Berlin.
Isherwood travelled in both worlds, teaching English to those who wanted to learn to appear better in status. This book is fiction, but it is based on real people in a real world. It is more of a memoir of his time in Berlin. He introduces you to a variety of people. Frl. Schroeder, whom he rents a room from. Once she was well off but now she has to rent rooms in her flat to meet the rent. Mysterious Mr. Norris, a debauchee who loves luxury but has no obvious source on income. Sally Bowles, who travels in the demimonde of Berlin on the kindness of men. She was a character model for the stage play "I Am a Camera" and "Cabaret".
Isherwood takes you into his world with his discriptives of the people and places. You are there during the conversations and happenings. You can feel the tension that is slowly building from the changing of the political scene. There is also the humour of many of the situations that Isherwood finds himself in.
This book is really two books under one cover. They are related by time and place.
I definitely enjoyed this goodread.
"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking".
And that is how I experienced the books. I bit dull. You can see the poverty (this is the depression years). The struggle to find relief through partying, drinking and sex. The tensions growing between Nazi and Jew. The Communist on the threshold. It was the dispassionate prose that made it hard to engage. I enjoyed the musical Cabaret so much more.
The first book, The Last of Mr. Norris portrays encounters between Mr Norris and a William Brandshaw. I liked this a bit better. It is less dark, a bit more comical but still has that tone found in Goodbye to Berlin of being on the brink of something. The Nazi's presence is increasing. Communists are underground. Again there is detachment in Bradshaw who acts as the observer of all that is happening.
The Berlin Stories consists of two of the author's novels ('Mr. Norris Changes Trains' and 'Goodbye to Berlin'), and each one is a semi-autobiographical account of his time in Berlin in early 1930's.
In the first, ‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains’, Isherwood goes by his middle names William Bradshaw and opens with him meeting a fellow Englishman, Arthur Norris, on a train from Holland to Berlin. Noticing that Norris is very anxious about the upcoming German border police check and intrigued by his mysterious travelling companion Bradshaw strikes up a conversation and ultimately a friendship with Norris.
On arrival in Berlin the two begin to see more of each other and Bradshaw becomes aware of certain oddities in Norris’s life. Norris initially intimates that he is an upper class gentleman of leisure with a certain amount of money at his disposal it soon becomes clear that he is little more than a con-man who takes advantage of his more wealthy friends. Norris is also a member of the Communist party, if not a particularly trusted one, which was a fairly hazardous association to have just as the Nazi party was beginning to come to the fore in German politics and a visitor to a certain brothel where he liked to take part in masochistic games. However, when the Reichstag is burned (reportedly by Communists) Norris realises that it is not safe for him to remain in Berlin but he is unwilling to do so without making one final shady business deal, and uses Bradshaw as a decoy to finalize it.
The blurb on the back of my copy of this book describes Norris as being "urbane and mildly sinister" and the writing as it portrays pre-war Berlin as"Piquant, witty and oblique" however, whilst I felt that he was quite an amusing character he was also as sinister as a blancmange, nor could I see how Bradshaw couldn't help but see straight through him as for all his scheming he seemed pretty transparent. Nor could I work out why Bradshaw seemed to think that Norris's peculiarities were quite the norm whilst the constant introduction of minor characters only seemed to minimise any tension there may have been.
However, whilst I felt that 'Mr. Norris Changes Trains' was poor on its own it did seem to work as an introduction and sets up the second book rather nicely as the reader feels attuned with the author's writing style.
‘Goodbye to Berlin’ in contrast is a group of inter-connected vignettes which chronicle some of his misadventures with some of the city's more interesting and bohemian characters, including one of cinema’s most iconic characters, Sally Bowles; the inspiration for Cabaret. In this book Isherwood drops his pseudonym Bradshaw, and delves into the lives of people under threat from the rise of the Nazi party.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
While Sally Bowles is an important character in this half of the book, she is ultimately little more than a bit player. The main character becomes Isherwood himself or more importantly his sexuality. Whilst the author never discloses it directly it is very plain that he is a homosexual and so the reader is given glimpses into a more intimate side of the man himself. This is most apparent in the vignette featuring the Laundauers. The story opens with Isherwood tutoring a young Jewish girl Natalia but it is the introduction to her cousin Bernhard that gives the story its poignancy. The fact that Isherwood appears to have been openly gay just as the Nazis were gaining strength seems quite remarkable and even courageous.
For me this is a book of contrasts. I found 'Mr. Norris Changes Trains' to be somewhat wishy-washy whilst in contrast I rather enjoyed 'Goodbye to Berlin' with its engaging characters and it was here that I felt that I got a real glimpse of the author and his abilities.
Written in first-person narrative, the stories are a thinly veiled account of his interactions with other Berliners.
The stories are somewhat interesting, but even though the characters are initially painted vividly, no character stayed around long enough for me to develop any compassion for them.
I think I will be reading more Isherwood.