Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I read this book after a conversation with a friend. I confessed that I had picked up a history of Nazi Germany to read but had lost heart when I saw the 700 pages giving lots of historical detail about how it all came about. He said he felt he had learned enough of the subject by reading Isherwood’s two novels – this one and Goodbye to Berlin. I have read the latter so turned to this one.

It is about an English teacher in Berlin in the 1930s and it does, rather brilliantly and seemingly casually, capture the mood and the atmosphere, at least as I imagine it. What comes first – my imagined version, that he verifies? Or his, that I have imbibed through other means, such as the film Caberet (of which more below)? A combination, probably, but the atmosphere feels right for this reader, which is perhaps all that matters.

Mr Norris, the main character, is an enigmatic figure whom the author leaves incomplete. The transience of relationships is a theme of the novel; we meet, we strike up a companionship, we move on, maintaining a veneer of civilised behavious as we go. Except when we don’t, and this is the sinister backdrop of the book.

Other characters are sketched with a few telling strokes and much has to be assumed.The actual plot is half-hidden, with the reader, like the protagonist, having to fill in many gaps.

One thing that did strike me was how much of this book is reflected in the film and musical Caberet – but Caberet is based on ‘The Berlin Stories’ which is the two novels published together. So that, at least, is cleared up.

A great book for those with an interest in 1930s Germany, how politics intrudes on private lives and how carefree one can be if one sheds any sense of responsibility for censuring the behaviour of others.


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