Mr Norris Changes Trains (Christopher Isherwood)

“He had an animal innocence,” Isherwood sums up Mr Norris — no, I mean Gerald Hamilton (1890-1970), the flamboyant and flabby rogue who inspired Mr Norris. The two met, presumably, in Berlin where Isherwood lived from 1929 to 1933. The author had gone to that city because of the favourable money-exchange. He caught the tormented, self-destructive spirit of Berlin which Broadway excised in favour of un-zippered frolics and Doctor Rugs (yes, I mean….drugs, not hugs and definitely not rugs). Coming from a strangulating British environment where you faced jail if caught in the bushes with a boy, he read that anything went on in Berlin. As Gerald Hamilton said, “We live in stirring times. Tea-stirring times.”

Anyway, I don’t think Gerald Hamilton had any innocence at all. But his bewigged and painted self gave birth to a wonderful “fictional” character — the scheming Mr Norris who lacks any positive qualities, but is still an unforgettable person. I read this book a long time ago and, now, thanks to Google, I reread anew after sleuthing Hamilton…Gerald Hamilton was a gun-runner for the IRA, a con-man caught in embezzlement plots, a Commie sympathizer, then, turning far right, he was against war with Germany– espousing the views of fascist Oswald Mosley. Facing arrest in England, he tried to escape to Ireland dressed as a nun. Isherwood published this book in 1935 while the wayward Gerald Hamilton was spinning left and right. How could Isherwood resist using Hamilton as an amusing character?

Mr Norris is a man who lives well, despite his soon obvious lifestyle of debts, despair and dodgy dealings. This novel begins with William Bradshaw, a young English tutor, meeting the slightly ridiculous Mr Arthur Norris on a train to Berlin. Mr Norris is nervous at having to present his passport, elusive about what he does and, with his rather obvious wig and odd habits, does not seem as though he is a character to take seriously at first. William’s favourite pastime becomes watching Mr Norris, and, gosh, is this boy observant! He notices everything, every furtive glance, every twitch of the mouth, every tense muscle. But you get used to it and become equally obsessed about every change in Mr Norris’ body language, trying to read what he’s not telling you (and that’s quite a lot). He is a rich and fascinating character.

This chance meeting results in a firm friendship, and very soon, William is visiting his new friend frequently, becoming involved in his disreputable life and associates. I have never read Christopher Isherwood before, but I liked the way that he allows us to interpret events for ourselves. He trusted the reader to keep up and so it is enough to infer certain things, or show us glimpses, so that we can make our own assumptions. The style of the novel seems deceptively slight, but this is a very clever book – beautifully written, it flows wonderfully and is filled with great characters and has an excellent setting. Isherwood’s writing style in Mr Norris is quietly dry in a way that may remind you of Graham Greene. It’s very effective. You feel Berlin as a reckless, scary crossroads. Mr Norris is last spotted in Rio. (Gerald Hamilton expired while living above a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea called The Good Earth.)

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