Friday, April 04, 2014

The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood

In a bizarre way, the short novel The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood seems like a 1930s German take on The Great Gatsby. A young man arrives in Berlin by train and is invited by a well-to-do resident to frequently visit him and go out on the town. The older Arthur Norris seems at first to have wealth and friends, and he introduces the young British embassy worker William Bradshaw to a sort of jazz society filled with suspect characters. Much of the book is the young man studying the older.

Norris, however, is not really a Gatsby and is not in control of even his secretary, the evil Mr. Schmidt. While Norris has some minor success as a fringe member of the Communist party and is sent around Europe as a spy, creditors are also trying to repossess his furniture and his beloved collection of pornography. Bradshaw eventually sees the older man's failings but still likes him. Bradshaw becomes concerned about his friend's survival in 1931 Berlin, a city filled with criminals and Nazi agitators.

When written in the 1930s, The Last of Mr. Norris was contemporary literature, but it now serves as a historical novel for 21st century readers looking to understand Germany before the Nazis took power. It is often bound with Goodbye to Berlin, a semi-autobiographical account of the author's 1930s experiences. Together the novels are called Berlin Stories.

Isherwood, Christopher. The Last of Mr. Norris. Avon, 1952.

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