Berlin in the 30s, the political unrest grows but the demimonde parties on.
The narrator, William Bradshaw, lives there nicely as an expat giving English classes and enjoying life. This is pretty much all that we know about him, he doesn’t even explicitly reveal his sexual orientation. In fact, this first person narrative tells us very little about narrator and focuses entirely on the person of Mr Norris, a perfect English gentlemen, a charming scoundrel.
William meets Mr Norris on the train in the first chapter, and, sadly, there aren’t that many trains afterwards. Sadly, as I love reading about what happens on the trains. Mr Norris, while keeping up the appearances of a refined Englishman of delicate sensibilities, seems rather murky.
William’s favourite pastime becomes watching Mr Norris, and, gosh, is that boy observant! He notices everything, every furtive glance, every twitch of the mouth, every tense muscle.
“’Do you know what time we arrive at the frontier?’
Looking back on the conversation, this question does not seem to me to have been particularly unusual. It is true that I had no interest in the answer; I wanted merely to ask something which might start us chatting, and which wasn’t, at the same time, inquisitive or impertinent. Its effect on the stranger was remarkable. I had certainly succeeded in arousing his interest. He gave me a long, odd glance, his features seemed to stiffen a little. It was the glance of a poker-player who guesses suddenly that his opponent hold a straight flush and that he had better be careful. At length he answered, speaking slowly and with caution:
‘I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you exactly. In about an hour’s time, I believe. ‘
His glance, now vacant for a moment, was clouded again. An unpleasant thought seemed to tease him like a wasp; he moved his head slightly to avoid it."
I told you; nothing goes past this boy. 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.). Isherwood has created a rich and fascinating character (apparently he didn’t create him from scratch, as Mr Norris was modeled on Gerald Hamilton) who we can’t help but cut a lot of slack, despite the fact he is obviously a total scumbag. As a reader, I found myself just as gullible as William while believing (like him) that I had it all under control and saw Mr Norris through.
I liked this book a lot but maybe I’m wrong to like it. Isherwood himself ended up hating saying it was dishonest and shallow. I think he is being too hard on himself. Literally on himself, because the narrator, William Bradshaw, is more than an alter-ego; it’s the author himself. Isherwood came to the conclusion that it was William who was the villain of the novel, insensitive to the misery and horror that was surrounding him in the prewar Germany.
If I were Chris, I wouldn’t beat myself about it so much. His descriptions of the state of the decaying German society were powerful. And I felt the sense of impending doom. (Although it was maybe because I knew how it all escalated). Anyway, he wouldn’t be the only to dismiss the seriousness of the situation. How do you think Chamberlain felt?
There is so much more awesomeness in this book like dominatrix scenes, a sleazy homosexual baron playing footsie under the table, a Communist pimp, but I think you should read it all for yourself.
I have read the book in the beautiful cover by Vintage Books which you can see above but it has been published with many different fantastic covers. In America it came out under the title of 'The Last of Mr Norris' as apparently Americans wouldn't know what it meant to change trains.
Here you can see the Polish cover of a recent edition:
This is probably the only cover of this book I've seen that is not trying to convey the sense of glamour that the other covers rely on.