Monday, February 9, 2009

The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood

I had planned on reading all of Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, which is basically two novels sandwiched together: This, The Last of Mr. Norris, and Goodbye to Berlin, which is the basis of the musical Cabaret. I've never seen Cabaret, but I think the idea is pretty intriguing--a bunch of non-German socialites fritter their time away with trivialities while Berlin succumbs to Nazism.

But I needed a break after The Last of Mr. Norris, so I'm reading (and posting) these as two separate novels. While not really bad, or even unpleasant, I found there just wasn't enough in The Last of Mr. Norris to keep me interested; in fact, I'm not totally sure what to say in this review.

Mr. Norris is Arthur Norris, a seemingly well-to-do Englishman (or American? I think he's English) living in Berlin who makes the acquaintance of Bill Bradshaw, the narrator. Bradshaw falls head-over-heels in bromantic love for Arthur, though I admit I don't get the appeal: Isherwood seems to suggest that Arthur is a genteel and affable rapscallion but really he's kind of obnoxious. He seems to abound in wealth and taste; I think perhaps those traits carry less weight with a modern reader than they did in the mid-century.

Arthur is a secret communist and also a petty sham artist; two roles which often seem in conflict with one another. In the plot's climax, Arthur uses the narrator to unwittingly engineer a scam on a mutual friend and Nazi cabinet member. In a plot twist that is a lot more dull than it ought to be, the scam itself turns out to be a ruse and Arthur turns out to be a spy for the French. Congratulations, Isherwood: you made Nazis boring.

What this means, unfortunately, is that I'm stuck at 49 1/2 on the Times 100 Book List, which counts the books as one. One day soon I'll get over that hump.

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