Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Last of Mr. Norris (AKA Mr. Norris Changes Trains) by Christopher Isherwood

The Last of Mr. Norris is a sort of character study of the wacky title character, an Englishman in his 50s living in Berlin in the early 1930s, and Norris’s relationship with the narrator, a younger Englishman, also living in Berlin.  They first meet on a train, where the narrator, William Bradshaw, quickly becomes familiar with some of Norris’s idiosyncrasies; his vanity, for example, evident in the wig he wears and the arsenal of cleansers and cosmetics he uses daily, and the fact that he always seems to be looking over his shoulder, as if he is being pursued.  Norris also has a collection of sadomasochistic books, and pays prostitutes to whip him and verbally abuse him.

Norris is a mysterious and apparently unscrupulous exporter/importer who lacks business sense and often fails to pay both his creditors and his employees. After those rare times when he makes a successful deal, he immediately wastes his profits on trifles.  Oft times he has to resort to pawn shops and loan sharks to make ends meet, and in the first third or so of the novel he joins the German Communist Party in hopes that the Party will prove a lucrative employer for one who has the sort of contacts he claims to have.  (The best joke in the book is when Norris, on his first mission for the Communist Party, must go to Paris, and books himself a first class trip, assuming the Party is going to reimburse him in full.) 

The crisis of the story comes when Norris asks Bradshaw’s help in setting up a business deal, requesting that Bradshaw lure a German aristocrat and government functionary into an ostensibly chance meeting with a colleague of Norris’s at a Swiss ski resort.  Bradshaw, inordinately fond of Norris, obliges, only later to learn that this was no business scheme, but an espionage operation in the interest of the French government: Norris has betrayed the Communists and is now accepting payments from France to spy on the Party and on the German government.  It turns out that the German government and the Communist Party are well aware of Norris’s perfidy, so Norris flees the country for Latin America, only to be pursued by one of his former employees, a vengeful blackmailer.

I read the novel in a 1945 U.S. edition of Berlin Stories; where it appears under the title The Last of Mr. Norris.  I’m glad I didn’t know the original UK title was Mr. Norris Changes Trains, which eliminates any doubt that Norris is going to betray the Communists.  I knew almost nothing about Isherwood or his work before starting the book (I have never seen “Cabaret,” though my wife will sing those songs on occasion) and one of the things I enjoyed most about the novel was the mystery of what the Switzerland trip was all about and how dedicated to the Communist cause Norris really was; all along I thought there was a chance that Norris was going to turn out to be a real self-sacrificing Red hero.

I thought the novel was just OK.  The style was flat and bland, and I didn’t really understand the tone; was the novel trying to make me laugh, or was it trying to tell me something about decadence, revolution, and/or the difficult lives of people pursuing what we now call alternative lifestyles?  Was I supposed to be amused by Norris and his unconventional and irresponsible behavior, or feel for him and worry that his creditors, the communists, the Nazis, or the police were going to get him?  The three or four pages about street fighting and Nazi oppression made me think I was supposed to take the book seriously, and then the last few pages, which make light of the fact that Norris has been caught by his vengeful employee, were a letdown – the book was just a big joke after all.

After finishing the book I read about it on Wikipedia, and how the book was composed and the changes it went through help explain some of my problems with it.  Also, if I had seen the silly cover to the first British edition I would have not been confused about the tone, but I also wouldn’t have even read the book; I’m not actually seeking out books of humor about radical politics and boot fetishism.

I guess I am giving this one a very marginal thumbs up.  Here I disagree with the critical consensus, which is enthusiastic, and with David Bowie, who counts Mr. Norris Changes Trains as one of his favorite 100 books.

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