Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories consists of two popular books, loosely based upon his own experiences in Germany. These books first appeared separately as short novels: The Last of Mr. Norris, essentially a strongly plotted thriller, and Goodbye to Berlin, a roughly continuous narrative comprising six stories set in the early 1930’s, during Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
The Last of Mr. Norris introduces narrator William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s middle names), a young writer who encounters a bewigged fellow Englishman named Arthur Norris on a train bound for Berlin. As they converse, Bradshaw, despite his companion’s nervousness at the German border, agrees to meet for tea at Norris’s Berlin flat. At the flat, he is briefly confused by two entrances, one marked as an office and the other marked private. Once inside, he sees that the office is separated from the living quarters only by a heavy curtain, a confusing duplicity.
Bradshaw encounters Herr Schmidt, Norris’s sinister secretary, who controls his employer by confronting creditors and doling out Norris’s pocket money. Bradshaw also discovers that Norris, a masochist, enjoys pornography, but he refuses to judge him. Together they spend New Year’s Eve amid Berlin’s notorious nightlife with the wealthy baron von Pregnitz; they also visit a brothel.
Fraulein Schroeder, Bradshaw’s aging landlady, is impressed whenever Norris calls, but other friends advise Bradshaw not to trust him. However, Bradshaw likes him and is stirred when Norris speaks passionately at a communist meeting. Later, they meet with Ludwig Bayer, the Communist Party leader in Berlin, who asks Bradshaw to translate a manuscript into English.
Norris invites Bradshaw to his birthday celebration. In the meantime he pawns his rug for additional funds. Schmidt objects because Norris owes him nine months’ wages and is already five thousand pounds in debt. He refuses to give Norris the cash, and the party is canceled. When Norris’s phone is disconnected, Bradshaw realizes that he has left Berlin, perhaps for Paris. Schmidt follows, seeking his wages.
Bradshaw visits London in the spring of 1932, but when he returns that autumn he finds an economic depression, joblessness, and more Nazi uniforms on the street. Schroeder, noticeably older and thinner, greets him, as does a newly prosperous Norris, who now rents a room from her. Norris is generous, pays his rent promptly, and invites Bradshaw to an expensive dinner with the baron, who has acquired a post in the new government. When Norris arrives late, the baron is obviously offended, but Bradshaw makes a joke, the ice is broken, and the dinner goes well. Afterward, Norris abruptly excuses himself, leaving the other two alone. The baron nudges Bradshaw’s foot, but Bradshaw deflects his advances, and they part politely.
Norris asks Bradshaw to accompany the baron to Switzerland, ostensibly for winter sports but actually to allow Norris and Margot, his connection in Paris, to elicit information from the baron. Over dinner, the baron admits that he enjoys boys’ adventure books and confides his recurring dream of seven youths on an island. After he offers to teach Bradshaw to ski, they encounter a Dutch youth and his uncle, who turns out to be Margot, the Paris connection.
The baron shifts his attention from Bradshaw to the boy, while the uncle and Bradshaw talk at teatime. Then a telegram urges Bradshaw to return to Berlin immediately. Bayer warns that Margot is an unofficial police agent who collects and sells political information and has already sent Norris money from the French secret service. The baron, a politician, now has access to Germany’s secrets. Bradshaw must urge Norris to leave Germany before he is arrested. Norris, it turns out has also double-crossed the Communist Party by gathering and selling information about them. The next day, Norris plans his escape to Mexico and then disappears.
Needing cash, the baron eventually agrees to sell information to Paris, but police decipher the code and arrest him. He flees but not fast enough. Cornered, he shoots himself. Bradshaw is terrified that he, too, will be arrested and questioned for working with Bayer and for his friendship with Norris. Meanwhile, Norris escapes from Schmidt to Mexico City, then California, then Costa Rica. Apparently, he tries to have Schmidt murdered.
Norris, who primps routinely, employing makeup, powder, and an ever-changing wig, is clearly not who he seems....
(The entire section is 1877 words.)