There are thousands upon thousands of books about Berlin. Where to start? I started with the first book published by the (relatively) new publisher on the Berlin block, Readux Books.
City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write about Berlin explains why there is so much choice. For Berlin imposes itself on writers, demanding that the experience be put on the page …. and yet, as we shall see, it is notoriously difficult to do.
There is a measure of unaccountable time you can spend in Berlin and write it off as extended holiday frippery. But there comes a Rubiconic moment, after which you’ll find it hard to leave without having something to say for it all.
So begins Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 21-page essay on Berlin, the city to which he went on a Fullbright scholarship in 2007-2008, to write a novel. However, the city of hedonistic excess and what he calls the floating island of privilege took over, eventually leaving a sour taste. When he wrote his stories, he wanted to show his contempt of such excess. The pieces were to remain unpublished until they had been significantly reworked (many times over, I think) to fit a new and more mature world view, gained from years of world-wide pilgrimage recorded in his book A Sense of Direction. It took a while but
finally I had at last put myself in a position to live in Berlin on my own terms (ambition, resolve) and not on the terms I’d construed as Berlin’s (depravity, irresponsibilility, indolence).
What’s interesting though is he has chosen not to live in Berlin on a permanent basis, invalidating his own argument perhaps? Having left,
I have found, however, that I cannot shake the urge to write more about Berlin, to revise what I have already written about Berlin, and furthermore to disclaim in advance as insufficiently definitive anything I might conceivably write about Berlin in the future.
Berlin may impose itself but, like some humans, it refuses to be pinned down. The reasons for this become obvious in David Wagner’s Berlin Triptych (also published by Readux Books, translated by Katy Derbyshire). The place is in a constant state of flux. In 2000 Wagner, who has lived in Berlin since 1991, visited many areas of the city and recorded his observations. He repeated the exercise in 2013. The three pieces in Berlin Triptych are from a bigger work, published in German as Mauer Park. The first piece, Friedrichsstrasse, was of greatest interest to me, given that two weeks ago I walked down the street from Unter den Linden to Checkpoint Charlie. Wagner describes that path in great detail and clearly explains why the areas that were formerly East Berlin appear much more affluent and well-maintained than the areas that were formerly West Berlin.
As for myself, the difference between now and 1980, when I first visited Berlin, is gargantuan. At that time the U6 stations Mitte and Friedrichstrasse were ghost-stations, through which Weet Berlin trains travelled but did not stop. Now they are bustling with Friedrichstrasse being a main intersection. Above ground, however, the intersection between Friedstrasse and Unter den Linden is a disaster area. If you follow my twitter account, you will have found me lamenting a couple of weeks ago …
Berlin, this is not the Unter Den Linden I came to see
There is little to be seen for the moment of the allegedly legendary crossroads of Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden (once famed for Café Bauer and the pre-war Café Kranzler). A Babylonian building site and a labyrinth of construction fences have spread out, with power lines now runing above ground atop battlement-like steel constructions.
The cause of this disruption – the building of the U5 extension. Apparently Unter den Linden will be restored by 2016.
The other two pieces in Berlin Triptych document Schönhäuser Allee and the Café M, obviously a favourite haunt of the author. There is a distinct sense of nostalgia in this latter piece, in that the increased commercialism, new decor and modernised menu have changed the mood forever.
The pace of transition in Berlin is breathtaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much scaffolding and so many cranes on a city tour before.
How many cranes do you see?
This is nothing new as a reading of Rory MacLean’s Berlin, Imagine a City, proves. 500 years of city history recounted through word portraits of 24 key individuals. Written this way, MacLean said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, as he is not impressed by parochial representations of place. He wants the reader to feel what it was like, building empathy and understanding for the individuals concerned. He wants his reader to ask, how would I have behaved?
Some characters are well-documented in historical records while for others there is nothing. So, for example, the opening chapter which takes us back to 1469 and the undocumented life of Konrad von Kölln, a medieval minstrel, is put together using various secondary sources and a lot of imagination. Next up is a chapter about the Scottish Colin Albany and life in Berlin during the 30 Years War and the first time, in this book at least, when Berlin was overrun and destroyed. More familiar history appears as the book progresses: Frederick the Great, the founder of Prussia, Schinkel, the architect who build Frederick’s Berlin, still very much in evidence. The ladies are represented with chapters about Lili Neuss (representative of the repressed working class in the industrialise 19th century), Leni Riefstahl (Nazi propagandist) and Marlene Dietrich (non-Nazi). Literature is represented with chapters about Margarete Böhme, Christopher Isherwood and Bertolt Brecht. Fittingly too, pages are devoted to David Bowie, a man who has reinvented himself as many times – if not more – than Berlin itself. Moving to Berlin in late 70’s to escape the cocaine-induced paranoia of the Thin White Duke, not only did he find himself but he also penned Heroes – a song which played a key role in the fall of the wall. How? You’ll have to read the book!
Really you should. It is wonderful. The book of my summer. Politics, industry, architecture, literature and music – the very fabric of life are all interwoven to form a tapestry of Berlin through the ages. MacLean also backs up the arguments of the first two writers in this post, that Berlin’s identity is based on its own volatility (and thus so hard to capture contemporaneously. See footnote.) When asked at the Edinburgh Book Festival, what next for Berlin, MacLean responded with who knows? What my book shows is that the power of individual imagination can shape a place for good or ill.
City of Rumor / Berlin Triptych / Berlin, Imagine A City
Footnote: At the author signing I put forward Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s idea that it is impossible to write about Berlin until you have left it. MacLean, who now lives in London, nodded. I found it very difficult, he said. That’s why I had to write a history.