A few years ago I read Rory Maclean’s Berlin, Imagine A City, in which 500 years of history is recounted through portraits of 24 key individuals Utterly marvellous. Read it if you can. I’m now making the same recommendation for Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents, published today by Fitzcarraldo Editions, which covers some of the same ground, but in a completely different way.
As for the timeline Bell’s book has a narrower focus, and it isn’t just history. Historical content is interwoven with her personal experience of living in Berlin. It starts when she and her husband buy a flat in a C19th Gründerzeit mansion on the Landwehr Canal, a house which keeps springing leaks, in the same way as their relationship. When her husband moves out, Bell is left with her two sons in a flat that is too big for her. She has a lot to reflect upon, including the city which has now replaced New York as her home. The flat and the view from her window become intriguing starting points for her Berlin marrative.
She starts by researching the family which built the house, and the those that follow thereafter. She tracks down the woman that owned the flat before her. She widens her radius, telling stories not only of the canal and the railways (and their importance to the development of the city), but also of the authors who lived round and about. My favourite pages put the novels of Theodor Fontane into their social context: my beloved Effi Briest, and Cécile, the novel I tried reading in Fontane’s habitual haunt the Café Josty in Potsdamer Platz. (Well, I was in the completely wrong place to get a feel of that novel, which is probably why I DNF’ed it. I know where I’m going for my next attempt.)
Bell’s literary thread is continued throughout with strong emphasis on female writing and experiences: the novels of Vicki Baum, Gabriele Tergit, Irmgard Keun, Anonymous in Berlin. As you can imagine, I was in my element here.
New-to-me were the histories and architectural ideas associated with the infrastructure and the buildings that Bell can see from the window. Talk about a room with a view! To be honest I would have loved a photograph, but I understand that’s way too personal. Instead I enjoyed traversing the series of maps of Berlin included in the book, and hitting google images far more than I should have.
Contemporary Berlin gets its fair share of attention with Bell describing her trips to the various research libraries. The research itself is fascinating. Surprising (to me) is the antipathy towards the architecture of post-Wall Berlin. Apropos those corporate high-rises on Potsdamer Platz, which I found breathtaking, Bell records disparaging views from her friend, Ian White: “The horrible architectural “triumph” of corporate towers so spitefully angled they seem to slice your body in two every time you pass them by. So much for reunification.”
Yes, I can see why someone would think like that.
Bell also quotes Florian Reuter, a Sinologist from the Humboldt’s Department of African and Asian Studies on the ‘failure’ of Potsdamer Platz. “the architectonic ensemble at Potsdamer Platz ignores the existence of the Landswehr Canal with its Qi or atmospheric potential and influence”. Hmmm, I’m not an advocate of Feng Shui, and this leads me to the thread that I could have lived without. The fixing of the water problems in Bell’s house. Altogether too otherworldly for me.
Nevertheless, The Undercurrents is a fascinating addition to the pantheon of literature about Berlin. In the writing of which Bell has disproved Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s hypothesis that it is impossible to write about Berlin until you have left it.
You now know why I needed an extension to ReadIndies 2022. A book about Germany, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who unknowingly gave birth to #ReadIndies Month (growing as it did from Fitzcarraldo Fortnight.) #ReadIndies just had to stretch to accommodate it! Happy publication day!
Read Karen’s review here.