French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde à portée de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tête révélait la mémoire accumulée au
fond des océans, l’érosion des calcaires, le déplacement des rivières,
la migration des hommes, des durées qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colère, la tristesse, les chaînes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifère : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

French in June and #20Books: Three Writers of Noir

It’s no secret that I like noir fiction, especially when it is not too macho and the (usually male) narrator reveals vulnerability. That’s why two of the authors below are firmly among my favourites, while Janis Otsiemi is new to me, but after hearing him speak in Lyon in 2016, I thought he sounded very interesting. All three of them are (or were) also quite politically engaged, and I wonder if noir is a response to a certain political frame of mind.

Book 3/20: Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est à l’abri du succès (2000) (literally: Nobody’s safe from success)

Translated as C’est la Vie (tr. Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2019.

This is the slim volume I was lucky enough to find signed by the author (dedicated to Marie Louise, which is ALMOST Marina Sofia, don’t you agree?) in a second-hand bookshop in Lyon. This was his sixth or seven novel for adults, although it seems to be one of the last to be translated into English. Prior to that, he had a long career as a children’s book author, and the juxtaposition of his hilarious yet slightly surreal kids’ fantasy books with his very dark and violent novels always makes me smile.

The ‘hero’ of the story (who is never a hero, if you know your Garnier) is Jeff Colombier, a has-been middle-aged writer, drinking too much, whose relationships with women have come to nothing, and whose grown-up son despises him. But then things seem to turn around for him when he wins an important literary prize. Although he makes a fool of himself on TV, he is nevertheless feted and suddenly touring all over France. He runs away from all these trappings of success to spend some time with his son (who has become a drug dealer) in an attempt to recapture his youth.

Of course things go awry, although perhaps not quite as violently as in some of the other Garnier novels. Which might be a relief for some readers, but I feel it also lacks some of the perception and depth of novels like How’s the Pain or Moon in a Dead Eye. It is in essence the dry, witty description of a man’s midlife crisis, with additional swipes at the Parisian literary world, womanising and parenting. This is his second novel featuring an author, and there possibly are some knowing autobiographical nods in this one, but I feel it was much better done in The Eskimo Solution. One for Garnier completists (and worth it for his signature alone in my case).

Book 4/20: Jean-Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours (1999) (literally: Barren/Arid Days), with photographs by Catherine-Bouretz-Izzo.

A bit of an unusual book this, a poetry collection by an author best known for his neo-noir Marseille Trilogy. Yet Izzo started out by publishing several volumes of poetry in the 1970s before switching to prose and then returned to poetry twenty years later in 1997 for the remainder of his short life. This volume is illustrated with photos by his wife, mostly close-ups of rocks and cliffs around Marseille.

In fact, you might argue that all of Izzo’s work is a love-song to the city of Marseille and the Mediterranean, without being blind to the destructive forces of either. His work has often been described as combining ‘black and blue’ – the blackest depths of noir, even the ‘blues’ (music also plays an important part in his work), but also the clear blue of the sea representing optimism, the colour of hope and dreams.

His poetry is so evocative of place, of the Mediterranean landscape in all its seasons. There is something so immediate about his descriptions, very sensual, dropping you in the middle of a grassy field, or with your fingers scrabbling in red earth, the warmth of the sun against your skin. I am afraid you will have to take my word for it, because I find it very difficult to translate poetry. It sounds rather inane when I just capture the meaning of the words but not the whole atmosphere, soundscape and colour.

No reference points around here.

Nothing but the sun.

Who says: here and now.

Our place is here, under the shoulder of the sun

on the blue stones, in the bosom of the grass,

the moan of the midi.

Izzo was a political journalist as well as a writer, but poetry seems to have been his shelter. He used to say that he loved telling stories, but that he felt most alive when writing poetry. Poetry helped keep him le plus fidèle possible à l’innocence (as close as possible to innocence).

Book 5/20: Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot (2009) [literally: Life’s a dirty business]

This novel is a more straightforward piece of crime fiction, set in Libreville, Gabon. Chicano has just been released from prison (possibly thanks to a case of mistaken identity) after serving four years for a burglary that went wrong. He has sworn to lead a good life from now on, but easier said than done. How can you possibly hope to succeed, when you have no education, no skills, no supportive family or girlfriend, in a country where corruption reigns supreme? Needless to say, Chicano gets sucked back into his criminal gang and things go as well as might be expected.

The story is relatively simple and predictable, and it’s perhaps fair to say that it is one of the author’s earliest novels – he has written around nine of them by now, all featuring the inspectors Koumba and Owoula. But this is not really a police procedural – for the police, just like pretty much all of the public services in Gabon, are corrupt, biased and incompetent. This is not a pretty picture that Otsiemi paints of his country, but it is full of energy and wit. The noise, heat and constant movement of the city streets and marketplaces really come to life.

I also loved the examples of non-standard French being used throughout (some of them explained in footnotes, others perfectly comprehensible but making me smile in the body of the text). For example, the ‘breadwinner’ becomes the ‘manioc winner’ (gagne-pain –> gagne-manioc), underpants are ‘porte-fesses’ (buttock-carriers), the mistress is known as ‘the second office’ and so on. Despite the best efforts of the Académie française, the French language remains alive, diverse and constantly kicking!

French in June and #20Books: Women’s Midlife Crisis

Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire (Book 2 of #20Books of Summer)

This book has been translated as Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by the very talented author and translator Alison Anderson, and the title does rather give you an idea of what the book is about. Unlike the original Emma Bovary, however, the narrator known only as M.A.(pronounced just like Emma in French) does not have an unhappy ending. Instead, we have a picture of her whole life, from childhood to death, covering around 75 years of French social history from the 1950s to roughly 2025.

If you compare it with another recent book that traces a character’s entire life story (rather than being plot-driven), A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you might find this book profoundly annoying. Because, unlike with Andreas, no real tragedy befalls M.A.: she does not face war or destruction or even major familial dramas and losses. She has loving, if rather dull parents, she gets a chance to go to university, she marries, has healthy children, and, after some initial financial worries, soon leads a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle with all the household consumer goods considered necessary at the time. Yet, despite all this, she is often bored and unhappy, and embarks upon an affair with a work colleague. But this only brings momentary excitement to her life, and all her other attempts to liven things up – the friendships, the hobbies, psychotherapy – fall flat. This flatness is echoed in the idiosyncratic narrative style – instead of a first person narrator, we have the unusual second person – and this brings MA much closer to us. She is not a particularly sympathetic character, but her story is fairly typical of her generation (and probably ours as well) and the tediousness of everyday life is conveyed not only through the observation of all the tiny details of family life (the interruptions during supper, for example), but also with exhaustive descriptions of the fridge or the car, all adding to that sense of flatness and information overwhelm.

‘You couldn’t express clearly this sense of dissatisfaction because – as all the images from around the world kept reminding you – you had everything you needed to be happy. In your country there were no major floods, no wars, no epidemics, people died of old age, there was no bankruptcy, just a demanding career for your husband and worryies about the children’s future. Later, your mother will die in a room with dirty curtains, you will be made redundant, you will be burgled, but you will never experience anything major, you will never win the lottery or be kidnapped and have your fifteen minutes of fame.’

(my translation)

I personally much preferred Divry’s funnier and more overtly militant novel When the Devil Comes Out of the Bathroom, but I can see what she was trying to do here. It is perhaps also a good warning to not waste your life, and to realise what really matters to you and make the most of it.

Emily Itami: Fault Lines

The wife in this case is Japanese and she too seems to have everything she needs to be happy, at least on paper. Mizuki is a housewife, after a rather lacklustre singing career, with two cute children and a successful professional husband, living in a posh part of Tokyo. Yet she too is discontented with her life, seriously considering throwing herself off the balcony where she escapes to smoke a cigarette. She also embarks upon an affair, but soon realises that she probably lacks the courage or conviction to uproot her life, so it cannot last.

This story focuses on a limited time period of Mizuki’s life, a few months at most, and it is told from the first person point of view, so there is a lot more emotion, anger, poignancy and sense of yearning than in Divry’s almost clinical detachment (and near-imperatives). Mizuki feels invisible and unwanted, and she desperately longs to be loved, to feel attractive once more.

He’s made me invisible. With all the options I had, I chose him, chose him for life, for living, and he’s frozen me out into an existence that isn’t living at all. I’m in a cage without bars and I’m screaming but nobody can hear. I’m not even middle-aged yet and he’s faded me into the background.

The author suggests that the reason Mizuki is so frustrated with her life is because she has lived for a while in the United States, and has been exposed to different expectations and lifestyles, much like the author herself (who I suspect is half-Japanese and spent her childhood there, but now lives in the UK). However, I was also amused by the astute observations of the impact of American self-help gurus on Japanese culture.

All the talks are about accepting yourself as you are, being kind to yourself, seeing yourself as just one human out of many, doing your best, with as much right to be here as everybody else. I like the idea, and I find the talks relaxing, but if I think about it too much, the idea of self-acceptance jars. Some people, surely, are unacceptable, and the makers of the recordings don’t know if I’m one of those people or not. How do they know if I phone my mother regularly, or separate my recycling, or keep my terrace free of furniture that could fly away in a typhoon, or tell the truth? You can accept yourself, here, but only if you’re fulfilling your obligation to society. I guess that’s why America is the land of the free, but we have lower crime rates and litter-free streets.

I actually enjoyed this more than I expected – the adultery side of things was sensitively done, not that I am squeamish about such things in my reading (and we hear almost by-the-by that her husband had cheated on her previously too). It was certainly more heartfelt than M.A.’s pathetic self-delusions with her affair, there was a dreaminess and sweetness to it which captivated me.

I suppose these two books were a continuation of the theme of aging, loneliness, and a woman’s identity that I started reading about in Simone de Beauvoir. These stories can occasionally feel self-indulgent (when we compare them to the more traumatic stories of women’s lives in other places, classes or historical periods), but after ploughing through so much literature about white men’s midlife crisis in the past, I am willing to lend my ear to these stories as well.

French in June: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed, transl. Patrick O’Brian.

[Also Book 1 of my #20Books of Summer – I forgot to add her to the original list. Honestly, not cheating!]

I strongly identified with Simone de Beauvoir ever since the age of ten or thereabouts – she was a powerful role model to me. Of course, upon growing up and reading more about her life, I realised that there were plenty of contradictions too. But aren’t we all flawed? Isn’t there always a gap between what we profess and the aches of our heart? Nevertheless, I still love her intellect and her writing. Above all, I love her psychological insight. She can see right through into the hearts of women, even the darkest, most secret nooks which we want to hide from others.

This book is a collection of three novellas, all featuring women at a later stage in life, all facing old age, rejection, and loss of filial or spousal love.

The Age of Discretion is the story of a mother whose son has not turned out the way she would have liked him to be. At the same time, she faces the prospect of aging, regrets, coping with obsolescence in both the personal and professional realms. At times she seems almost content with her long years of experience:

I have discovered the pleasure of having a long past behind me… a background to the diaphanous present: a background that gives its colour and its light, just as rocks or sand show through the shifting brilliance of the sea. Once I used to cherish schemes and promises for the future; now my feeling and my joys are smoothed and softened with the shadowy velvet of time past.

But she has to learn to cope with the limitations of her body, her intellect, her family, and her ability to shape people. She has to learn to not look too far ahead, to live a short-term life, to cope with loneliness in a strange world that we no longer understand and that would carry on without us.

No, he did not belong to me any more… It was I who moulded his life. Now I am watching it from outside, a remote spectator. It is the fate common to all mothers; but who has ever found comfort in saying that hers is the common fate.

Because he was very demanding I believed I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined I had created him in my own image… I was the one who knew the real Philippe. And he has preferred to go away from me, to break our secret alliance, to throw away the life I had built for him with such pains. He will turn into a stranger.

She cold-heartedly turns him away because she feels she cannot respect his life choices anymore. He is the one who demonstrates unconditional love. It is a shocking story because of her intransigence about her son and his choices – an unfashionable attitude nowadays, but perhaps more common for that generation:

This is what her son says (quite rightly, it seems to me):

For my part I have never wondered whether I respected you or not. You could do bloody-fool things as much as ever you liked and I shouldn’t love you any the less. You think love has to be deserved… and I’ve tried hard enough not to be undeserving. Everything I ever wanted to be… they were all mere whims according to you: I sacrificed them all to please you. The first time I don’t give way, you break with me.

The Monologue, the second story in the volume, reminded me of one of Dorothy Parker’s tour de force monologues, which reveal all of the deepest fears, foibles, and insecurities of the woman speaking. In this case, we have a frankly rather unpleasant, bitter woman left all alone on New Year’s Eve, resenting her neighbours for celebrating. Her lover has abandoned her, she was estranged from her own daughter (who subsequently died), and considers herself to be wronged by all around her. A real howl of a rant, a mix of pity and disgust – but it also makes us wonder if we are judging her more harshly because she is both middle-aged and a woman. Once again, we encounter here fear of abandonment and loneliness – if the first narrator at least had a partner in old age, this one does not.

She’s dead and so all right what of it? The dead are not saints. She wouldn’t cooperate, she never confided in me at all… Blind with fury just because I was doing my duty as a mother. Me the selfish one when she ran away like that would have been in my interest to have left her with her father. Without her I still had a chance of making a new life for myself.

The third, longest story is The Woman Abandoned, describing the breakdown of a marriage in the form of a diary over the course of several months, as the narrator seeks to come to terms with her husband’s affair, to keep the marriage going, while her two grown daughters have moved away – one to the States, one in a bourgeois marriage. A woman who, while not entirely blameless or likable, is certainly more relatable. She has tried her best to be accommodating and understanding, but constantly questions herself and ends up losing everything. Her sense of desolation is so beautifully conveyed:

Every night I call him: not him – the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead. I used to tell myself that death was the only irremediable misfortune and that if he were to leave me I should get over it. Death was dreadful because it was possible; a break was bearable because I could not imagine it. But now in fact I tell myself that if he were dead I should at least know whom I had lost and who I was myself. I no longer know anything. The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself… Even if you survive there is nothing left.

I have to admit I could not help but identify with some of the dialogue in this:

The worst thing you did was to let me lull myself in a sense of false security. Here I am at forty-four, empty-handed, with no occupation, no other interest in life apart from you. If you had warned me eight years ago I should have made an independent existence for myself and now it would be easier for me to accept the situation.

‘But Monique!’ he cried, looking astonished, ‘I urged you as strongly as I possibly could to take that job as secretary of the Revue medicale seven years ago.’

This is a powerful description of her descent into depression – no longer able to distinguish between day and night, not washing, not going outside, drinking, smoking, lying in bed all day, wanting to die. Nothing escapes de Beauvoir’s unsentimental eye, for example, the limited amount of sympathy or interest that friends can conjure up for you.

They are all sick of me. Tragedies are all right for a while: you are concerned, you are curious, you feel good. And then it gets repetitive, it doesn’t advance, it grows dreadfully boring: it is so very boring, even for me.

In summary, not the cheeriest of reads, but so insightful and so well written. Simone conquers my heart all over again!

Expats Writing: On the Prowl in Africa

Norman Rush: Mating, 1991.

This is an interesting book about cultural differences, white privilege and domination in post-colonial Africa, but it’s also a love story told from the point of view of a young(ish) brainbox of a female anthropologist. She is completely insufferable and elitist, and has built up a cynical and manipulative shell around her heart, but she can also be very funny and at times quite vulnerable and oddly innocent.

The narrator’s voice is so loud and unique in all its contradictions and complexities, that it’s hard to believe it was written by a man in his late fifties – closer to the age of the narrator’s paramour in the story. It’s an ambitious endeavour – but works well.

The unnamed narrator finds herself somewhat adrift – she has had to abandon her Ph.D., her relationships and friendships are unfulfilling, she does not want to return to the US, she feels twice as intelligent as most of the people she meets (fluent in several languages, well-read, able to quote literature and philosophy at the drop of a hat), and she has quite strong opinions on the types of people she meets in Botswana.

There are more whites in Africa than you might expect, and more in Botswana than most places in Africa… Parliament works and the courts are decent, so the West is hot to help with development projects, so white experts pile in. Botswana has almost the last hunter-gatherers anywhere, so you have anthropologists like me underfoot. From South Africa you get fugitive white and black politicals… And then Botswana is a geographical receptacle for civil service Brits excessed as decolonisation moved ever southward. These are people who are forever structurally maladapted to living in England. This is their last perch in Africa…

The novel is set in the 1980s, so South Africa is still under the apartheid regime, and the Boers and spies play a part in the narrative. The narrator’s thoughts about love and sex are equally unfiltered:

Love is strenuous. Pursuing someone is strenuous… Of course it would be so much easier to play from the male side. They never go after love qua love, ever. They go after women. And for men love is the distillate or description of whatever happened with each woman that was not actually painful in feeling-tone… I don’t know if getting love out of a man is more of a feat of strength now than it used to be or not, except that I do: it is. It’s hideous. It’s an ordeal beyond speech.

Despite her cynical pronouncements about love, she has not quite lost hope of finding a worthy partner – and the one she has decided is worth pursuing is Nelson Denoon, a fellow academic on the cusp of getting divorced, who has established a utopian female-led community called Tsau somewhere in the desert. She embarks upon a somewhat dangerous solo crossing of the desert to find this closed community and is not above resorting to all sorts of lies and subterfuge to be allowed to stay in the community and win this man over.

I had to realize that the male idea of successful love is to get a woman into a state of secure dependency which the male can renew by a touch or pat or gesture now and then while he reserves his major attention for his work in the world or the contemplation of the various forms of surrogate combat men find so transfixing… Equilibrium or perfect mating will come when the male is convinced he is giving less than he feels is really required to maintain dependency and the woman feels she is getting more from him than her servile displays should merit.

My utopia is equal love, equal love between people of equal value… Why is it so difficult? Assortative mating shows there has to be some drive in nature to bring equals together in the toils of love, so why even in the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions are we afraid we hear the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity?

The bulk of the book is set in Tsau, which of course is not as idyllic a community as it describes itself (and Nelson believes it to be), and covers her burgeoning relationship with Nelson. The contrast between ideal and reality is present in both their community and in their love affair. I did feel this part of the book got a little bogged down in detail and in the lengthy conversations between the two main protagonists (about right versus left-wing politics and economics and all sorts of topics). Nevertheless, I loved the dry asides – and there were bound to be some on virtually every page:

Even when a woman gets her own order authorized, like Mother Teresa, it’s women who end up doing the cooking and cleaning and nursing and little detachments of men who get to do the fun proselyitzing.

This was an example of not knowing you were having a peak experience at the time you were having it and mistakenly assuming that it was the forerunner of many equal experiences waiting for you onward in life.

…if I died there, no one in his right mind would regard it as a tragedy. I would be in the category of an aerialist falling to her death. Or I would be entitled to the species of commiseration people get who show up at parties on crutches but who got injured skiing at Gstaad… It would be sad but not that sad.

My bet is that, all things considered, no woman would have voted to have the washhouse, the stores house, the central kitchen and the Sekopololo offices located at the top end of a long though gentle ramp. We inhabit male outcomes.

The book was more interesting when it dealt with the tensions and subtle shifts in power within Tsau, and issues of race and gender. Despite the narrator’s understanding of Setswana language and culture (and often trying to educate Nelson about it), most of the couple’s references remain resolutely Eurocentric. The author did spend five years in Botswana, but you know my feelings about ‘it’s not the length, it’s the intensity’ of experience, as I know many expats who spent over twenty years in a place and still didn’t really understand the culture.

I liked the fact that Norman Rush did not feel the need to dumb down his ideas or his prose – this is a very dense piece of work, full of historical and political detail, full of literary and philosophical allusions. It also contains very frank descriptions of sex – although the true seduction here is of two minds in conversation. It feels like a novel in which the author has, just like his creation, poured out the best of himself – everything he had.

The Kalahari Desert, from müvTravel

This unusual book won’t be for everyone: it has an overabundance of style and content. I suppose the best way to think about it is that the narrator is making field notes – that indispensable element in the anthropologist’s toolkit, which is at once an observation of the external – the people around you, the rites and habits and patterns – but also of the internal: how you interact with your surroundings and how you are changed by what you observe. Rush seems to adopt the ‘impressionist’ style of ethnography, i.e. holding back on his own selection and interpretation, and simply giving us the unvarnished writings of the narrator, leaving it to the reader to make of it what they would. I understand why he does that, but I do wish he could have exercised some editing on occasion.

I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.

Expats Writing: Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork

After complaining that all of the expat novels I read this month were not anthropological studies (or rather, not exactly complaining, but feeling they were lacking a sense of curiosity about the people they were living amongst), I finally read a novel that is about an anthropologist in the field who ‘goes native’ (i.e. gets too close, too involved and is no longer able to maintain any objectivity). Well, I certainly got more than enough detail and curiosity about people in this novel!

I suspect that I am the perfect audience for it, and that most people will consider it too long, too detailed, and containing too much secondary material about the history of evangelical missionaries in Asia, anthropological methodology for fieldwork and American academic departments. The author is a journalist who spent some time in Thailand, so he is not an anthropologist himself, but he has clearly developed a passion for the subject and immersed himself in the topic – to the point where he can not resist showing off the amount of research he has done, even if it is not entirely necessary to the plot or characterisation. In fact, in the afterword he admits that he originally intended this to be a non-fiction work – a history of the conversion of the Lisu people of northern Thailand to Christianity. However, I am fascinated by all of these subjects, and I enjoyed the set-up of the story as a mystery to be explored.

The narrator, also called Mischa Berlinski, although not to be confused with the actual author, is approached by one of his old college friends while they are both living in Thailand. His friend is puzzled about the suicide of a mixed-race anthropologist Martiya van der Leun in a Thai prison, where she was incarcerated after being charged with murdering a young Christian missionary. The narrator becomes obsessed with delving deeper into the background of these two apparently really nice people, to discover what could have led to this immense fall-out. After reading Martiya’s letters, other documents and interviewing people who knew her, as well as spending time with the missionary’s family, he solves the mystery but along the way he has exposed the power dynamics of First World vs. Third World, the dangers of the ‘anthropological gaze’ and the unknowability of the human heart and mind.

So quite an ambitious endeavour! In essence, this book tries to capture four separate stories, in a system of interlocking boxes: the story of Martiya, who started off as a promising star academic but then loses her way; the story of multiple generations of the Walker family – convinced but pragmatic missionaries; the global nomad existence of the narrator himself, who claims he wants to know the real Thailand and live there forever, but in fact exists largely within an expat bubble; and finally the ‘people being studied’, the fictional Dyalo community, who are ‘having things done to them’ by those outsiders coming and visiting, staying, studying, converting.

By bringing in many different voices and opinions, often contradictory ones, about Martiya, the author can take a swipe at the academic approach to anthropological research:

The department had the attitude that nothing much could prepare you for anthropological fieldwork, and if you couldn’t do fieldwork, then you had no business being an anthropologist. It was a real rite of a passage. If you couldn’t figure out how to get out to the jungle, the desert, or the savannah; if you couldn’t figure out what to ask the natives; if you couldn’t figure out how to build rapport with recalcitrant and suspicious locals – perhaps, the department implied, it was time to think about a nice career in sociology, where the data were unlikely to carry a spear.

To be fair, the author is setting these practices in the 1970s – by the time I encountered anthropology in the 1990s, it was a far more reflective, self-critical discipline, and there were plenty of confessional accounts of fieldwork and its challenges from which we could all draw strength. Also, I suspect this is all tongue-in-cheek. I take a bit of umbrage at the implication that anthropologists study ‘primitive tribes’: first of all, who has the right to label things primitive and how do they define it? Besides, there have been anthropological studies of subgroups within our own societies for many decades (the difference between sociology and anthropology is less to do with the ‘degree of civilisation’ that researcher attribute to their subjects, and more with methodology – and the borders have become more porous nowadays.) And there is the occasional sentence that shows the author really does get it.

The field did to Martiya what the field always does: it scoured her and revealed the person underneath the encrusted layers of culture and ingrained habit and prejudice

Impressionistic travel writing too: lots of local colour, appealing to all the senses, conveying the beauty of the area (and sometimes its more sinister aspects, the inaccessibility, the isolation). It is very evocative, though a tad overwritten at times (and at other times simply an enumeration of things), but it certainly brings a flavour of those places for those of us who have not yet visited them.

Itinerant peddlers pushed handcarts along our suburban streets or balanced long bamboo poles across their narrow shoulders, selling brooms and fans made from wild mountain grass, medicinal herbs, think panccakes, splotchy speckled egges roasted over a charcoal fire, lacquerware pots from Burma, tin locks and metal pans from China and fruit – rose apples, lychees, pineapple, and mango. I woke up one late afternoon to the musical tinkle of the fruit man’s bell.

Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.

Some of the characters the narrator interviews also capture the exhilaration and addictive nature of anthropological research (which I thought Lily King’s Euphoria also captured in spades):

…they asked her why she had wanted to go and live with a tribe of nomadic boat dwellers in the island of the south Philippines. ‘You mean other than because it’s incredibly fun?… I guess because it pays off for your psyche when you are able to tear down your own system of belief. You’ve got to undo your preconceptions about the world, about who you are, about yourself, about community, about everything. Because when you study a foreign tribe, you’ve got to leave your world behind, you have to be totally open and empty which is – almost impossible.’

In the very next paragraph, however, this exuberance and euphoria are tempered by a harsh return to the reality of academic recognition and progression:

Three years in the Philippines, two years grinding out the dissertation, a few years in a tenure-track job which doesn’t pan out, a bad marriage… what they don’t tell you in grad school is that the free and open empty feeling when everything about humanity seems like grist for the anthropological mill is just temporary, that it’s on loan and goes away… Then throw a divorce into the mix and step just slightly off that pedestal from hot-shot student under hot-shot adviser at a hot-shot university to lecturer with limited publications at a second rate school – and watch how fast a career in anthropology no longer seems like a liberation but like a trap.

What I really liked about the book is the author easily moves from the personal to the political, from satire to controversy, from dark and dangerous to completely relatable and funny. For example, this passage about Martiya starting to get fed up with the 24/7 nature of research, which is certainly one of the greatest challenges of fieldwork.

It wasn’t that the Dyalo weren’t nice. They were very nice… Martiya was quite sure that had a Dyalo anthropologist showed up at her little apartment in Berkeley, camped out on her couch, and aksed her a lot of dopey questions on the order of ‘Why do you close the bathroom door when you defecate?’ she wouldn’t have been half as nice about it… But what she hadn’t thought about back in Berkeley was that there would be Dyalo around all the time, doing tribal things all the time, talking in their weird language all the time. And she could hardly blame them, really: they were here first. This was, after all, their home.

[I remember desperately heading to a McDonald’s after a few months of eating misoshiro and rice morning, noon and night in Japan – and I don’t even like McDo!]

Stephen King loved this novel when it came out and thought the publishers had missed an opportunity to market it properly, claiming they had let it ‘go to waste’. I did not think it was quite as riveting as King says or that I couldn’t stop reading – there were certainly passages that could have done with some pruning in this very small print 372 page edition that I had – but I liked it a lot. If you are interested in the whole issue of ‘othering’ and exploitation, social justice and white privilege, but also want a good story rather than a treatise, this is the book for you.

Wide-Eyed in Paris: The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy: The Dud Avocado, 1958.

Freshly out of college, American Sally Jay Gorce has the good fortune to have an understanding uncle who will pay for her to spend two years in Paris as long as she promises to tell him all about her adventures there. She has such a thirst for life (reminding me of Sylvia Plath’s letters home) that she freely partakes in everything that Paris has to offer: parties and drinks, art and artists, the odd spot of acting, and lovers galore. Ah, the joys of being able to gallivant about in foreign countries without having to work!

The plot, such as it is, is about Sally Jay navigating her way through a selection of potential or actual lovers, both in Paris and later in Biarritz: suave older married man Teddy, theatre director Larry Keevil who is a bit of an enigma to her, earnest painter Jim Breit, hearty Canadian Bax. She is too modern to complain or flinch, but she is half-aware that she is being taken advantage of, and underneath it remains all quite keen to be taken seriously.

I don’t think I can do a thorough review, but I do want to share some quotes, because above all, this book is very funny and wittily written. A lot of the one-line zingers reminded me of Dorothy Parker.

It’s amazing how right you can be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way?

I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.

This is how Sally Jay describes her boring American cousin John:

Presidential candidates, Senatorial investigations, juvenile delinquency – he held firm views on all of them, views which needless to say he was entirely willing to share with one and all, and if the thought ever struck him that there might possibly be people at the table who were uninformed or even just plain uninterested in these peculiarly American problems, it never slowed the steady flow nor quelled the mighty roar.

She does not spare Paris and the Parisians from her sharp tongue:

The French more than anyone – the French alone – have mastered the fine art of sweating out a drink. I’ve seen them time and again in that cafe, hat, coat, gloves and scarves to the eyebrows, sitting in attitudes of imminent departure – and sitting there all night, the same stemmed glass before them.

How I hated Paris! Paris was one big flea-bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough. There were tiny bugs working their way into the baskets of ferns on the wall and a million flies buzzing around my table. In fact, all those shrewd, flashing glances upon which the Parisian’s reputation as a wit is almost entirely based, are motivated by nothing more than his weary, steady need to keep on the bug-hunt.

You have to admire Sally Jay’s gutsiness, determination and innate optimism, but at times her chaotic life catches up with her and we get glimpses of a confused and vulnerable young girl, which makes her very endearing. Readers have compared her to Holly Golightly, but this is no ‘manic pixie girl’ invented by a male author, but the creation of a female author with plenty of wry asides for women of all ages.

If I could only figure out if it was Larry I was in love with, or just love, then I’d be all set, I told myself. It had certainly seemed to be Larry that morning, especially after that scene at the Dupont, but I was so sure of it then, why not now?

What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again? What’s going to happen to me five years from now on, when I wake in the night (or can’t sleep in the first place…), take a deep breath to start all over again, and find that I’ve no breath left?

Sally Jay describes herself as a dud avocado – all shiny and exotic on the outside, but possibly not very nice on the inside, and I felt that this could apply both to her experiences of life in Europe, and also to the book itself. A lot of superficial charm and exuberance, but a little of it goes a long way. Perhaps that was precisely the point that the author was making – that these ‘stars in their eyes wannabe artists and expats’ are pretentious, unreliable and vacuous, puncturing the myth of 1920s Golden Age Paris?

Different time and different city, but not all that dissimilar from Other People’s Clothes – except that the main protagonist here is far more charming and amusing. The story itself felt not only meandering (and virtually plotless), but also slightly hollow. However, it’s really all about how the story gets told. I loved Sally Jay’s voice, resilience and humour. This is a perfect ‘mood booster’ kind of book.

Berlin: Down There on a Visit

Christopher Isherwood: Down There on a Visit, 1962.

We are all familiar with Isherwood’s depiction of 1930s Berlin, at least from the musical and film Cabaret if not from his stories in Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. One of my friends lives on the same street in Berlin where Isherwood lived for nearly 4 years, near Nollendorfplatz, and it is as popular now for its gay nightlife as it was in his time.

This novel, however, only refers tangentially to Berlin. It is in fact a collection of four novellas, each centring on a different period and character in the narrator’s life. Although the narrator is called Isherwood, we know from past experience that the material is only partially autobiographical. The author mashes up fact and fiction, and is prepared to make any changes to heighten the drama and the comic effect. Besides, as he points out, isn’t any memoir a highly selective account of impressions rather than facts?

The Christopher who sat in that taxi is, practially speaking, dead; he only remains reflected in the fading memories of us who knew him. I can’t revitalize him now. I can only reconstruct him from his remembered acts and words and from the writings he left us. He embarrasses me often, and so I’m tempted to sneer at him; but I will try not to. I’ll try not to apologize for him either.

The first part of the book features Mr. Lancaster, who owns a shipping company, is a distant relative or acquaintance of the family and invites Isherwood to visit him in Germany (not in Berlin but in an unnamed port town, most likely Hamburg). This is a coming-of-age story, with the narrator having a grand old time in Germany, making friends with the young people working for Mr. Lancaster and being somewhat cruel to the ‘old man’, whom he considers a fuddy-duddy. Just listen to his straitlaced opinions about notorious Berlin!

Christopher – in the whole of The Thousand and One Nights, in the most shameless rituals of the Tantras, in the carvings on the Black Pagoda, in the Japanese brothel pictures, in the vilest perversions of the Oriental mind, you couldn’t find anything more nauseating than what goes on there, quite openly, every day. That city is doomed, more surely than Sodom ever was. Those people don’t even realize how low they have sunk.

All of which makes Christopher even more determined to make his way to Berlin as soon as possible, of course! And, is it just me, or is Mr. Lancaster surprisingly erudite about where to find ‘shameless imagery’? The author is so good at poking fun at every one of his characters, and even cultural differences, just about steering clear of lazy cliches. Although I have to admit I giggled at this stereotype about the German language below:

Someone had once explained to me the technique of storytelling in German; you reserve, if possible, the whole point of the story and pack it into the final verb at the end of the last sentence. When you reach this sentence, you pause dramatically, then you cast forth the heavy, clumsy, polysyllabic verb, like a dice thrower, upon the table.

The ‘real’ Christopher Isherwood round about the time he was in Berlin.

In the second story, it is 1933 and Christopher has been living in Berlin for some time with one of the friends he made in the earlier story. That friend, Waldemar, convinces him to join him on a trip to Greece where a friend of his is working for an eccentric Englishman who is building a villa on an uninhabited island. Now that the Nazis have come to power, Christopher recognises that it is time to move on, but not before evoking once more the thrill of Berlin for expats then and now.

When I first came to Berlin, I came quite irresponsibly, for a thrill. I was the naughty boy who had enjoyed himself that afternoon at the flat of Waldemar’s Braut, and wanted more. However, having thoroughly explored the Berlin night life and begun to get tired of it, I grew puritanical. I severely criticized those depraved foreigners who visited Berlin in search of pleasure. They were exploiting the starving German working class, I said, and turning them into prostitutes. My indignation was perfectly sincere, and even justified… But have I really changed underneath? Aren’t I as irresponsible as ever, running away from a situation like this?

The more I read about foreigners’ perceptions of Berlin, the clearer it is to me that they consider it an Eldorado rather than a real city, a place where they can run away, start afresh, be more truly themselves or at least try on new personas.

The mad Englishman on his island is Ambrose, who gives his name to the second novella, and whom the narrator knew vaguely at Cambridge. He is surrounded by a gaggle of hangers-on, including the snobbish Geoffrey. The English and the Germans represent the obnoxious type of expats who complain about the local people while exploiting them (the author has them explicitly referring to the locals as ‘niggers’ and it is clear that he didn’t approve of this term even back then). No wonder that their Greek ‘friends’ use the ‘weapons of the weak’ (foot-dragging, insolence, laziness) to get back at them.

Mordant wit about the British in the third part, where Waldemar tries to find refuge in England in 1938 but utterly fails to do so. Isherwood obviously encountered some prejudice in his homeland, which is why he moved as far away from it as he could, so he is particularly acerbic about the ‘warm welcome’ you are likely to find in England.

How compactly the English sit, confronting their visitors: here we are, take os or leave us – this is where you’ll do things in our way, not yours… They are indomitable, incorrigible, and so utterly self-satisfied that they no longer have to raise their voices or wave their arms when they address the lesser breeds. If you have any criticisms, they have one unanswerable answer: you can stay off our island.

I did not finish the book – the American section dragged on too long and is the least interesting. I may well return to it at some point, but it didn’t fit in that well with my expat theme this month. Despite its unevenness, I enjoyed the book and Isherwood’s sharp observations of human behaviour and vulnerability.

Again Berlin: Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents

Kirsty Bell: The Undercurrents, Fitzcarraldo, 2022.

After the rather navel-gazing approaches to Berlin in the last three expat books I tackled, it was a relief to find this book much less of a memoir and much more of a psychogeography approach to Berlin, starting from the house on the Landwehrkanal that the author moved into a few years ago. There are many definitions of psychogeography, but the way I define it is how urban places make us feel and behave, and how we are linked to the past and present of a location (and possibly its future).

Bell and her family moved into the awkwardly shaped, rather eerie apartment building and were almost immediately beset by problems of flooding. Soon afterwards, her marriage broke down and she recognised that, like the flat, she had been hiding the cracks and faults from herself for far too long. However, thankfully, she is remarkably restrained in analysing her own marital experience and instead switches to other stories and other families, in particular the Salas who owned the building (and had a printing workshop there). As she investigates the building’s past and all of its owners, she moves out in ever wider circles and offers us a roughly chronological view of Berlin in the 19th and 20th centuries. At times, I wish she could have lingered longer on certain time periods (the end, about the post-unification city, felt particularly rushed), but it was an erudite and charming personal journey through time and place.

There is a heavy (and only occasionally heavy-handed) symbolism with the city being built on a swamp, on sandy soil which pulls things down below the water level. The city is in constant danger of being submerged, as are the bad memories associated with it

Sometimes things that were supposed to disappear rise to the surface again and overflow into visibility. Like the body of Rosa Luxemburg, thrown into the Landwehr Canal… Most things, however, sink without a trace. Does the swamp’s capacity for swallowing evidence and closing up again after every action also have a role to play in Berlin’s strangely amnesiac relation to its past?

The Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the place where her body was fished out of the canal. From structurae.net

I’ll be honest here: I visited Berlin during the years of division and found West Berlin garish and East Berlin grey, but neither of them depressed me as much as Prague during Communist times. That unsettled feeling, the bad vibes that the author is clearly very susceptible towards – I felt those far more in Prague than in Berlin (in the past and now), without any reason or rhyme.

Bell also addresses the pull that Berlin seems to have on the imagination of today’s global nomads, while also noticing the difference in reception that an American or North European expat might get compared to someone perceived to be a ‘refugee’ or an economic migrant.

When I arrived in Berlin in the early 2000s, one of the many so-called ‘cultural workers’ drawn from other parts of Europe and the US by its openness and affordability, I was struck by the casual discrimination still directed at the immigrant population, thrown into sharp relief by my own ostensibly immigrant status. But as a Northern European with fair hair and pale skin, I appear to belong… while English as my mother tongue affords me linguistic privilege. The legitimacy of my presence here has never been called into question.

In what is perhaps the only point of similarity to the previous three books about Berlin, the author describes that feeling of ‘coming late’ to the city that everyone seems to associate with living there.

Landing a good ten years after the city’s unifcation, I already felt belated. Artists, musicians, writers, film makers, actors, designers had been flocking here for years by then, inhabiting Berlin’s derelict apratments, setting up studios and turning any abandoned building into a bar, club or gallery. The sheer space was a palpable relief after the density and compression of life in New York City. There was a wildness here bordering at times on desolation.

Not that different from New York City in the early 1980s, as I seem to remember from any number of films, such as Desperately Seeking Susan!

Fortunately, there is not much in this vein throughout the book, and much more of a focus on town planning and local celebrities. The city seems to have gone through periods of visionary and ambitious town planning (of which the canal itself was a prime example) but also periods of complete chaos or lacklustre bureaucratic efforts. It remains a bit of an untameable beast of a city, with no clear centre – or multiple claims to be just that (some of them extremely ugly, such as Potsdamer Platz, others extravagantly pointless, such as the Humboldt Forum trying to imitate the past). Perhaps the author dwells a little too much on the negatives, instead of the successful examples (the Reichstag, the New National Gallery by Mies van der Rohe which has just reopened to the public, or the renovation of the Neues Museum).

Neue National Galerie, renovations carried out by David Chipperfield Architects.

Yet there is clearly much fondness too for the architecture and natural beauty of the city, despite the constant sense of unease that its history brings. I was somewhat bemused by her use of feng shui and family constellation psychotherapy to try to come to terms with her building. However, being very sensitive to the atmosphere of a place myself, I cannot laugh at this. And I am grateful to her for raising the profile of particularly (but not only) women with links to Berlin who are not all that familiar outside Germany: socialist Rosa Luxemburg, writer Gabriele Tergit, artist Hannah Höch, Fontane’s fictional Effi Briest, Christiane F. There were even two I had never heard of: Marie von Bunsen who ran a literary salon in the 1900s and 19th century author Gabriele Reuter.

As you can tell, I absolutely loved this book, and it will certainly accompany me when I move to Berlin. I loved the detailed research and sensitive depiction of historical moments and their impact upon the author. If I had written the book, I would have included more living native Berliners, rather than just the historical dead ones, but this is not an anthropological study. I’ll close with a beautiful quote from author Franz Hessel, who spent all of his life in Berlin and famously described his passion for walking through it:

… the atmosphere in this area, which combines a whiff of park, city and water, displays a subtle wealth of colours seldom found in Berlin’s greyish contours. For anyone who spent their childhood in Berlin, no sunrise over the mountains or sunset at the lake can outshine the sweet dawns and dusks over the canal’s spring and autumn foliage.

Berlin – Hiroshima footbridge / Landwehrkanal, photo credit: Alexander Voss.