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.