It’s amazing how the colours on the covers of the most memorable books I read in the second part of the year also match my mood during that period: much more colourful, even pinkish and coy, although normally I am not a fan of pink. Yes, this was the most optimistic part of the year.
In my teens I was (sort of) diagnosed with bipolar disorder: for me (everyone is slightly different) this typically manifests itself as periods of intense activity, almost manic energy and optimism which has no bearing to reality (the ‘up’ periods), to be followed by far longer periods of utter hopelessness and despondency (the ‘depressive’ periods). I was given lithium to even out these wild mood swings, but that made me feel like it was benumbing me, so I lost all of the positives of being on a high and only very slightly had the edge taken off my depression. Over the next few decades, I learnt to manage my moods with a cocktail of home-made and medical remedies, and over the past decade, I thought I had moved more into depression (partly sparked by external circumstances).
However, this year the manic period reasserted itself with a vengeance, perhaps because I travelled to see my parents for the first time in 2.5 years, or perhaps because I briefly thought I might like to have a relationship again. It was kind of lovely having the energy back, even though I knew about its dangers and limitations. For a couple of months, I felt invincible: I survived on very little sleep, had so many new ideas, wrote love poetry (which I had not done since high school) and so many other things, submitted regularly, took my boys on a trip to Brighton, went to plays and exhibitions, joined the Society of Authors, attended the Translation Day in Oxford, reconnected with old friends, investigated a possible collaboration with a theatre in London and so much more. Helped by the wonderful weather and by better news on the creative front, I was able to handle the growing anxiety about my mother’s incipient dementia or my cat Zoe’s state of health (she had started vomiting far too frequently, but we had not yet diagnosed her with cancer).
All this is reflected in my top reading choices. In April, I chose to focus on Romanian writers, because I spent two weeks in Romania, although some of the reading was entirely serendipitous since I just happened to come across Martha Bibescu’s journals set just before and during the Second World War in my parents’ house. I was also smitten with the two plays by Mihail Sebastian that I had not previously read (one was seldom performed during Communist times, perhaps because it talked about lies being published in newspapers, while the other was unfinished at the time of his death). I also reconnected with the work of surrealist, absurdist writer Urmuz, whose work was published largely posthumously when he committed suicide at the age of 40 and translated a couple of his short pieces (they are all very short, more like flash fiction, even a novella in flash). One of them, I am happy to say, will appear in Firmament, the literary journal issued by Sublunary Editions.
May was all about life in Berlin, often written by expats. The only one that impressed me and which gave me a bit of insight into the history and society of Berlin was The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell, but I was intrigued by a different kind of expat, namely the anthropologist, in Mischa Berlinski’s rather epic, occasionally uneven but fascinating look at the ‘outsider going native’ Fieldwork.
June was my month for catching up with French writing, and I’d forgotten how eloquent and impressive Simone de Beauvoir can be in describing women’s experiences. Gael Faye’s Petit Paystaught me so much about Rwanda and Burundi and trying to integrate into French life. I also enjoyed books that fell outside my original reading plan (I’ve always been flexible about allowing others in): I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the relatively simple story about a love affair set in Japan, Emily Itami’s Fault Lines and yearning for love and companionship in Seoul in Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City.
As I said, I might have been susceptible to love stories that trimester, even though mine never got off the ground (with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m inclined to say: thank goodness it didn’t!).
Finally, one crime novel that stuck with me because it was so post-modern and different and sly: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox. The danger with these seasonal summaries (rather than those done by genre, for example), is that crime fiction often gets sidelined. So, several crime novels might have made my ‘best of the year’ list among others of its genre, but they might struggle to compete with Simone de Beauvoir or Mihail Sebastian.
Volker Kutscher: The March Fallen, trans. Niall Sellar, Sandstone Press.
A return to the German Literature Month reading with the most recent book in the Babylon Berlin series, although in this book there is far less of the Weimar decadence and much more of the ruthlessness of the Nazis. I have been captivated both by the books and by the TV series, although the adaptation is not 100% faithful to the books. Most interesting of all, the main protagonist, Gereon Rath, is a deeply flawed, often unlikeable individual, and it appears that the actor playing him may be more similar to the character than we might have expected.
February 1933 and the city of Berlin believes that Hitler and his rabble are only a passing fashion, and the upcoming elections will return things to normal. Charly and Gereon are about to get married (if you haven’t read the previous book in the series, as I hadn’t, then this might come as a bit of a surprise, so apologies for the spoilers), Charly is about to be promoted to the rank of inspector, but she is not happy at being sidelined in the Women’s CID, where the type of crimes they investigate are graffiti and runaway youths. Meanwhile, Gereon is part of a team investigating the murder of a homeless war veteran, who had been lying for several days unnoticed under the railway arches. Or at least, he was investigating that until the arson attack on the Reichstag, when he suddenly finds himself working alongside Hitler’s brownshirts to interrogate Communists.
Another war veteran, but of a higher social and military rank, Baron von Reddock, identifies the victim and claims that his own life might be in danger. For the victim, the baron and a few other soldiers all witnessed a nasty incident during the war and were involved in hiding some gold, which has since gone missing. The Baron has just written a book about it, which will be serialised in a newspaper, and he suspects that the man bent on killing them all is a Jewish captain who was believed to have died during the war.
With the anti-semitic feelings raging in Germany, the investigation turns into a manhunt rather than exploring all options. Gereon wants to keep his head down and not get involved in politics, but it is getting harder and harder to sit on the fence. Charly, with her far keener sense of justice, is suffering so much in her division, hearing all her female colleagues praise the Führer, that she takes sick leave, and uses that time to try and track down a young orphan girl who is said to be a lunatic after setting fire to a homeless shelter. She too seems to be targeted by the killer.
As you can imagine, the case itself is full of twists and turns, but what is most interesting about this book is to see that people whom Charly and Gereon considered friends have suddenly sided with the Nazis, whether for personal gain or because they genuinely believe in their ideology. Although Gereon does not stomach the Nazis any more than Charly does, he is equally sceptical about the Communists and believes that the messy democracy of the Weimar is to blame for the rise of Hitler and his party.
Much like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, this is well-researched historical crime fiction with a moral compass and a bite, revealing how difficult it is for the ‘masses’ to even realise the dangerous road they are about to be led on.
Sometimes Charly felt as if Berlin had been full of people just waiting for this government who were now, suddenly, revealing their true colours. As if the whole time somewhere deep under this city there had been another, darker Berlin that was seeping upwards like sewage rising in the street. That wasn’t true, of course, it was the same people inhabiting the same Berlin. The new government simply had a talent for bringing out the worst in its citizens.
I absolutely love this series, but it is in danger of not being translated any further. Sandstone Press were crowdfunding for the translation and publication of the next novel Lunapark, which takes place in 1934. Sadly, they were unable to reach their funding goal, so work on this novel has been cancelled (or, hopefully, postponed). As a small indie publisher of translated crime fiction, I can fully empathise with this tricky situation.
There is no such thing as a relaxing holiday with the extended family back in the home country… but there were many pleasant moments, and a complete break from the treadmill, so I can’t complain! I’ve been boring everyone with endless holiday pictures on Twitter, but here are a few of my favourites, to give you a flavour of the landscapes and ‘vibes’. I will share more in my next few Friday Fun posts. [None tomorrow, though, as I have a lot of catching up to do still]
Although I had no time to browse in bookshops (unbelievable, I know!), I brought back a whole pile of books with me, some were old favourites languishing on my parents’ bookshelves, others that I had ordered online a few months ago and got delivered to their address. Meanwhile, a few books made their way into my letterbox here in the UK while I was away.
Here’s the result!
As part of my search for contemporary Romanian authors to read and possibly translate, particularly women authors, I’ll be reading Raluca Nagy, Nora Iuga, Magda Cârneci (this one has been translated by Sean Cotter) and Diana Bădică. All recommendations via Romanian newsletters to which I subscribe.
A mix of contemporary and more classic male authors as well: Gellu Naum is better known for his avantgarde poetry and prose in the 1930s and 40s, or his wonderful children’s book about the wandering penguin Apolodor in the 1950s, and this is his only novel as far as I am aware (this too has been translated into English, see some reviews here); Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts, which I previously read and reviewed in English, but wanted to own in Romanian; one of my favourite modern poets, Nicolae Labiș, who died tragically young; an English translation by Gabi Reigh of my favourite play by one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian; finally, two young writers that I want to explore further, Tudor Ganea and Bogdan Coșa.
Last but not least, a dictionary of Romanian proverbs translated into English – just to remind myself of some of the old folk sayings.
Another expat in Berlin story, imaginatively entitled Berlin by Bea Sutton. I read Susan’s review on her blog A Life in Books and couldn’t resist.
Two Japanese crime novels: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Onda Riku (I was bowled over by The Aosawa Murders by the same author) and an older crime classic by Matsumoto Seicho entitled Tokyo Express.
Two volumes of poetry, Reckless Paper Birds and Panic Response by the English poet John McCullough. I recently attended a workshop with him and found him very inspiring indeed.
Last but by no means list: a whole flurry of chapbooks of Swiss literature, translated from all four official languages of Switzerland, published by the wonderful Strangers Press at the UEA. I am hoping to convince them to do a series on Romanian literature too someday, fingers crossed!
Now that I have sung the praises of the large, airy 19th century Parisian apartments, I feel I should also mention apartments in Berlin. Some are in 19th or early 20th century buildings with the famous inner courtyards, but many warehouses have also been redeveloped. You will see that the Berlin property market is less afraid of modern architecture and interior design than the Paris one.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
This month my reading will be focused very much on (mainly but not exclusively Anglo) expats. I don’t know if it’s my own plans for eventually moving to Berlin that have made the subject particularly pertinent and visible, or if it’s a publishing trend, but quite a few recent books seem to be dedicated to life in Berlin. The city that no one wanted to move to before 1990 and which then became super-trendy (and increasingly expensive). It’s the trendiness, a young person’s view of Berlin, that I found in the first three books I read: they talk about relatively recent periods in the town’s history rather than the more edgy grunge and squatter heaven of the early 1990s. None of these books struck me as being truly preoccupied or interested in the city itself – instead, these people were looking for their own selves or for connection or love or to fuel their addictions. They all made me feel tired and old.
Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller, Arcadia, 2015.
Three young men, each with a complicated back story (and the first part of the book dwells perhaps a little too much on their back stories before it brings them all together in Berlin), find themselves couch-surfing and partaking in the crazy 24 hours drinks, drugs, sex and club culture of 2000s Berlin. Tobias is originally German but has spent most of his life outside his country of birth; abused by a family member in his childhood, he has now turned to prostitution and fleeting affairs until he discovers he has AIDS. Armand rebels against his bourgeois family by becoming an artist, and leaves Paris for Berlin when the great love of his life doesn’t quite turn out the way he envisaged it. Franz thought he could pull himself up by his bootstraps by excelling at his studies, but discovers he will always be looked down upon by high-class Germans, so he starts dealing drugs instead. I wasn’t entirely convinced we needed three main characters in this quite short novel (170 small pages) – their experiences and voices did not seem that differentiated.
With graphic descriptions of drug-taking and of homosexual and heterosexual encounters in grimy toilets, it is very much a ‘hedonism as a desperate cry for escape from one’s own trauma’ sort of book – and at times it almost succeeds in convincing me of this. The chapters alternate between the three men, who finally meet up and become friends – or at least, fellow consumers of the Berlin nightlife circa 1998-2008. You might almost describe this as Trainspotting with a more glamorous backdrop. There are some acute observations about Berlin (the author lived there for some time), but perhaps not nearly enough to give me a strong sense of place.
What saves the book from just being a blow-by-blow account (pun intended) of random encounters and excessive clubbing are the moments of reflection. Armand keeps a notebook, and we are often privy to Tobias’ innermost thoughts. Every now and then we get some passages about the city itself, which might be the author intervening or could be written by one of the characters – these passages were my favourite to read:
The streets are wide and people walk around, as though nothing could happen to them, as if here more than elsewhere people take time to live. People are a bit skint but they get by. The soups are good. People smoke in the cafes since it would be crazy not to. They work away on a laptop at some obsession. You sense Europe is around you, all its languages mixing and answering each other.
This contrasts a bit with Tobias’ first impressions of the city when he arrives fresh from Paris:
The sky’s so grey here. No sun or clouds. And buildings, so shiny and low! It’s a far cry from Baron Haussmann’s embellishments. Everything looks like it has a use. It’s sad all the same, a city where everything is useful. What about poetry, where do they put that? Maybe they have little parking lots for sonnets and hangars and factories for ballads.
I particularly enjoyed the description of winter in Berlin:
For several weeks, the street has lost its old appeal. Its heart is frozen, its surface covered in snow… No one panics; people here are used to putting on boots, taking a shovel to clear their doorways. It’s as though a parallel life is activated: bikes and tables outside cafes are put away, hats and tights are taken out, daylight becomes unfamiliar, there are invitations to people’s flats for soup or a cup of tea.
But there simply weren’t quite enough of those passages. Instead, we witness the car crash of people sabotaging their own lives.
Calla Henkel: Other People’s Clothes, Sceptre, 2021.
Calla Henkel is an American writer and playwright/director living in Berlin and in her debut novel she shows us the hedonistic side of Berlin from the point of view of two American students on their year abroad. Rather than a ‘running away from’, this is a novel of ‘running towards’. Zoe and Hailey are art students in New York, who are keen to reinvent themselves, desperate to be hip and memorable in a city that doesn’t seem to be that welcoming to them. Their art classes are virtually non-existent, but they manage to find a sublet in a grand old building where nothing seems to work properly. So they spend their days trying to track down the cool crowd and their nights being refused entry to Berghain.
Drug-taking, drinking, bulimia and sexual encounters are abundantly described, but there is an added twist to keep the story from becoming a wearisome episodic account. They suspect that their landlady, a prolific novelist, is spying on them to write a novel about them, so they decide to put on a show for her – give her something to write about. Set in 2008/9, the novel is full of references to the Amanda Knox case, with one of the main characters following it quite obsessively, so it’s no surprise when the novel takes a darker turn… but perhaps a little too late for my patience.
While the dialogue is often very funny and compelling, it feels to me like the author is trying to squeeze too many strands into this novel, or else couldn’t quite figure out what, if any, genre it was supposed to fit. It has it all: social media feeding frenzy, life as art, female friendships, envy and jealousy, gay and straight relationships, partying lifestyle, obsession with celebrity, being a babysitter in a wealthy family, plus the chilling feeling of being spied upon. If the men in Coop-Phane’s novel filled me in equal measure with disgust and pity, these girls annoyed me with their self-absorption, their spoilt and pretentious attitudes. Yet in both cases, I was pained to see how disinterested they were in getting to know the life of real, everyday Berliners outside their drug-taking or artistic bubble.
Which makes me wonder if the backdrop of Berlin was essential – it felt like this story could have taken place in any other big city with a lively nightlife. Occasionally, however, there is a rather more vivid description to convey the atmosphere:
The dance floor was filled with languages and English accented in French, Italian and others I couldn’t place, everyone expertly stepping to electronic music in quick sharp movements, all dressed in layers of black… A Venezuelan girl starting a gallery. A Croatian dancer making work-out tapes with artists. A spiky-haired guy in a black hoodie talking about Marx… It reminded me of the bar in Star War, all those outer-space creatures from planets I had heard of grinding on each other and smoking cigarettes.
Amy Liptrot: The Instant, Canongate, 2022.
At least this book has no aspirations to be fictional, but is a memoir of the year that the author moved to Berlin. After ten years of living in London and descending into alcoholism and drug-taking, Liptrot had reconnected with nature and herself in Orkney in her much-lauded first book The Outrun. However, after a while the island isolation becomes too much for her and she goes to Berlin on a whim, without speaking the language or a job or place to stay.
I didn’t choose Berlin for a particular reason… You are free to invent your identity in a new city. I want to act like I’m still in my twenties, maybe get a nose-piercing and an undercut, start beng polyamorous, making scultpures. I’m attracted to what I think of as Berlin style: Cabaret-via-Cold War, bicycles, minimal techno, black clothes.
Ah, there come the clichés again! The elements which resurface in both of the books above. Liptrot too goes to Berghain, but she writes about it with more lyricism than the others. She compares it to diving into the sea.
Entering that place is like entering a huge echoing cliff cave and, once my eyes have adjusted to the dark, finding it full of rock doves and black cormorants, on shadowy ledges, darting past. I’ve found a complete ecosystem. Five hundred people or more, a bloom of jellyfish, are drifting with the tide of music… I am reminded of the exquisite illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist and philosopher who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, made detailed studies of sea life, including technical drawings of jellyfish and anemones, beautiful and weird.
You might think that she would fall once more prey to her demons in this partying city, but Liptrot is in her thirties rather than her twenties. Although she longs to find love, she is still fascinated with the natural world around her. Even in the big city, she finds (or rather, hears about but doesn’t see) raccoons, and goes birdwatching. She manages to be poetic about traffic islands. And, for a few short months, she does find love – or so she thinks. And when she discovers it wasn’t quite what she hoped for, she is disarmingly frank about the vulnerable aftermath.
Yet once again I find that odd lack of curiosity about the ‘natives’ of the place where she has chosen to spend a year – even though her boyfriend is German. Many of the activities she pursues in Berlin are either solitary ones: going to swimming pools, walking, trying an immersion tank; or else sticking to the English-speaking foreign community. Even museums: it’s only in the last few weeks of living in the city, that she actually visits any museums – obviously, I don’t expect everyone to want to explore the same things about a foreign city that I do, but it did strike me as odd. Yet the author seems to be quite aware of the privileges of the ‘digital nomad’ anywhere or nowhere culture.
There is growth of this ‘sublet’ or ‘freelance’ culture: people always keeping their options open, skimming the surface of other countries, digitally fragmented, never committing… Move between the cool districts of international cities and the currency and time zone change but the people are the same. The only language you learn is how to ask for a coffee and the Wi-Fi password.
If I had no prior knowledge of Berlin and read just these three books, it might put me off moving to that city. I would consider myself too old and uncool. But I have friends who have grown up there while the city was divided, or who moved there in 1995 and raised a family there, so I know it can look and feel very different too. I have just embarked upon a more thoughtful memoir of living in Berlin, which looks at the layers of Berlin (both geological and historical ones) – and that is much more my speed (pun intended). More about that in my next review.
Every couple of weeks I start looking at property websites and planning my next move. The house in which I live now is probably the one I have spent the longest amount of time in (we bought it the year my younger son was born, 16 years ago), but we lived there intermittently, moving abroad twice during that period, for a total of seven years away. I fought tooth and nail to keep it in my divorce settlement, because I couldn’t face the hassle of yet another move. Yet, once both sons have swanned off to university or jobs or whatever they plan to do, I am planning to ‘downsize’. In my case, however, the downsizing might be more a case of moving abroad (in the EU, to be precise), where houses are more affordable (although not the ones I am showing below). I will obviously be spending some of the year in Romania, in a landscape somewhat like this:
But for the rest of the year, there are three places that are calling to me, each with its pros and cons.
Option 1– France – for the skiing, food and culture
Option 2 – Berlin – for the friends and lifestyle
Option 3 – Ireland, County Cork – for its natural beauty and remaining in an English-speaking environment
So where would you advise me to move in a few years’ time? Where would you like to join me for writing and/or reading retreats, coupled with a bit of hiking or Nordic walking?
I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.
Illusory Freedom of Choice
I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.
But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.
First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.
Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.
Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed
Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.
Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?
Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.
Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.
Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.
As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.
When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?
If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.
Or ‘The Three Bs that made me very happy this weekend’.
Can heartily recommend: celebrating with your two oldest and kindest friends who have also just turned the same age and still have pictures of you giggling together from your youth, feeling loved, dancing to 99 Luftballons and Falco’s Der Kommissar (songs from our childhood), watching football with German friends unhappy about the way their team played but relieved that they won nevertheless, home-cooked party food, lots of dancing, partying with former Olympic rowers, walk along the banks of the Tegeler See at sunset, walk through the tourist-thronged streets of pretty much anywhere in Museumsinsel area and not feel like a tourist, stop at the biggest bookshop in the city with a friend who has the same literary tastes as you do, not mind the rain, discover your friend lives just opposite the house where Christopher Isherwood stayed during his year in Berlin.
To be honest, the Berliners didn’t understand much of the song lyrics either – it’s very Viennese dialect and humour.
Not so good: forgetting your mobile phone at home, so I couldn’t take any pictures [but I have the memories!] And having your flight delayed by two hours on the way home.
Wonderful book haul, though, especially for hand luggage only standards.
And great reasons for acquiring each one of them. From top to bottom:
Pascal Mercier: Perlmann’s Silence – Swiss writer who was professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg where I spent a year during my Ph.D. The topic of the novel is also one that is perpetually fascinating to me: academic conference, plagiarism, professional identity and murder…
Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World – not as well known as more recent works by Kehlmann which have been translated since, this story of German scientists Humboldt and Gauss, and their obsession with time/space displacement.
Ilinca Florian: When We Learnt to Lie – Romanian film director and writer, this is her debut novel, about a Romanian family during the last few years of Communism, a society about to transform profoundly.
Joachim Riedl: The Genius the Meanness – Austrian writer, who studied in Cambridge and has written a lot about Jewish life in Vienna. This book, originally published in 1992, was one of the first to question the golden shimmer of fin de siecle Vienna and show its tarnished side as well. This was a present from my Viennese friend, who shares my critical love relationship with that city.
Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall – have wanted to read this one for ages, but not in translation. I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of its existence before, since it was first published in 1963 (and so has nothing to do with the Berlin Wall), well before I was born, but I only started hearing about it about 4-5 years ago. Perhaps the ultimate dystopian novel about human isolation.
Julia Franck: The Midday Woman – I was impressed by Franck’s book West and when I asked my friend what else I could read by her, she said that this novel is perhaps one of her favourite novels of the past decade or more. This one has apparently also been translated into English by the much-missed Anthea Bell as The Blind Side of the Heart.
Eva Menasse: Quasi-Crystals – Another author I really liked (having read some short stories by her). I was thinking of acquiring her prize-winning historical novel about a Jewish-Catholic mixed family in Vienna (entitled Vienna), but then I found this book about a woman at 13 different stages in life. Turns out my friend knows the author personally (not just because Vienna is a small town and she is of the same age as we are, but their sons went to the same school in Berlin too).