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.

Expats in Berlin

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.

The queue to get into the legendary Berghain Club in Berlin, which features in all three books. Often dubbed the most exclusive or notorious of techno clubs, with parties continuing non-stop from Friday night until Monday morning.

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.

Berlin’s Landwehrkanal hints at a more peaceful way of life. A.Savin, WikiCommons.

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.

Friday Fun: Where Should Marina Retire?

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

Lyon has that big city vibe but is close enough to stunning mountains, from Barnes International.
The apartments in the old part of Lyon are just perfectly proportioned, from AK.SO Conseils.
And this chateau just outside Lyon would allow me to invite Emma from BookAround over, and we could run reading retreats for all of our friends. From AK.SO Conseils.
If Lyon is too expensive, then Grenoble might prove a good alternative, and is closer to the pistes. From Espaces Atypiques.

Option 2 – Berlin – for the friends and lifestyle

Berlin is all about apartments or penthouses, and I like these stairs going up to a roof terrace. From FarAwayHome.
This penthouse flat overlooking the Bundestag is or was apparently the most expensive apartment in Berlin, from Peach Property Group.
I personally prefer the villas on the outskirts of Berlin, close to the lakes, such as this Villa Am Grunewald.
This Villa Bermann also overlooks a lake, and is probably big enough to accommodate a few reading and writing retreats.

Option 3 – Ireland, County Cork – for its natural beauty and remaining in an English-speaking environment

A view from the kitchen to die for, especially if you start sailing in your old age. From Christies Real Estate.
Maureen O’Hara’s house was up for sale a short while ago, nicely tucked away amidst the green. From Cork Beo.
But there are some surprisingly modern constructions as well, like this bungalow in Kinsale. From Irish Times.

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?

When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices

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.

Shepherd. Painting by Nicolae Grigorescu.

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.

Berlin by night. From Strong Cities Network.

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.

An I-Novel: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/an-i-novel/9780231192132

Translation as Transhumance: https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/mireille-gansel-translation-as-transhumance

Birthday, Berlin and Books

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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).

 

 

 

Who’s Sorry Now? #GermanLitMonth

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

I’ve just spent ten minutes writing, erasing and rewriting the first sentence of this review. I still can’t quite make up my mind about this book. There were parts of it which appealed to me: the setting, a few (very few) of the characters (Tamara, Wolf and the lovely elderly couple living opposite them), some passages of great power, anger and insight. But there were downsides too: the graphic violence and descriptions of paedophilia, being in the head of a remorseless criminal, characters you could not really care for (even if you felt sorry for some of them), the deliberate confusion of points of view to make the story more exciting.

It all starts rather too slowly for what then descends into a race against time kind of thriller. We hear a little too much about how Kris lost his job and found his calling in apologising for others. We spend far too long in the company of Tamara and her sister, then watch her and Frauke shopping to cook dinner to cheer up their friend Kris. I’m not sure what we have to gain by getting to know the back story of Wolf’s doomed love affair with a junkie. The back stories of the four friends are too long and irrelevant for what the book turns out to be. The only back story which does count is that of the killer – and that is given to us in dribs and drabs – rightfully so, as it heightens the tension.

The premise of the book is really appealing: these four friends in their late 20s, who thought they’d have made a success of their lives in Berlin by now, decide to start their own company and offer apologies for companies or individuals who have wronged people (unfair dismissal, bullying, etc.). Soon they have a roaring business and a long waiting list. Apparently, people are willing to pay good sums of money to cleanse their conscience. But then they end up in a house to apologise to a woman whom they find murdered and hung on the wall (I told you it was graphic). The murderer (their client) threatens that he will harm their families if they don’t clean up the mess and send him proof of it. And that’s when things derail and they all start behaving irrationally, not to say foolishly.

Old villas on the Wannsee in Berlin, the setting for much of the book.

The motivations are often puerile and random, and there is something of the grotesque about certain situations (the repeated attempts at burying the body, for example, has a farcical quality reminiscent of frenetic silent comedies). Then the tone changes and there is real menace or darkness, as well as frequent moments of sadness and despair. The tone veers too wildly from one to the next, it feels like the author is not quite in control of the narrative voice. Which, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that it also swoops from first to second to third person. Add to that the final bit of clever clogs-iness: the ‘before’ and ‘after’ timeline and lots of foreshadowing and commentary by an omniscient narrator – and you will find me well and truly irked!

So, overall, although it was fun (in a gruesome, reading-through-your-fingers kind of way), it was not the most memorable of reading experiences for #GermanLitMonth. I have bought his second novel Du (You) though, which is written entirely in the second person, because I have every confidence in the opinions of FictionFan and Margot Kinberg.

 

Berliner Freiheit – Youth and Freedom in Berlin

tigermilchTBR3 from #TBR20

Stefanie de Velasco gives voice to two 14 year old girls in this coming-of-age story entitled ‘Tigermilk’.  It’s a summer of hanging around outside their council estate, going swimming and shoplifting, smoking and drinking their ‘doctored’ (alcoholic) milk, eager to lose their virginity but also to find love. Nini is German and Jameelah is Iraqui, they also have Bosnian friends, Serbian acquaintances… but society will not allow them to forget the differences between them, and it’s not just ‘leave to remain’ that marks them out. The playground between their block of flats is divided: the German and Russian kids never go on the slides, the Arabic and Bosnian children never go on the swings. Living in a new country does not necessarily mean that their past doesn’t catch up with them, and, even though Nini’s life is not a walk in the park, she discovers that she has more privileges simply by virtue of being German.

This is a YA book – the protagonists have that self-absorbed voice of teenagers everywhere – which makes it very heavily dependent on just the right nuance of voice, but it failed to fully convince me. I read the book in the original German and was a bit disappointed by the lack of obvious slang. The girls have their own secret puns and speech inversions (quite rude and funny at times), but there is no Berliner Schnauze (dialect) or real youth slang in here, which makes it sound a little false.  I can also attest to the lack of speech marks, a deliberate choice by the author which has infuriated many readers, but  which gives this book a feverish quality, as if everything happens in a nightmarish half-aware state. Which is the state these girls seem to be in most of the time (while Nini’s mother seems to be almost comatose, seriously depressed). Until they witness a frightening event which truly tests their loyalties and their friendship.

The stigmatised Gropius neighbourhood in Berlin.
The stigmatised Gropius neighbourhood in Berlin.

Yet, for all of the serious consequences of this event, there is perhaps not quite enough self-awareness or introspection or growing up going on. It’s a sad story, there are many poignant moments of realisation of the emptiness and possible hopelessness of the lives of these young people. Things that these young people only realise in momentary flashes of insight, but that we as readers are aware of all along. There are some memorable scenes, for instance when Nini’s younger sister and another little friend from the neighbourhood jump around on the sofa watching porn films, with carrots and courgettes stuck down their pants. Overall, though, it doesn’t quite gel for me.  I would have liked this better as a series of short stories, perhaps, vignettes of life in the tower blocks of the poorer parts of Berlin.

I suppose my main disappointment stems from the fact that I was expecting it to be the voice of a whole generation. I thought it would bear testimony to the millenial generation as Christiane F. did for my generation (well, strictly speaking for the generation just before mine). However, it most certainly does not do that and I don’t think it’s just because I read Christiane F. at the right (impressionable) age. It can’t be a coincidence that the initial premise for Tigermilk is so similar to Christiane F.: a girl living with just her mother and younger sister in a soulless block of flats in a deprived area, a mother apparently oblivious to her daughter’s dodgy deeds, the mother’s boyfriend trying to make-believe all is fine, her admiration for a friend who seems to be so much cooler and knowledgeable than her, her desire to experiment and be different. Yet there is some kind of affection and solidarity amongst the druggies in Christiane’s Berlin which seems to have gone missing in the present-day.

The more touristy image of Kurfurstendamm, from  economist.com
The touristy image of Kurfurstendamm, economist.com

Of course, Berlin has changed enormously since the 1970s, and Tigermilk shows us a more multicultural society. Christiane’s friends were all white and German, while Nini’s are almost all non-German. Clubbing and drug-taking has given way to going to the pool and drinking. The area around Bahnhof Zoo has been cleaned up, so the pick-up spot for part-time prostitutes has now moved to the very posh shopping street Ku’damm.  Yet Tigermilk seems to be trying too hard, keen to manipulate the reader’s emotions, to drive me to tears or pity or shock. In contrast, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children of Zoo Station) is matter-of-fact, without a trace of self-pity, narrated in a ‘take it or leave it’ tone which sends genuine chills down your spine. What both have in common, however, is the lack of happy outcome.

It did make me curious to see the Christiane F. film again, which I have in my collection. I intend to show it to my children when they are a little older. We watched that film when I was about 11-12 (recommended age is 16+), as a class at school, and I can say hand on heart that it put me off drugs completely. [So the educational aspect of it worked, even though the book is not preachy at all about the evilness of drugs.] Even the fact that it had David Bowie appearing briefly in it (he was already my hero back then) was not enough to make drugs seem ‘cool’.

Rewatching it, I realised that the most frightening aspect of it all was that 13 year old Christiane is not from a particularly horrible home or traumatic background [the book is much more explicit about her abusive drunk father and neglectful mother]. Her parents are divorced and she lives in a rather depressing block of flats, but we all could recognise bits of ourselves in her: her hero-worship of Bowie, her desire to fit in with the cool crowd and escape from the ‘dreary ordinariness’ of her life, even her ‘well brought up girl’ attitude initially to drug-taking. At first, as they all meet up at a club and then careen wildly down an empty shopping-centre and up on the roof of the Mercedes-Benz building in Berlin to the soundtrack of ‘Heroes’, you get swept up in the thrill and apparent freedom of it all. What the film does very cleverly show is the gradual decay not just of the children but also of their environment, to the truly awful, graffiti-filled public toilets.

Movie poster from 1981. From the ironically entitled berlin-enjoy.com website.
Movie poster from 1981. From the ironically entitled berlin-enjoy.com website.

*Play on words: Berliner Freiheit is a rather ugly-looking shopping in Bremen, while Münchener Freiheit were a German pop/rock band popular in the 1980s. Freiheit means freedom, the location is Berlin and those young people believe they are looking for freedom… but find nothing but disillusionment and their own inner prisons instead.

Where Are We Now?

This song by David Bowie from his latest album ‘The Next Day’ always has me in tears.  Not because it is a love song, but because it talks about Berlin past and present.  Berlin has always exerted a powerful fascination over me, because it is a symbol of more than one dictatorship.  I visited it back in the days when it was a very sad, divided town. [Incidentally, a journalist friend of mine at the time said that nearly all major cities starting with a B are heading towards destruction and unhappiness: Beirut, Belfast, Belgrade, Bucharest…]

Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany (Photo credit: OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons)

Of course, Berlin is no longer gloomy and schizophrenic. It has become the trendy place to be for creatives and young families. Yet this song reminds me that the revolution we hoped to achieve in Eastern Europe – and which entailed quite a bit of human sacrifice  ‘walking the dead’, as Bowie puts it –  was supposed to be about more than having more consumer choice or becoming trendy.  It was about starting over, about being brave and honest, about establishing new ways of thinking and listening to each other,  a new kind of culture.  Where are we now?  Very far from all that.

So this is a very long-winded introduction to this draft of a poem that I wrote – am still writing –  for dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night, based on this idea of a failed revolution. But then, perhaps all revolutions are doomed to fail.

That night we bade farewell to fear.

Tanks and bullets became real.

No game.

No bystanders.

Fences fell.

A few days later when we buried

the old regime,

we thought we’d given birth

to hope.

flagWe drove down roads in whooping glee

waving cut-out flags.

Fists pumping in air so cold

we knew we could cut it

into purest blocks

to conserve that moment and our courage

forever.

Then start afresh.

Breathless with hope,

giddy with joy,

there was no wall we could not climb,

no paths we could not forge.

How we dared dream.

Till undergrowth smothered us.