Spanning more than a century, this collection of stories reflects Berlin's rich and turbulent history, chronicling the creative ferment of the Weimar Republic, the devastation of wartime, the cruel divisions of the Berlin Wall, and the aftermath of reunification. Classics by Theodor Fontane and Robert Walser provide a window on privileged society at the turn of the century. Alfred Döblin, Erich Kastner, Vladimir Nabokov, and Christopher Isherwood illuminate the frenetic Golden Twenties and the ruinous crash that followed, while marginal youths roam the city's seamy underside in Irmgard Keun's The Artificial Silk Girl and Ernst Haffner's Blood Brothers. The hero of Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again visits a city shadowed by Hitler's rise, while in Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin a working-class couple quietly resists the Nazis. Cold War espionage enlivens works by Len Deighton and Ian McEwan; Christa Wolf's They Divided the Sky and Peter Schneider's The Wall Jumper depict the Berlin Wall's impact on a personal scale; and Thomas Brussig's Stasi officers engage in meaningless surveillance in Heroes Like Us. Günter Grass shows us German reunification through the eyes of an elderly Luftwaffe veteran while Uwe Timm does so through a writer's madcap wanderings in a bewildering post-Wall landscape. Finally, more recent arrivalsfrom Chloe Aridjis's Mexican-Jewish university student in Book of Clouds to the desperate African refugees in Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gonebear witness to Berlin's continuing evolution as an arena of the possible.
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Foreword by Philip Hensher
Compared to Paris, London or Rome, Berlin has a short history. There are no signs of habitation before the 12th century, and it remained a relatively insignificant place until the 18th century. At the end of the 17th century, Berlin’s population was around 10,000, when Paris and London both had over half a million inhabitants. After that, the city grew explosively. It is substantially a creation of the nineteenth century, with all that era’s addiction to modernity, technology and novelty. Its most celebrated contribution to urban architecture, the Wall, was only erected in the early 1960s. That was demolished thirty years ago in any case. It has always been a city of desperate modernity.
The physical substance is reflected in its characteristic ways of behaving and interacting. It has been a city dedicated to discovering new ways of living. In most decades of the twentieth century, Berlin has produced whole classes of people very conscious that they are living lives that nobody has ever attempted before. It is an arena of the possible, where the imagination carves out cities of the future. The first social housing projects are here. Gay men and lesbians started to live their lives openly in large numbers in the 1920s. The postwar division of the city and the Wall, too, created multiple possibilities, few foreseen, some explosive. In the aftermath of unification, the city was cheap and rundown; it quickly became a hub for creative artists. The sense of making it up as you go along is never far away in Berlin.
The fiction of Berlin exemplifies much of this excitement. Unlike most capital cities, it imposes no obligation on writers to come to terms with it. There are very many great German and German-language writers with absolutely nothing to say about Berlin. Those who do write about it, I suspect, are those who were drawn to it. Such writers may be of a particular type. Despite the different settings, and the totally different nature of each new experience described, a mood recurs. It is a mood of wonder and astonishment, lightly veiled in an affectation of chic boredom. We have seen all this before, suggests each writer, uncovering scenes that have never been dreamt of until this moment. A layer of period nostalgia has settled over Fontane, but in his time, he was an artist of the present moment, even of modernity. Erich Kastner’s Fabian, behaving according to his most animal instincts and finding no resistance in those around him, is another example of this languid joy in the unprecedented. Another might be Irmgard Keun’s heroine, making her way in the big city with what resources she has, or Ernst Haffner’s gang of juvenile derelicts.
These innovations don’t always come from outcasts and drop-outs. Sometimes lives of unanticipated modernity are conducted in accordance with the central apparatuses of control and orthodoxy. Thomas Brussig’s Stasi officers conduct their meaningless lives of surveillance like realist novelists determined to leave nothing out of the narrative. The Wall imposes its obligation to try to understand – Peter Schneider’s wall jumper and Uwe Timm’s wanderer in a post-Wall landscape both seem like naïfs, so colossal and impregnable are the things they are trying to understand. Their behaviour is predicted and constrained by the Wall and its sudden absence. For Wladimir Kaminer or Kevin Barry, the newest arrivals in the city are literally making things up as they go along, finding out what the rules of engagement might be. For outsiders like Thomas Wolfe or Christopher Isherwood, it just doesn’t seem possible to guess what might happen next; other outsiders, like Chloe Aridjis, place their trust in solitary wandering through the challenges of the city, old and new. Only at the moment of the shattering of the Wall, in Gunter Grass’s prophetic and historic phantasmagoria, does it seem urgent to gaze backwards, to Fontane and beyond; his characters appear to be given a long vista by the sudden appearance of gaps in the long-standing barrier. Otherwise Berlin lives in the moment. When everything hangs on a thread, there is little appetite for nostalgia or reflection. In dread or excitement, the fiction looks forward.
I first went to Berlin in the 1980s, when the division between east and west seemed permanent, and the general mood was not exactly despairing, but resigned to the fact that nothing much mattered. You could do anything you liked. Nobody would care. I spent much more time there in the mid 1990s. The past made itself apparent – the bullet holes on Wilhelmine facades, the remaining stretches of the Wall. Or just finding that the kitchen cupboard in the flat in Prenzlauer Berg I was borrowing was still half full of dried soups and dessert powders from the DDR. But in this city, you could not look back; you had to decide what you were going to do now, today, this minute.
It was a time of extraordinary possibilities and mad improvisations. People would open illegal bars in abandoned buildings or their own apartments. Some enterprises were undertaken according to anarchist principles. Entertainment could take surprising forms; an omni-sexual tango evening of alarming accomplishment in a Kreuzberg club, or a competition between half a dozen drag queens to determine who made the best goulash (the whole bar had a taste). Once I turned up at a regular bar of mine which occupied a boat on the canal, only to find that it had sunk the night before. Some friends of mine idly bought an entire apartment block in Schoneberg for almost nothing. It was incredibly cheap to live there. I was startled to discover that I could pay six weeks’ rent for a flat in Prenzlauer Berg by writing one book review. In such an atmosphere, people have the time to sit around and talk. To listen, as well. I heard a lot of stories, and came to think of the city as a hatcher of stories, many of which had simply never been told before.
The city has changed a good deal in the twenty years since then. The underground experience I remembered has been packaged up and delivered to the entranced young of Europe by hardnosed corporations. The last time I went to the bar that held the great drag-queen goulash competition, the barman had no time or inclination to talk; my neighbour at the bar was keen to explain how much profit he had made from property. It is, unimaginably, now expensive to live in Prenzlauer Berg, or Kreuzberg, or anywhere in Berlin.
For the moment, Berlin is in an unexpected imperial phase of expansion and wealth, its pleasures organised and costed up for the prosperous bourgeoisie and their children. Whether it is currently a fruitful subject for the investigation of the imagination is, I think, a question worth debating. The best Berlin fiction of recent years is concerned with outsiders and with the past. Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novel Television, which I extract here, is largely devoted to trying to keep Berlin out of the temporary resident’s existence; its idiosyncrasies have a knack of creeping in. Other observers, like Chloe Aridjis, explore the new arrival’s necessary and lonely wandering. Finally, one of the most admired of recent German novels, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone sets an encounter between German high culture and new arrivals in the always provisional arena of Kreuzberg, in a temporary city of tents and squatting. History is here, but also some sense of the future metropolis, and the obligations of the present day. Right now, in 2019, the overwhelming confidence of the capital city is balanced by a creative uncertainty in its fiction. Nobody could say what new forms of existence, and imagination, are going to arise from the new Berlin, in the process of being created, of becoming. But that has always been the case.
Table of ContentsForeword
Theodor Fontane, from Effi Briest
Robert Walser, “The Little Berliner”
Alfred Döblin, from Berlin Alexanderplatz
Vladimir Nabokov, from King, Queen, Knave
Erich Kästner, from Going to the Dogs
Ernst Haffner, from Blood Brothers
Irmgard Keun, from The Artificial Silk Girl
Christopher Isherwood, “A Berlin Diary: Winter 1932–3”
Thomas Wolfe, “The Dark Messiah”
Hans Fallada, from Alone in Berlin
Heinz Rein, “Berlin, April 1945”
Peter Schneider, from The Wall Jumper
Thomas Brussig, from Heroes Like Us
Len Deighton, from Funeral in Berlin
Christa Wolf, from They Divided the Sky
Ian McEwan, from The Innocent
Günter Grass, “The Diving Duck”
Wladimir Kaminer, “Business Camouflage”
Chloe Aridjis, from Book of Clouds
Uwe Timm, “The Reichstag, Wrapped”
Kevin Barry, “Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer”
Jean-Philippe Toussaint, from Television
Jenny Erpenbeck, from Go, Went, Gone