Writing about a city: Berlin

Berlin has a sort of Three Sisters resonance in my mind. I’m particularly envious of its international writing scene, with place writing and cultural heritage galore.

Readux Books has published six and a half little books/essays about Berlin –  four in its Berlin series and two in its Urban voids series. The half is Eliot Weinberger’s The wall, the city, and the world, a good chunk of which is set in Berlin.

While the books are beautifully designed and all, at $1.99 a snip I thought they would work well as ereading experiment. I’ve never been drawn to ebooks, with years of trying to scan needless PDFs leaving me a digital reading sceptic. As Julian Barnes says, “books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information”, definitely a work thing. Having purchased five I was left wondering what the e/book format really added to these short pieces – take out the prelims etc and you have a rather different proposition.

The Berlin series

The four essays in the Berlin series portray the city in the 1910s, 1920s, 1990s and the present day. The two early works, Cities and city people: Berlin 1919 (excerpt), by critic and literary historian Arthur Eloesser and translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and In Berlin: day and night in 1929 (excerpt), by Franz Hessel (“a Francophile intellectual who brought the concept of the flâneur to 1920s Berlin”) and translated by Readux’s Amanda DeMarco (update: Walking in Berlin, now rewalked), feel of their time, while the later two are rather more interesting.

Berlin TriptychBerlin triptych (excerpt), by David Wagner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, visits three Berlin locations in 1998/2000 and 2013: Friedrichstraße in the centre of the city, Schönhauser Allee in the east and Café M in the west. The text previously appeared in DW’s Mauer Park (2013; KD’s post), an update of his In Berlin (2001). For another excerpt see An ode to Mauerpark (translated by KD), and finally Welche Farbe hat Berlin (KD’s post), short pieces written between 2001 and 2011.

In May 2013, in one of her sadly missed Going Dutch with German writers series, KD and DW go for a walk, DW’s preferred mode of exploring the city. (KD: “The poor guy must get tired of going on walks with people who want to write about the experience, as he’s one of those great walker-writers everybody loves.”) This walk makes an appearance in Mauer Park, how fab.

For more David, see the interview on Deutsche Welle and listen to his episode as part of R4’s recent Reading Europe series (highlighting the “tourist streets” of the former East Berlin, marked by stands with postcards of romantic ruins and charming Modernist architecture; the seriousness of German literature, making translations especially from English popular; how Sebald’s emigrants are now being replaced by immigrants, which may mean that subject matter finally moves on from Die Wende). For more Katy as flâneuse see The shadowboxing woman, a site accompanying her 2011 translation of Inka Parei’s novel, with photos matched up with quotes.

The texts are perhaps rather too rooted in the place for non-Berliners, but the overall themes of transience and transformation, currently most often expressed as gentrification, explore how history makes the city anew:

[Mehringplatz] is a remnant of a time that felt over-zealously obliged to make everything new and do everything better. Each era gets the architecture it deserves: the circle is lined by a double row of residential bunkers.

Construction sites serve as a motif, with empty spaces and the gaps between buildings gradually filled in. What happens when these constructions start to be pulled down and replaced by something new? Will Berlin ever ‘find itself’ – is the city ever finished?

Actually we all miss something. Or it’s invented in retrospect. (source)

City of RumorIn City of rumor: the compulsion to write about Berlin (2013) “Gideon Lewis-Kraus struggles with the very act of putting anything about Berlin into words”. A fine entry in the expat writing canon!

Gideon Lewis-Kraus lived in Berlin for three years and City of rumor gives an account of his “shifting understanding” of the city, which finally took shape in the Berlin chapter of his first book, A sense of direction (2012), a travel memoir about pilgrimage and restlessness.

Katy Derbyshire has familiar issues:

A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that “nobody in Berlin” gets up before the afternoon. That’s a Berlin I have never really recognized. (source)

As it turned out she didn’t hate City of rumor at all: “it’s less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others’ – compulsion to do so”. We all see  a different Berlin and experience a place differently, even if some prefer a “fantasy life of a country”. It’s a question of ownership and home vs restlessness and exile.

The urban voids series

The urban voids series examines “the places that are marginal, ignored, vacant, or destroyed…walking their fraying edges, or probing the absences that lie at their centers”.

Suburban wonder: wandering the margins of Paris and A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the use of phantoms tackle Paris and are hence on my backburner of prejudice for now, while the third title is an English original, The idea of a river: walking out of Berlin (extract) by Paul Scraton, also to be found Under a grey sky and Elsewhere.

City SpacesCity spaces: filling in Berlin’s gaps, by Annett Gröschner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, “explores the lacunae at the heart of our city…the history of erasure, demolition and annihilation that has shaped the face of Berlin” with pieces taken from Parzelle Paradies (2008).

Pleasingly, AG can be found on t’Web described as Die Stadtführerin. Her other works include Mit der Linie 4 um die Welt (2012; Amazon; review | video), the result of riding bus/tram nr 4 to the end of the line in a series of cities (latest: Rotterdam), and two collaborations with photographer Arwed Messmer: The other view: the early Berlin Wall (2011) and Berlin, Fruchtstraße on March 27, 1952 (2012). Time to dust off my German reading skills. See also KD’s Going Dutch from December 2013 and Berlin: alienated city (trans: Katy Derbyshire; auf deutsch) in Slow Travel Berlin:

Gone are the coal trucks and the outside toilets, but also what fascinated me back then: the traces in and on the buildings, grown over each other in several layers, which told countless stories into which one could enter like Poe’s man in the crowd, wandering until one no longer knew were one was or how to get back. The traces have been obliterated, the old men and women with their memories as if swallowed up by the ground, all is the present…In some inner-city neighbourhoods, Berlin has already lost its diversity; the individualists all look the same.

So much for curated reading! The issues articulated and explored in the two series are just as valid in Copenhagen, if on a rather smaller and less striking scale. With a different mythology, Copenhagen seems to attract a different style of writing, an issue to explore further in 2016, along with an overdue return to Berlin.


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