I have been thinking again about English-language writers who write about Berlin. I’ve been vocal about my disdain for those articles about how everyone in Berlin is a loser hopping from one club to the next, getting up in the afternoons and generally achieving nothing. And I’ve tired of characters in American novels coming across artefacts of the city’s past at every turn.
What prompted me to revisit the subject was this interview Hermione Lee conducted with Philip Roth while he was staying in a London club in 1983. It’s very long and very interesting if you’re interested in Roth and his work, and how he saw himself and the world in the mid-eighties. What captured my attention was this paragraph:
Lee: What about England, where you spend part of each year? Is that a possible source of fiction?
Roth: Ask me twenty years from now. That’s about how long it took Isaac Singer to get enough of Poland out of his system—and to let enough of America in—to begin, little by little, as a writer, to see and depict his upper-Broadway cafeterias. If you don’t know the fantasy life of a country, it’s hard to write fiction about it that isn’t just description of the decor, human and otherwise. Little things trickle through when I see the country dreaming out loud—in the theater, at an election, during the Falklands crisis, but I know nothing really about what means what to people here. It’s very hard for me to understand who people are, even when they tell me, and I don’t even know if that’s because of who they are or because of me. I don’t know who is impersonating what, if I’m necessarily seeing the real thing or just a fabrication, nor can I easily see where the two overlap. My perceptions are clouded by the fact that I speak the language. I believe I know what’s being said, you see, even if I don’t. Worst of all, I don’t hate anything here. What a relief it is to have no culture-grievances, not to have to hear the sound of one’s voice taking positions and having opinions and recounting all that’s wrong! What bliss—but for the writing that’s no asset. Nothing drives me crazy here, and a writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book. Now if I had to live here, if for some reason I were forbidden ever to return to America, if my position and my personal well-being were suddenly to become permanently bound up with England, well, what was maddening and meaningful might begin to come into focus, and yes, in about the year 2005, maybe 2010, little by little I’d stop writing about Newark and I would dare to set a story at a table in a wine bar on Kensington Park Road. A story about an elderly exiled foreign writer, in this instance reading not the Jewish Daily Forward, but the Herald Tribune.
That line about the fantasy life of a country struck a chord for me. And I liked the idea that Roth didn’t understand English society even though he spoke the language. I thought of some of the English-language writers I’ve met in Berlin and how many of them have a weaker grasp of German than Roth’s understanding of British English. And I felt incensed for a while that they might presume to write about this place – my place – without having waited twenty years. Their own description of the decor, I thought.
And then two things occurred to me. The first was that this is no longer 1983. No city is the same as a city was thirty years ago. From what I remember of London in the mid-eighties, it was not as international a place as it was now. Rich foreigners who didn’t have to work could live there and writers could spend time there, if they could afford a room at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. But if you wanted to stay a while you had to find a way to earn a living, like the people who had been moving to the UK from Commonwealth countries since the 1950s, of course. And Berlin in 1983 – Bowie had moved on and the international community consisted essentially of soldiers, spies and Gastarbeiter.
Since then the nature of the way people earn a living has changed. In brief: we have the internet. Which means that if you can make enough to live in London by writing for American publications, say, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t live in London. And if you can’t make enough to live in London you can probably scrape together enough to live in Berlin. And so we have a floating class – if that’s that the right way to put it – of shorter-term international residents, some more conventional like the job-seekers from southern Europe, some who don’t need to look for work because they bring it with them on their laptops.
And that changes cities. I can tell by the languages shouted outside my window. At this moment it’s Italian, I think, but I hear a lot of American and British English and other European languages. There’s German too, of course; I live above an off-licence and there’s a lot of shouting. But there really is a whole layer of Berlin society that seems to me to exist on the surface, with nothing to link them to the place – no workmates, no old friends or partners or relatives, little language – other than clubs, bars, shops and restaurants and perhaps other people in the same situation. Like classic migrant workers, in some aspects, but with more leisure time and a different attitude.
For several years I felt quite alienated by these new arrivals. Their lives aren’t like mine; I envied them their apparent hedonism but I thought they were missing out by not getting to know what I see as the ‘real’ Berlin. But thinking about it in more depth, I realize that’s not right. There is no real Berlin. The way I experience the city, having worked and lived with Berliners for many years, is just my version of Berlin. Like the way I see Facebook is different to the way you see it. My Berlin contains the off-licence downstairs and lakeside teen parties in 1992 and a student hostel now turned into an OAPs’ home and my daughter’s old school and the poster of Harald Juhnke on Budapester Straße and Mayday demonstrations and the drab racecourse at Karlshorst and that smell in the West Berlin U-Bahn stations that’s gone now. Your Berlin is different.
So I’m coming to terms with English-language writers sharing my city. I will allow their experience of the place to be as valid as mine, even though I rarely recognize it. I still flinch when I hear an American-accented ‘God, that’s so German!’ but I will be more patient with the ex-pat literary community, because what I thought of for so long as only scratching the surface is just as relevant and genuine a way to experience Berlin as mine is.
The second thing I realized is this: There is more than one way to write about place. One of the things I resented, or still resent if I’m perfectly honest, is that English-speaking readers seem more interested in reading English-speaking writers’ takes on other places than writing by long-term residents; in this case German novels. That Christopher Isherwood and Len Deighton and Anna Funder and Louise Welsh have the Berlin writing market cornered. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this envy by proxy. I want English-speaking readers to turn to Helene Hegemann and Inka Parei and Tobias Rapp to get a taste of the city, a sense of what it’s like have put down roots here. And oh, Eugen Ruge and Stefanie de Velasco and Ralf Rothmann and Julia Franck and David Wagner and Yadé Kara and Torsten Schulz and Annett Gröschner, and I’m turning circles in front of my bookshelves and getting dizzy on all the wonderful German writers who’ve put Berlin down on paper.
I think there is a difference between German-speaking writers on Berlin and English-speaking writers on Berlin, but that difference isn’t actually a question of decor – shallow surfaces – or depth. It’s more a question of what kind of Berlin they see. I just listened to Gideon Lewis-Kraus reading a piece on the city from his book A Sense of Direction. It is set not far from the off-licence downstairs but it’s not a place I recognize. I don’t know any of the characters, most of whom seem to come from New York. I’ve never been in a similar situation or felt a similar sense of despair. But it’s fine if people understand it as capturing Berlin, because it does capture Lewis-Kraus’s Berlin a few years ago. His book comes out in German next month, translated by Thomas Pletzinger, whose Berlin contains a lot more basketball than mine.
And Lewis-Kraus has written about the compulsion to write about Berlin for Readux Books – City of Rumor, coming out in October. I shall try my best to read it with an open mind.
Let me finish by returning to Roth in his Pall Mall room:
Lee: What do novels do then?
Roth: To the ordinary reader? Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.
There’s a lesson for me here, too. The Berlin novels I love do that, primarily. They provide me with reading pleasure rather than information about the city. Perhaps they’re less writing about place than using the place for their writing. There’s no need to read them for moral purposes, to get an insider’s view. We can read them because they’re beautiful.