Ah, Berlin! My favorite European city of all. It rains all the time, the people can seem, um, brusque, and the airport may or may not be on fire when you visit. And yet, somehow, within the first day I was there it had totally won me over. How?
The answer is low expectations. Or none at all. I guess when I visited in 2008, Berlin hadn’t really been a part of my imaginative landscape. I had no idea at all what it would look like, or how I would feel there. I love how full of contrasts the city is, with its eastern and its western halves, with its blowzy old apartment blocks, drab communist-era offices, renovated 19th century museums, and hyper-modern new construction all jumbled up together. I love how gracious the parks are, and yet how casually maintained, so that you can almost picture the dark, Northern forests that must have existed long ago in the heart of the sprawling city. I love how you can spend an hour on the train to Potsdam and never leave the city. I love that stepping off the plane in November, you understand instantly how Germany gave us the word ‘angst’. I love that I didn’t eat one bad meal. I even like how you’re always aware of the long, awful history of the city, which is bizarrely highlighted and suppressed at once: the general awfulness brought out, the particulars tucked away, but always there.
When I travel, I like to have a solid place to stay and a really good guidebook, but beyond that, I prefer to make plans on the ground. I think it’s hard to predict what you’re going to want to do before you have a feel for a place’s public transport. Until you know whether you’re going to get lost every time you get on a train (this side-eye is for you, Paris*), or whether you’re going to be harassed by drunk people and singers (hi, New York), or whether repairs are going to turn your one-hour trip into a three-day ordeal that will find you walking out of a subway tunnel, covered in grime and despair like one of the mole people, you may want to hold off. I guess it’s a surprise to no one that Berlin has excellent public transport, that no one jaywalks, and that its bike-riders and pedestrians have a relationship that is almost (I mean, come on) not murderously hostile.
I found the food to be inexpensive and really, really good (try a donner kebab and some currywurst, street-food lovers), and our hostel was the Best Hostel I Have Ever Stayed At. I remember that at the time, I wished I had a blog so I could talk it to death on the internet. SO NOW I AM GOING TO. On my book blog. You know, whatever.
It is called the EastSeven Berlin Hostel, and it is in Mitte, which is part of what used to be East Berlin. I loved this part of town. Berlin is a real megamonster of a city, and I didn’t see it all, so I’m not going to make any claims like “it’s the BEST”, but it was great. And the hostel is literally two blocks from the subway. Stay there.
Also, if I had to pick one museum (but WHY?) to go see, it would probably be the Gemäldegalerie. It’s got a lot of late-Medieval/early-Renaissance art (the collection actually covers the 13th to the 18th centuries). Stay with me here. It’s small, so you can see it in an hour or two, it’s beautifully curated, with really good information on the audio tour, and it’s in a super-modern, cool building. The reason I recommend it is that I think they do a really good job explaining and creating an appreciation for Medieval art, which, I, for one, used to always breeze past while singing ‘boring, boring, boooring’. As much as I love a sprawling get-lost-for-days museum, there’s something really wonderful about a small museum that doesn’t overwhelm you, but instead makes you think deeply about a single thing in some way that you hadn’t before.
Low expectations may also have been why I enjoyed the hell out of The Berlin Stories. I made a point not to read too much about it beforehand. People on the internet seem pretty divided about the book: it’s either one of the best books of the 20th century, or a boring, impersonal story that depends for its depth on what the Nazis ended up doing in Germany (the stories are all set in Berlin in the 30s).
The Berlin Stories is actually two books in one: The Last of Mr. Norris, which was a novella and my favorite, and Goodbye to Berlin which was a collection of short stories. I found the narrator (actually, there are two separate narrators, but they’re so similar that it’s almost pointless to separate them) really witty, and the prose sings. It’s true that both books are written in such a way as to be both highly personal (first person, written almost like a diary, and there’s a strong sense of the narrator’s voice) and oddly resistant to personal detail. We find out almost nothing about the narrator except that he’s English, fairly high-born but poor, that he’s an English teacher and an aspiring author, and that he’s (probably) gay. The narrator has no real stake in any of the stories he tells, and no expressed desires beyond the quotidian ones and capturing the things that happen to him in writing. He’s a foreigner, and can leave at any time. He’s a communist, but never gets into any real trouble. He’s mostly untouched by all the drama unfolding around him. At the same time, because the stories are in the first person, the other characters we read about remain inscrutable most of the time. The books work because these are stories that are less about a single character than about the character of the city. There’s this sparkling, frenetic, sexually-charged demi-monde that comes to life mostly at night, populated by charming, but also ghoulish people, and then underneath all this fizzy light-headed sensuality and partying there’s a sense of some awful doom descending very slowly. A sort of gradual suffocation.
On first reading, The Last of Mr. Norris was the more effective of the two books. Mr. Norris is a decadent, effete con-man with a penchant for S&M, collecting pornography, fine underwear, and hand-made jam. Excellent! The narrator meets him on a train from the Netherlands, and from the beginning, Mr. Norris is surrounded by a lot of mystery, and not many answers. His (somewhat ridiculous) intrigues serve mostly to transmit to the reader the persecution, paranoia, and tangled politics of the time: the sense that Mr. Norris is trapped like a gleefully oblivious insect on a spider’s web, each twitch towards freedom drawing his awful fate closer. The greater length of the novella gives Isherwood time to really build up a sense of foreboding and menace, and because we find out he’s a con-man early on, we expect for Mr. Norris’s actions and motivations to be something other than what they seem. Our lack of insight becomes an asset.
One of the things that I liked best about reading these two little books was that they provided a nice counterpoint to the stuff you’re always told in writing programs about how stories don’t work unless you have at least one character that you get really close to. I also like that the narrator has no strong desires and isn’t the source of conflict. I think if someone brought this in to a workshop, even I’d be like “oh, why are you telling it from this guy’s point of view?” Reading something from a critical place completely changes how you judge it. It’s always great to be reminded that some things that shouldn’t work still can.
There’s a wonderful write-up about The Berlin Stories on The Millions (I’m definitely going to be reading this book again), and an interesting piece about how what it captures of Berlin’s soul is still mostly true.
*This was actually just one time, but, I was only fifteen and instead of taking me to Versailles, the train took me to the Zombie Apocalypse. True story. I had to wait until I was 20 to see Versailles. OH, THE HUMANITY.