From Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin to Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Berlin’s literary inhabitants bring the city alive
To me Berlin is as much a conceit as a reality. Why? Because the city is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives more powerfully in the imagination. Long before setting eyes on it, the outsider feels its absences as much as its presence: the sense of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with an intensity so shocking that they shook its fabric.
Over the years, so much of it has been lost, invented or reinvented that the mind rushes to fill the vacuum, fleshing out the invisible, linking the observed city with the place portrayed in 10 thousand films, paintings and – above all – books.
Yesterday echoes along today’s streets and the ideas and characters conjured up by Berlin’s authors can seem to be as solid as its bricks and mortar.
1. Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
More than any other foreign writer, Isherwood’s fictional autobiography – or autobiographical fiction – has shaped Berlin. His deceptively simple stories, conjured up following a three-year stint in the capital, form the basis of most outsiders’ idea of the city. Central to them is the irresistible Sally Bowles: sharp and amoral, vivacious rather than beautiful, flaunting her sexuality. In Sally (who was based on the English actor Jean Ross) as in all his characters (himself included), Isherwood teases the reader with hints of reality, while constructing a much more compelling illusion.
Any portrait which hopes to reflect the city’s creative nature needs to let invention cohabit with reality, to juxtapose fiction with fact. In Döblin’s innovative masterpiece – the most important work of literature in the Weimar years – the story of small-time crook Biberkopf is told through speeches, songs, newspaper articles and above all from multiple points of view. On the cusp of the Nazis rise to power, through an inner voice filled with remorse, contradiction and indecision, Biberkopf’s life – like that of every other resident – is swept forward by events beyond his control.
3. Wilhelm von Humboldt in Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
At the end of the 18th century, two brilliant and eccentric young scientists set out to measure the world; one by travelling and experiencing it, the other by staying at home and theorising about it. The adventurous Vvon Humboldt – like Goethe – favoured experience, the scientific approach that finally lost out to the theorists, as we know today. Kehlmann’s masterful work is rare in Berlin literature, being learned, entertaining and a worldwide bestseller. In commercial terms, it’s the most successful German novel since Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.
Hendrik Höfgen, an ambitious, second-rate theatre actor, rises from amateur player to national star by aligning himself with the Nazis. As he performs Faust’s Mephisto, he realises too late that he has made a pact with the devil. Klaus Mann’s great novel is a thinly disguised portrait of Gustaf Gründgens, an actor whose brilliant career was undisturbed by the dictatorship years. Two decades after the book’s publication (and in a striking example of life imitating art), Gründgens himself played Mephistopheles, in a performance which many still consider to have been the greatest interpretation of the role ever given.
5. Otto and Elise Hampel in Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Following the death of their son in battle, Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple, wrote anonymous postcards urging their fellow Berliners to resist and overthrow the Nazis. Their true story was transformed into a remarkable novel by Fallada, who developed his characters from the Hampels’ Gestapo files, selecting and tailoring his own wartime experience. Fallada’s heartbreaking declaration that every individual matters shaped me as a writer.
John le Carré’s first sight of the Berlin Wall filled him with disgust and outrage, inspiring him to write his seminal book in five intense weeks. Spies were vain fools, traitors, “pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives,” he wrote. Through Alec Leamas, the novel’s antihero, he too helped to transform the city, weaving further intricacy into its mythology, freezing in time a place both perilous and clandestine: black winter canals, deep dark shadows, and the “weasel faces of the brainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin’s latest battlement”.
7. Frank Lehmann in Berlin Blues by Sven Regener
Frank Lehmann works in bars in 1980s Kreuzberg, west Berlin’s squatter and student heartland (and today the city’s trendiest neighbourhood). After years of sidestepping and indolence, Lehmann is an incorrigible and decadent loafer. He has avoided the demands of parents, landlords, neighbours and women – until his lazy existence is threatened by one unforeseen incident after another … including the fall of the Wall. Expect alcohol, anarchists, spinning hangovers and the Eagles’ Hotel California.
8. Klaus Uhltzscht in Heroes Like Us by Thomas Brussig
Across that heinous divide, Klaus Uhltzscht is the aspiring teenage Nobel laureate of East Berlin. He claims to be German history’s “missing link”, who will come to breach the Berlin Wall. In this bold and hilarious comedy of terrors, Thomas Brussig writes of the absurd iniquity of the death strip that cut through Berlin’s heart, of the U-Bahn trains running beneath it, of a child spying on the Stasi, and of the penis responsible for reuniting the divided city. After encountering Uhltzscht, no male reader will look at the end of the cold war (or his member) in the same way.
9. Timothy Garton Ash in The File by Timothy Garton Ash
“Guten Tag,” says bustling Frau Schulz, “you have a very interesting file.” A buff-coloured Stasi file, two inches thick, leads historian Timothy Garton Ash to rediscover his younger self through the eyes of the east German secret police, and then to confront those who informed against him. At first personal, then universal, Garton Ash’s deeply moral, wise and wry work demonstrates how it is all but impossible to establish historical truth, how far our lives are built on forgetting, and how much our actions depend on the time and place in which we live. Remember history or be bound to repeat it. Essential reading.
10. Mike Klingberg in Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf
Fourteen-year-old Berlin schoolboy Mike Klingberg leads a boring and friendless life, until a strange new Russian classmate, Tschick, dares him to go on a road trip – without parents, without a map, with no destination. At once a literary tall tale and coming-of-age odyssey in a stolen car, Why We Took the Car is Germany’s Thelma and Louise – wild, tender, charming and very funny, now made especially poignant by author Herrndorf’s recent diagnosis of brain cancer, and suicide.
Rory MacLean’s new book Berlin: Imagine a City is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663875/s/378f731d/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cbooks0C20A140Cfeb0C260Ctop0E10A0Eberliners0Ein0Ebooks0Erory0Emaclean/story01.htm