One of the things you have to put up with when you live in Berlin is a lot of people telling you how great Berlin is. These people are usually visiting for short periods of time, but I have also found myself on the receiving end of a panegyric to the city from someone who has never been here.
“It’s so creative, isn’t it?”
“I mean there’s just so much history” (by which I take it they mean a tangible sense of multi-layered tragedy).
“It must be the perfect place for a writer.”
And, yes, it’s true; all those New York Times articles are right. But the truth is that Berlin is just a city like any other, and I am beginning to think that if you have three friends and one bar you like, you might just as well live anywhere.
Image source: Flickr / musaeum
Now let me contradict myself. There is of course history, especially literary history. Despite knowing the ultimate insignificance of such things, I have found myself tracing the steps of Erich Kästner’s Fabian through the streets of West Berlin, searching for the exact spot where Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel fulfilled their suicide pact on the banks of Wannsee lake, and taking a photograph of the unassuming building in which Kafka lived for three months, the length of his stay so typical of other expats in the city ninety years later, though his reasons for leaving were more complicated than most—he died of tuberculosis five months later. These little outings, part tourism, part gleeful geekery, may not bring you any closer to the work of the writers in question, but they do give you the feeling of connection to a stream of ideas that flows through a place. However fallacious that idea might be, it’s still fun, isn’t it?
Feeling a connection to long-dead writers or characters created long ago is also important because Berlin can be a lonely city. I don’t mean this in the context of the endless grey winters with minimal daylight, which give the memory of the time you went swimming in a lake 5 months ago a positively Proustian distance. I don’t even mean it in the sense that my girlfriend just moved to New York and isn’t coming back. English-speaking writers in Berlin are cut off from the rest of the city in a way that English-speaking artists and musicians are not. The reasons for this are obvious: artists and musicians do not rely on a shared language to appreciate each other’s work. You might go to a vernissage and rub noses with Dutch installation-makers, Spanish photographers, German video artists and a Canadian chap who does expressionist paintings of shopping malls. But if you go to a reading (in English), there’s a good chance the people there will all be of a similar cultural background to you. And if you go to a German reading—as I do from time to time—you see the other side of the city, brimming with an intellectualism that seems to be played in a different musical mode. The concerns of the writers are different. The sense of what makes a good sentence or paragraph is different. The frames of people’s glasses are certainly different.
I occasionally feel guilty about finding myself mainly in the “English” literary community, despite the fact that I speak German, as though I am busying myself in a corner while ignoring a wide expanse behind me. Today I met a man called Hartmut in a café, who, after I told him I had studied German literature, rattled off a list of some of his favourite writers, one of whom I had heard of, none of whom I had read. I clearly have a lot to learn.
But for all that, Berlin does attract a lot of great writers of English, and there is always plenty to see, to talk about, and to read. For the English reader or writer, there are several great bookshops, from the modern, bagel-serving, new book-stocking Shakespeare & Sons to the “old Berlin” Another Country, where you might well see the owner making dinner in the kitchen, groceries and other supermarket items lying side-by-side with piles of unpriced second-hand paperbacks. Somewhere in the middle is the excellent Saint George’s, with its good poetry and fiction sections, and a lovely owner named Paul. All three of these shops hold regular readings and events. (And yes, okay, Berlin is great, because the other day I went to a reading of excerpts from the Odyssey over improvised synthesizer music.)
Speaking of Homer, my favourite place to write is the Staatsbibliothek or State Library near Potsdamer Platz. Anyone who has seen the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire will recognise it from the scenes in which a babel of readers’ inner-thoughts drifts through the vast Brutalist space, heard only by the angel characters (and by the viewer). One of the angels watches an old poet called Homer as he wanders about the place, watching the planets revolve on a model of the solar system and meditating on storytelling. The fact that the angels can hear people’s thoughts in the film has meaning on several levels, but even for the library-goer in 2014, there’s an encouraging sense that you are connecting with a stream of ideas, which, though unheard, may have an effect that cannot be felt. You could put this idea in more sensible terms by saying that sitting in a beautiful, well-lit space where lots of other people are working makes it easier and more enjoyable to work. Peer-pressure and good lighting, or the power of the human spirit: delete as appropriate.
Vijay Khurana writes fiction. He is the author of Regal Beagle (for children aged six to nine), published by Random House Australia, and is currently working on a novel for adults. You can find poems and (very) short stories on his website, www.vijaykhurana.com or follow him on twitter at @vijaykhurana.
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Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.