Long time readers of this blog will have noticed that Berlin is a favourite city of mine. I’ve visited it three times and if you asked me if I’d like to go again tomorrow I’d be eagerly packing my bag, ready to head off. The next best thing, of course, is a virtual visit by way of fiction so here are five books that have taken me there, all with links to reviews on this blog.
It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building in the old East Berlin while Evelyn is waiting to take up a post in a Cologne museum. The daughter of German parents, Evelyn looks forward to starting a new life, exploring the city while Paul flounders at work, trying to tighten his grasp on a language which constantly eludes him. As his project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter. Duncan’s use of language is quietly precise, his sense of place wonderfully atmospheric: a few clean bright sentences describing the sound of snow underfoot took me back to my first visit to Berlin. A beautifully crafted, wonderfully atmospheric novella.
Unsurprisingly, several of my favourite Berlin novels were written in German including Anna Krien’s meticulously constructed Love in Five Acts which explores what it is to be a woman in 21st-century Germany. It follows five very different women, all born in the GDR, whose lives are interlinked, sometimes in ways they’re not aware. These are women who, like Krien, were teenagers when the Berlin Wall fell. Now middle aged, they’re faced with a multitude of choices and pressures, each dealing with the freedom denied to their parents in their own way, from Judith, a busy GP, expert at reading between the lines of dating app profiles, to Malika who longs for a child and may yet have one but not quite in the way she’d planned. An impressive piece of fiction, both absorbing and thought provoking not least in its ending. Always worth looking out for Jaimie Bulloch’s name. I’ve yet to read a novel he’s translated I’ve not enjoyed.
My third choice is also translated by Bulloch and also has an eye on the past. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This intricately constructed piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one: Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in the city and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure in which deftly handled coincidences abound.
Impossible to escape the shadow cast by the second world war in Berlin which is when Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun is set. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets Matthias Rachmann, a young dealer apparently respectful of his expertise. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose dearest possession is a painting by the artist taken by his wife when she left him. When a young talented artist, once the object of Julius’ attention, attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out. This one neatly ticks two boxes for me – I find an art theme as irresistible as a Berlin setting.
Takis Würger’s Stella is also set during the war, following a wealthy young Swiss man and the beautiful artists’ model he falls in love with. Consumed with a curiosity stirred by rumours of disturbing events in Germany, Friedrich takes himself off to Berlin finding the city festooned with swastikas, neighbourhoods routinely stripped of their Jewish inhabitants but the opera house full every night. When he attends a drawing class, he meets Kristin, bold, beautiful and a talented jazz singer who performs at the Melodie Klub. There he encounters Tristan, an eccentric, aristocratic jazz fan who becomes a friend of sorts. As Friedrich and Kristin fall in love, she visits him daily, luxuriating in the hotel’s comfort but never staying the night. Half-way through this brief novella, Kristin becomes Stella, revealing her real identity. At just short of two hundred pages, Würger’s novel is brief but extraordinarily powerful. Given its dedication to his great-grandfather who died in the camps, it also feels very personal.
Any books set in Berlin you’d like to add to my list? Always keen to add more.
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