Tag Archives: Berlin

Berlin Cantata

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Berlin Cantata
By Jeffrey Lewis
Haus Publishing – £12.99

We were up late that night in the inn, quietly with the lights out. Holly couldn’t sleep. Se felt, she said, like a stranger to herself. ”It started sometime in the carols. I though: listen, they singing to me with Christian love? Is this the reality Jews are blind to, that could convert a soul on the spot? I must be weak, I thought. I hear the lovely voices of children, and then.. all I could hear was a lot of my own voice, like static. Telling me to listen. All these words. The music! I wanted to live in the music. But just then I couldn’t.

Initially attracted by the book’s title, these 240 pages are a rather cyclonic read, which, to all intents and inherently jarring purposes, is intense and simultaneously intriguing.

Indeed, throughout, Berlin Cantata, Jeffrey Lewis bequeaths the reader with quite a bit to think about as well as dissect – by way of an array of heterogeneous voices. All of whom are fundamentally fraught and forthright in their own way. All of whom appear haunted by history; which partially explains their search for acute (subliminal) redemption.

For instance, Holly Anholt: ”Everything was stacked high as if you were getting something wholesale, empty suitcases, pairs of shoes, Zyklon B cans, hair. Now there would be a punishment, a just retribution, to have to spend your life counting up every single hair, and if you make one mistake, if you miss one hair, you have to start over. I thought such things. I was alone. And this too: if work can’t make you free, what can? Only God’s grace? Only love? Only luck? (‘Journey’).

There is so much psychologically gruesome information packed into the above few lines, it’s hard knowing where to begin, where to start assimilating. Let alone come to terms with.

It is this veritable coming to terms with which keeps the reader going, yet somewhat vexed. Curious, yet simultaneously perplexed – in an altogether good way might I add.

As the author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger, Lee Smith, has since said: ”Jeffrey Lewis has written a stunning novel, as deep and intriguing as the city itself. The varied cast of characters tell their own stories as they wind their tortured and tortuous way through the dark past toward some kind of understanding, if not atonement.”

David Marx

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The Butchers Of Berlin

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The Butchers Of Berlin
By Chris Petit
Simon & Schuster – £12.99

The last entry, in a shaking hand, was barely legible. ‘I would rest my head on her bosom and die content. Other than that there is nothing to live for, ‘Ten years of terror and we are dust already, waiting only for our bones to be ground, flesh reduced to the thinnest parchment, the spirit long departed. They have kicked the shit out of us.

Concise yet colourful, tough yet tightly written,Chris Petit’s The Butchers Of Berlin is a cornucopia of varying qualities, almost all of which insist on transporting the reader unto another place. A place that is intrinsically fascinating whilst simultaneously fraught with the psychological devastation of war (and everything that that entails).

That place is a war-torn Berlin in 1943, where one of the most quizzical of questions invariably needs to be asked: ”In the middle of a war, why should one more murder matter?”

Indeed.

The book’s prime protagonist, August Schlegel, is a reticent dog with a bone, who, if nothing else, intends (by default) to get to the bottom of a murder and a suicide that opens the book nigh immediately: ”The pistol was an old Mauser C96. He appreciated the aesthetics of its distinctive box magazine in front of the trigger, the long elegant barrel and comfort of the wooden handle. His last companion of choice. His hands were cold but he would not wear gloves. He passed through the apartment, careful not to disturb the others because he wished to leave unobserved. He closed the door softly behind him, stood at the top of the stairs and stared into the descending gloom.”

Such a rich mixture of introduction and explanation might well be all one needs – in order to head off into the literary litany of the unknown.

Other than the fact that a murder has taken place and it’s Berlin during the middle of the Second World War, the reader is essentially left to his or her own imaginative devices. An inner sanctum, which, it has to be said, is more than augmented by fine, novelistic writing:

”[…] the arrangement of the letters tight and sinister, as though the man had allowed the angriness in his brain to spill directly onto the page. Doodles filled the margins, black scribbles, angry crossing-out, strange fractures, skulls. They were a mess, yet strangely professional and abstracted, making them hard to read. Like the handwriting, they contrived to be both meticulous and explosive.

[…]

‘I have long ceased to exist, except as a husk, pausing only to note with heavy heart that suffering makes beasts of us all. Otherwise my days are filled with idle infatuation; the pathetic fantasies of an old man. Such beauty condemned. The nape of the neck. The turn of the hip. The delicate furrow between nose and lip (is there a name for that?).”’

”Such beauty condemned” might well have made for a far more inviting, interesting title for this these 482 pages. But, as Alan Moore has made perfectly clear since The Butchers Of Berlin’s publication: ”Conjuring a wartime Berlin where atrocities get lost against a ground of escalating Holocaust, Chris Petit’s nerve-wracking SS procedural nurses a dread that penetrates right to the marrow. An appalling, beautifully lit abyss.”

An appalling, beautifully lit abyss; what more could you ask for?

David Marx

Leaving Berlin

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Leaving Berlin
By Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster – £12.99

Having already written novels interestingly anchored in Venice, Hollywood and of course, Istanbul with Istanbul Passage, the Edgar Award-winning author Joseph Kanon now returns for the first time in a decade, to the city he captured so memorably in The Good German (the 2006 film adaptation of which starred George Clooney and Cate Blanchett).

Concise and well-written, resolute and simultaneously regal, Leaving Berlin transports the reader back to 1949 at the height of the American Airlift, in which book’s protagonist – a young, savvy, German Jew by the name of Alex Meier – essentially runs the show from beginning to end.

Indeed, having fled the Nazis during the war years, Meier has recently returned to Berlin from the U.S., where, having fled the storm(s) of McCarthy era paranoia, is invariably working for the CIA. So what ensues is the usual Graham Green/Le Carre induced, spy-type fare; although herein, one gets a really good sense of what Berlin must have been like during those most austere of years. A time when Berliners didn’t mind the intermittent power cuts, as they at least enabled a worn and wary populace to not have to actually see ”how bad the food is.”

Interspersed with quasi-jocular visions of Bertolt Brecht – another returnee to the city – Kanon writes with a certain finesse in which he bequeaths oodles of information with very few words. A certain sort of power prose if you will, replete with poignant provocation and punctuation, in which the reader is invited to assimilate for themselves: ”Alex looked at him, the boy they’d hidden under the stairs. His hair, once the colour of Irene’s, was now indeterminate, cropped short, prison style, easy for delousing. Dirty, streaked with grime, his skin drawn tight over the bones, so that his eyes seemed to bulge out, too big for his face. Holding on to the newel, some support” (‘Kulturbund’).

Each of the eight chapters, which are invitingly named after an area of this most unique of cities, is intelligently brought to bare by way of a succinct form of ambiguity. A quality which, in and of itself, is always a good thing. Always a literary attraction.

”No one writes period fiction with the same style and suspense – not to mention substance – as Joseph Kanon,” writes Scott Turow. Even the front cover of the book depicts a period of Berlin’s history, that remains as resonant today, as it probably will in another hundred years from now.

A most idiosyncratically, intriguing read.

David Marx

Then We Take Berlin

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Then We Take Berlin

By John Lawton

Grove Press – £12.99

Interspersed with a most knowledgable and historical observation of the European theatre of the Second World War, Then We Take Berlin really is a stellar, roller-coaster of a read.

Having lived in Berlin for a number of years, it made reading this book all the more enjoyable, simply due to recognising so many of the landmarks and places – many of which, like the city itself, have obviously changed so much over the years; what with the (American, French, English and Russian) occupying forces, and eventual division of the now German capital, due to the existence of the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989.

But had I not lived in Berlin and come to read about the exploits of the book’s prime protagonist, John Holderness/Widlerness – an East London wide-boy, replete with relatively kind heart who falls for a Berliner by the name Nell Breakheart – I’d have still very much enjoyed reading its punchy pace and (many) intertwined stories.

Whether it’s Berlin after the war, or Berlin in 1963, author John Lawton has punctuated Then We Take Berlin with a fine assortment of terrific, almost intoxicating one-liners (”The people were… yellow… a poxy, wasted, vitamin deficient yellow,” ”the trivia of memory,” ”the beggar at her childhood’s end”), many of which, from a literary perspective at least, cajole the reader into clearly wanting to read on and on.

Moreover, that the book is also peppered with an array of historical references and seemingly profound viewpoints (”The Third Reich rendered into the costume of a circus clown,” ”On the one hand all the pent-up hatred of chocolate soldiers, Blimps who watched the war from an insurance office in Guildford,” ”It resembled a grotesque jamboree,” ”It was repellent and tempting. And he did not care to discuss temptation with her”) does much to entice the reader to fundamentally never departing, let alone be sidetracked, from Lawton’s rather suave storytelling.

Apart from some of the earlier pages that are anchored in New York City, war, and its entire despicable trajectory thereof, is never very far from any one page of this altogether marvellous book. It’s a constant reminder. A relentless confirmation.

Then We Take Berlin is, as Lawton so eloquently reminds us, both a place and a read where ”Discretion is a valuable commodity. You can get paid for discretion.”

David Marx

Berlin Tales

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Berlin Tales – Stories translated by Lyn Marven
Edited by Helen Constantine
Oxford University Press – £9.99

These seventeen stories traverse the effervescent city of Berlin, both past and present, in such a beguiling way – that one’s compelled to not only read more, but investigate the city for real.

By way of miniaturist story telling, most sides of the German capital – from the decadence and the modernity of the Weimar Republic right through to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – are marvellously captured and juxtaposed throughout Berlin Tales.

While many of the stories have been translated for the first time, almost all come across as having lost none of their initial panache, individuality nor wit. The nigh photographic, rapid and random snapshot travelogue that is ‘My Berlin’ (by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar) being a perfect example.

It’s so concise, it’s almost poetic: ”At Zoo station I waved to all the buses going past. I was in freedom and was pleased about the rain. I thought, Berlin has waited for me for nine years. It was as if back then when I returned to Istanbul, Berlin had frozen like a photo, to wait for me – with the long, tall trees, with the Gedachniskirche, with the double-decker buses, with the corner pubs. Berlin Kindl beer, the crosses on the beer mats. Walls. Checkpoint Charlie. U-Bahn. S-Bahn. Cinema on Steinplatz. Abshied von gestern (Yesterday Girl). Alexander Kluge. Bockworst sausages. The Brecht theatre Berlin Ensemble. Arturo Ui. Canals. The Peacock Island. Tramps in the stations. Pea soup. Lonely women in Cafe Kranzler. Black Forest gateau. Workers from different countries. Spaghetti. Greeks. Cumin-Turks. Cafe Kase. Telephone dances. Bullet holes in house walls. Cobblestones. Curried sausage. White bodies waiting for the sun at Lake Wannsee. Police dogs. East German police searchlights. Dead train tracks, grass growing between them. House notices: ‘In the interests of all residents children are forbidden to play games.’ Stations left behind in East Berlin which the West underground trains pass through without stopping. A solitary East-policeman on the platform. Solinka soup. Stuyvesand cigarettes. Rothandle cigarettes. Signs:’Achtung Sie verlassen den Amerikanischem Sektor / Warning you are leaving the American sector.’ Jewish cemetery in East Berlin. Ducks on Lake Wannsee. A bar with music from the 1940s, old women dancing with women. Broilers.”

This one story alone is a more than jubilant, topsy-turvy traipse through everything that Berlin once was (and to a certain degree, still is). It’s colourful, majestic and well-paced, not to mention almost serene in its observation; which, along with such other short stories as ‘Seen from the Window’ by Siegried Kracauer (”They are not compositions like Pariser Platz or La Concorde which owe their existence to a single architectural conception, rather they are creations of chance […]”) and ‘Gina Regina’ by Ulrike Draesner (”an intermezzo of sugar bun and sex”), are a delight to both read and truly behold.

And like the city itself, investigate further.

David Marx

Bruce Springsteen: Rocking The Wall

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Bruce Springsteen: Rocking The Wall

By Erik Kirschbaum
Berlinica Publishing – $11.95

It would seem that for the last forty or so years, Bruce Springsteen just can’t do anything wrong.

For whatever reason – be it musical, political or social – he who was invariably born to run, has created himself such an unquestionably great career; it’s nigh impossible to question (most of) his political persuasion and artistic endeavour(s). And herein speaks someone who has seen Springsteen perhaps fifteen or so more times on both sides of the Atlantic, including his fundamental home-turth, Asbury Park.

After all, let’s face it, as both a songwriter and live performer, HE REALLY IS THAT GOOD.

But, even if Springsteen was born to run, he wasn’t born yesterday. As such, he has over time, surrounded himself with such a brilliant team of diplomatic, media suave, savvy heads, it would indeed appear that almost everything he does – from an international perspective at least – is almost sacrosanct beyond belief.

Let alone question.

Which is why Bruce Springsteen: Rocking The Wall – The Concert That Changed The World doesn’t surprise me in the very least. It’s an interesting read, but not a particularly enlightening one so far as the true essense of the actual subject matter is concerned. From the perspective of a mighty myopic, Stasi induced state of over forty years, it reads as if merely skimming the surface. But then maybe that’s the (rather escapist) point?

For a start, it’s written by New Yorker Erik Kirschbaum, a long time Springsteen fan (who has lived in the German capital for over twenty-five years). So, it’s already going to be a book of high-octane, socio-politico, positive promise. Absolutely no doubt whatsoever.

To be sure, any political, perhaps justified clarity, doesn’t even enter the equation.

That the ever obsequious, Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh, is quoted on the back cover (”Inside this book is as clear a statement of the power of this music as anyone, ever, has come up with”) more than substantiates as much. For wherever Springsteen goes, so too does Marsh, for whom his subject is essentially God.

That said, I should imagine Springsteen is a whole different kettle of ideological meaning in Berlin, which really is fair enough – a lot of which Kirschbaum captures rather lucidly withing these 137 pages (excluding Select Bibliography).

David Marx

The Great War Diaries

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The Great War Diaries
By Florian & Gunnar Dedio
BBC Books – £21.99

With regards the centenary of the First World War, this is without doubt one of the finest, if not the best book published so far this year.

Not only is it powerful and poignant, mesmerising and melancholy, it visually and orally transports the reader back to a totally different place in time; wherein European pride and morality didn’t have to be promoted and monitored through the court(s) of law, but was rather, inadvertently instilled from birth.

One need only fleetingly glance at any one of these painstakingly reproduced, all prevailing photographs, to ascertain and realise an era that was so very different to that of our ever increasing, morally bankrupt own.

Then again, as Marcel Proust wrote in Within A Budding Grove: ”one becomes moral as soon as one is unhappy.”

Whilst researching a documentary on the First World War, brothers Florian and Gunnar Dedio, two film-makers, stumbled upon an extraordinary cache of photographs collected by Germany’s first media tycoon, August Fuhrmann. Several thousand hand-coloured, glass plates had lain abandoned for decades in a warehouse on Rostock, Germany. And once these were aligned with assorted letters, diaries and relative memoirs of the day, the brothers must have surely realised their veritable treasure trove of history: ”In preparation for filming, we read extracts from over 1,000 diaries, letters and memoirs of men, women and children from all the nations involved in the war. We wanted to find out how it felt to experience the conflict from different viewpoints: as a mother, son, father, lover, soldier or nurse. We selected quotes from these eyewitnesses to include in this volume, and feel that they give every photograph an additional emotional dimension” (‘About this Book’).

This, the photographs most resoundingly do; which fundamentally explains why The Great War Diaries is almost un-put-down-able. Indeed, once this wonderful book is opened, it is, for some unfeigned reason, akin to gazing through a book of one’s own family photographs.

Such is the unquestionable, yet all resonating familiarity, which, in an oddly reflective kind of way, speaks volumes so far as our own subliminal sense of history is concerned. For instance, the full size photograph of the former Stettin Station in Berlin on page 23, jumped out at me immediately. Might this be because I lived in Berlin for a number of years and am still interested in its history? Or might this be because of the familiar architecture of the buildings on the corner of a busy intersection, which I recognise, in the knowledge that Stettin Station no longer exists (due to it having been almost completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War)?

Either way, I was drawn not only to the photograph, but also the pertinence of its accompanying caption that reads: ”The beginning of the twentieth century was the birth of ‘the mass’: mass production, mass communication and mass transport. The railway is already a few decades old, but the automobile has only appeared in recent years. By the start of the First World War there are over 200 brands of automobile in Germany.”

These eight chapters do much to convey the true horrors of the front line and the challenges of the home front – throughout the European theatre of war in its entirety. From Holland, Belgium and France (the former of which was neutral throughout the campaign), to Germany, Poland and Russia, The Great War Diaries depicts strength and suffering, hope and despair in equal measure.

If you only buy one book to commemorate and try and understand – if not come to terms with the First World War – then this should most definitely be it.

David Marx