My Tip of the Month

Berlin Novels: In the Golden Age of the City

BundesarchivCopyright: Bundesarchiv
The flair of the twenties: Potsdamer Platz by night (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

28 January 2013

I arrived in Berlin after the fall of the wall and got to know not just the hopeful spirit of the nineties, but also the “golden” twenties. Even today, many look back yearningly at these presumably better days. Three novels are musts for this journey back in time. By Arne Schneider

Like all good German students, I moved to Berlin in 1990. The wall had just fallen and Berlin promised to be a very big adventure. Helmut Schmidt predicted that within five years Berlin would once again be a cosmopolitan city, as it had been in the 1920s.

Let’s forget the fact that I was then paying 250 marks rent for one room in a dilapidated rear building in Friedrichshain and am probably the only Wessi who was ever swindled by an Ossi. The twenties were truly omnipresent. You could hardly pass by an older building without someone telling you who once acted, lived, danced, wrote or snorted in it.

My Tip of the Month

Once every month we present a cultural recommendation to you in this column. By turns, we ask experts from the various specialist divisions of the Goethe-Institut for their own personal tip. Whether a classic or a novelty, insiders’ tip or urbane culture – what we seek is what they like.
This hype got on your nerves after awhile, but was presumably necessary. Seen in the light of day, the reality of unified Berlin had little to offer. West Berlin, in spite of the big scale events and showcase-of-the-west rhetoric the decade before the fall of the wall, was mainly provincial. In East Berlin, the districts that had survived the air raids and socialist urban planning looked as if the war had only ended a few days before. Bullet holes riddled the black façades and the collapsing balconies were acutely life threatening. I did not experience my first sandstorm in the Sahara, but in the urban fallow lands of the former border strip.

Many experienced post-wall Berlin as a gigantic adventure playground of culture and parties. (Wladimir Kaminer’s Russian Disco and Rafael Horzon’s grotesque “autobiography” My White Book are wonderful portraits of this time of departure.) But, for those who also sought the more bourgeois qualities of a city, there was only the optimistic hope for the future – or simply a look back at the past. And since the choice of supposed “better days” was not large in Berlin, the twenties were the only alternative.

Today, as is generally known, Berlin has changed. The centre glitters, the arts scene is bigger, more international and more diverse than ever and the rents are sky high. It is therefore very worthwhile to look back in literature to the culturally spectacular and politically devastating years of the city between the two world wars – even today. Three novel recommendations:

  • Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin / Leb wohl, Berlin!
    Highly autobiographical and the literary basis of the successful musical Cabaret: A young Englishman experiences the wild, the proletarian, the upper class, the masquerading, the international Berlin – as well as the rise of fascism. Laconically narrated, it is sometimes more a sketchbook than a novel.
  • Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz
    Still a marvel today, the novel is a collage of stories, headlines, politicians’ speeches, official communiqués, statistics, advertisement, song and Bible quotes, of jargons and milieus that lead directly into the proletarian and demimonde city of those years.
  • Erich Kästner: Fabian
    Originally, the novel was to have the subtitle Going to the Dogs. And, things do not go well for Dr. Fabian, who is too good for the chaotic and cynical world of those years. Sometimes poignant, sometimes cynical and often uproariously funny.

Copyright: Loredana La RoccaArne Schneider, 43, is the head of the Literature and Translation Promotion Division at the head office of the Goethe-Institut. From 2003 until 2008, he worked for the institute as the head of the language department in Afghanistan and as institute director in Nigeria. He has been at the head office in Munich since 2009 and after his years abroad enjoys life in the company of his family and friends again as well as every day delights such as pavements, cafés and theatres. His favourite thing about Munich and its surroundings is cycling.

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