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Berlin is not pretty. You should know that beforehand. You don’t come here for the beautiful architecture of an old European city.
The Berlin Cathedral feels oversized. Across the street, there is the absurd Stadtschloss — a castle that was torn down in 1950, replaced by a rather Brutalist building and then recently rebuilt from scratch true to its 19th century facade, with a hyper-modern interior. On Potsdamer Platz, a tent-like glass roof serves as a strange time capsule of what people in the early 1990s thought their future would look like. Just down the road stands the Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical monument that became a symbol of the new, reunited Germany.
The 20th century has left deep marks on this city. Not too long ago, Berlin was still divided by a wall. And history before the wall was darker still: Watch for the small golden rectangles on the pavement — the Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones — each one carrying the name of a Jewish resident of Berlin killed by the Nazis, and a constant reminder of the people whose children and grandchildren could be living here now. In Berlin, if you know your history, you will find pain on every corner.
But when the weather is nice and you bike from the Neukölln district to Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain to Prenzlauer Berg, the architecture recedes and you will find a sense of freedom in zooming by the endless stretches of cafes and restaurants and parks full of people, speaking so many different languages.
Much of Berlin’s appeal lies in what happens indoors — in its cafes and clubs and within people’s apartments. The city’s grim history has given rise to a search for joy, at times extreme. There is a serious dance and club culture ranging from techno music to Afrobeats, in dance schools and on the streets. The availability of many large spaces after the fall of the wall also resulted in many great artists having a studio in Berlin and therefore in a thriving contemporary art scene. And as for literature, many prominent German-language writers, including those from Austria and Switzerland, are now living in Berlin.
But the best thing about Berlin may be that its mantra of everyone being equal still plays out in many ways. Berlin is still affordable (well, relatively speaking) and you don’t need much money be cool. With style and attitude, you will get into Berghain or another exclusive club over any billionaire. I don’t know when it happened, but Berlin somehow rose above its tragic past and became a great place to be.
What should I read before I pack my bags?
The big classic is Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” It’s one of the great modernist novels of the 20th century, and getting to know Berlin is just one of many good reasons to read it.
What books or authors should I bring with me?
Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Gift.” It’s the last book he wrote in Russian — a big novel about a man and a woman whom fate tries to bring together (for a long time, to no avail). It’s also about the huge community of Russians who took refuge in Berlin after the revolution. For obvious reasons, this is a timely topic.
Irmgard Keun’s “The Artificial Silk Girl.” This is a highly original, extremely stylish novel about Berlin in the early 20th century. The narrator is a young woman whose irreverent and funny voice you will not easily forget.
Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone.” This is the one big social novel that takes place in Berlin under Nazi rule, written by someone who lived through it. It will give you nightmares, but it does give you an idea of what it really felt like, the way only great novels can.
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Thomas Brussig’s “The Short End of the Sonnenallee.” One of the most brilliant satirical novels about life in East Berlin, in the shadow of the wall (quite literally). A translation by Jonathan Franzen and Jenny Watson, with an introduction by Franzen, will be published in April 2023 by Picador Original.
Sven Regener’s “Berlin Blues.” One of the funniest German books ever, it explores what it was like to live in Berlin after the reunification with lots of booze and no money.
And if you read some German, try Jens Bisky’s newly published and therefore not yet translated history, “Berlin.” Just as with the city itself, don’t be deterred by its large size.
If I have no time for day trips, what books could help me explore further?
Any of the novels of Theodor Fontane, the great 19th century writer. They often take place in the rather idyllic landscape of Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin.
And Voltaire’s “Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire.” Potsdam is only one hour from Berlin, and the friendship of Frederick the Great and the greatest writer of the 18th century, which led to a lot of highly entertaining mutual slander, is endlessly interesting to explore.
What writer is everyone in town talking about?
Right now, for obvious reasons, people are talking about the great Ukrainian writers — for example Yuri Andrukhovych and Andrey Kurkov — as well as the Russian dissident writers who made it to Germany and are not able to return to their home for political reasons, such as Vladimir Sorokin, Ludmila Ulitskaya and Victor Erofeyev. These are household names in Europe, which means they are, like the names of nearly all the world’s great writers not writing in English, little known in the U.S.
Tell me what audiobook would make for good company while I walk around.
Listen to Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera.” There is even a BBC production with David Bowie. Yes, it’s officially set in London, but it’s the quintessential play about Berlin in the 1920s. Don’t try to make sense of the story: Just enjoy the songs.
Who are the literary icons I might see named on street signs, statues, public monuments?
While listening to the “Threepenny Opera,” you might want to take a walk around Berliner Ensemble, the theater where “Threepenny Opera” premiered in 1928 and where Brecht himself directed his plays after he returned from his Hollywood exile. There is also a statue of Brecht but the real monument is, of course, his theater.
What literary pilgrimage destination would you recommend?
This is a not a fun recommendation, but go to Hohenschönhausen prison, where the East German secret police interrogated dissidents, many of them writers. Back then, you couldn’t find it on any map: Very few people even knew it existed. Now, former inmates are the tour guides! The ex-prisoners are so young, relatively speaking, that one understands viscerally how recently the dictatorship was still in place. It may ruin your day, but it will help you understand more about the latter half of the 20th century than most books or museums.
What’s a good place to curl up with a book on a day off?
From the Berliner Ensemble take a 10-minute walk past Friedrichstrasse train station — which in the times of the wall was the train station between East and West — to the gigantic bookstore called Dussmann, on Friedrichstrasse. It has everything, in all languages, and is so big you might never find your way out.
Or, if you’re already in the western part of the city, go to Bücherbogen at Savignyplatz. It’s smaller than Dussmann, but it’s probably Berlin’s most beautiful independent bookstore.
Then take all the books you’ve bought and, if it’s spring or summer, go to gritty Volkspark Friedrichshain and stay until the sun finally sets. If it’s winter, though, don’t even try. Avoid the park.
Actually, if it’s winter, don’t come to Berlin at all.
Daniel Kehlmann’s Berlin Reading List
“Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Alfred Döblin
“The Gift,” Vladimir Nabokov
“The Artificial Silk Girl,” Irmgard Keun
“Every Man Dies Alone,” Hans Fallada
“The Short End of the Sonnenallee,” Thomas Brussig
“Berlin Blues,” Sven Regener
“Berlin,” Jens Bisky
Novels by Theodor Fontane
“Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire,” Voltaire
“Threepenny Opera,” Bertolt Brecht
Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel, “Tyll,” inserts humor into a story set in a Europe devastated by conflict, and is being adapted into a major motion picture. It is his eighth novel, and has been, or is being, translated into more than 20 languages.
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