A few weeks back, prompted by an invitation from Katy Derbyshire over at the excellent blog love german books, I attended a reading at a charming establishment called Katz & Maus put on by an English-language publisher of small format books, Readux. The reading was fantastic, and while I was there, I picked up a couple of Berlin-specific titles to check out. I only just got around to reading my first the other day and, well, I highly recommend it.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ essay “City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin” struck a nerve with me simply because it seemed like he had found me out. As I read his essay, I noticed, as in a mirror image, a series of impulses I have felt as an academic writer in Berlin. With a self-aware sense of his own relative privilege that is coupled by an inate suspicion of his own inadequacy, he describes the experience of being in Berlin for any time long enough that it can no longer be considered a vacation.
In particular, Lewis-Kraus makes some rather astute observations about the disparity between one’s impressions of what Berlin will be like and the actuality, the listlessness that comes with the privilege of any stay for which one does not have the burden of a regular work or school routine, and the simultaneous energy boon and energy drain of Berlin’s all-night, DIY, anything goes artistic, creative, and party scene. He describes, as well, the sort of depression which seems endemic to newcomers here…I myself wrote about it a few entries back, in that Berlin lends itself to a hopefulness that for many is difficult to maintain once actually here. Contained within all of this is a rather poignant investigation of the process of writing itself, and in particular how an environment teeming with creative potential can actually overwhelm one to the point of inaction.
This essay (story? whatever one might call it…) is really a lovely little read, and I can definitely see the appeal of these short format books that Readux puts out…I read it all within the span of enjoying a coffee and some quiche at a cafe in Kreuzberg, where I’d jumped in to avoid the drizzle and been greeted by a barista who, immediately upon noticing my accent, switched to speaking English at me, despite my attempts to continue in German. It was what I needed to read at that exact moment, and it was nice to be able to finish it all in that short little span of time.
Here are but a few of my favorite little bits from the piece:
"You’ve probably gone to Berlin in part because of its reputation for world-historical fun. If you’ve found yourself there in some bounded way—on a fellowship before graduate school, say—the fun serves just fine. But if your move is an open-ended affair, the fun takes its course, and then, to avoid that obscure sense of having failed at being somewhere, you need an exit strategy. Some exit strategies allow you to stay: falling in love with a German, say, or going to German graduate school. Other exit visas allow you to leave. Falling in love with someone in Paris. Getting a job in London. You need some finding that retroactively validates the whole experiment. Because you’ve set yourself up, is the thing. As a writer, I hoped I might find that justification in telling a story that looped the whole thing together in a reasonable way….I have found, however, that I cannot shake the urge to write more about Berlin, to revise what I have already written about Berlin, and furthermore to disclaim in advance as insufficiently definitive anything I might conceivably write about Berlin in the future." (pp 5-6)
"The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of many of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint—no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order. I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes—the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening—and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them. After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place. They had, of course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell, they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all." (pp 10)
"With no real work to speak of, love, or at least sex, took on unreasonable burdens. Structured productive time was creatively supplanted by structured consumptive time. We repressively desublimated. In the absence of actual poetry, we took very seriously the receding prospect of becoming the poets of our own lives." (pp 12)
"But the first time I came back to Berlin as a visitor, less than a year after having left what passed for an actual life there behind, all I could see were the remainders. What I’d left out, what I’d misrepresented. My protean, anecdotal version of events there may have felt static and conflicted, nothing like the neat story I’d come to tell in the book, but I’d lost something in giving up that sketchy, makeshift approach to a sketchy, makeshift place. For I did not go to Berlin as a naif and I did not emerge from it a cynic. I did not begin in exhiliration and end in despond. There was no arc that moved from one state to another. There were just both states, always." (pp 21)
This last quote in particular, the sense of both states, always, simultaneously, strikes a real chord for me as someone who has devoted her time, energy and body to this city in an attempt to understand the culture, and yet who has often felt nonetheless rebuffed by Berlin. Feeling neither like an outsider nor an insider, neither accepted nor rejected, neither loved nor despised by this city, but rather feeling all of those things, all the time, all at once…I suspect that feeling is a lot of what’s behind this compulsion to write about Berlin, to attempt to get the city down on paper so one has a shot, a chance, no matter how fleeting, of getting a grip on it.
I could probably pull quotes from this piece endlessly but, given it’s short length, I’d be giving the whole thing away. Instead, I urge those interested in Berlin to consider giving it a read. You can pick it up here, in paperback or in e-book format.