Tag Archives: Alone in Berlin

Berlin Stories

‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change,’ according to Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City. In May this year I made my first visit to Berlin. Everywhere there was building, tramlines outside our apartment, construction on a grand scale on every street. I was rather disappointed that so much of its history seemed to have disappeared.

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Checkpoint Charlie was a mock-up in the middle of a shopping street. I think the guards were actors. The Brandenburg Gate was swamped by foreign tourists, all aged about 20 and too young to remember the divided city, the Blockade, the Wall, escape attempts, JFK announcing, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and its breach in 1989 … Berlin is a city of history but its past is being made faster than in any other city I know in Europe. This evolving history is reflected in its restlessness, its rewriting.

What do these books have in common?

What do these books have in common?

Books about Berlin reflect this.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Written in a white heat in 28 days immediately after the end of the Second World War, the novel concerns the many ways in which the Nazi (and by extension totalitarian regimes of other kinds) distort life and appeal to base instincts and un-communitarian practices.

The Quangels lose their son early in the war and the father embarks on a small protest of writing postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages. These small acts of rebellion provoke different reactions among the people with whom he comes into contact: his wife, the Gestapo investigator, people who pick up the cards and others in prison. Even when the Quangels have been caught they are able to protest in their own way, although the system tries to hound them to the end. Small acts of kindness, organised resistance, decency of the people caught up by the regime but able to soften its effects from time to time – this is the source of redemption.

It is the conductor, with whom Otto Quangel shares a cell, who speaks to the title. So many acts of resistance but each one undertaken alone. If only they had been led, coordinated, then they might have amounted to something. And the novel addresses the issue of the purpose of struggle where the outcome is doomed. But Otto and his wife and others show that the struggle itself is worth it, to keep one’s integrity: you do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in. It may not change anything. But the point is to struggle.

Fallada based his novel on a true story, which was well documented, as so much of Nazi Germany was. He died soon after writing it.

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A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20th April 1945 to 22 June 1945 by Anonymous

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

A journalist begins her diary at the moment when the Russians advance on Berlin can be heard in the city at the end of the Second World War in Europe. She lives in an apartment block, and increasingly her life is limited to the block and then to the cellar. Her job has gone and safety is absent from the streets (US air raids are also a threat). The residents listen to rumours and the sounds of the advancing Red Army.

Within days the Russians arrive and everyone must decide how to respond to ‘Ivan’. The women are especially vulnerable to rape. The diarist is quickly raped, being fit and about 30. Fat women are also in demand (although there are few of them left). For several days as the Red Army celebrates the apartment dwellers must respond to the drunken and lascivious men. The diarist quickly decides that if she is to be raped repeatedly she should find a protector who will treat her decently. First Anatole, an officer with bear-like qualities and then the injured but cultivated Major become her protectors. Now the air raids have finished she stays with ‘the widow’ and her lodger in a first floor apartment. She records the visits of the many Russians who come through their apartment, most bringing supplies (especially alcohol), some bring interesting conversation.

As the conquerors begin to re-establish order lives, quickly change and then the diarist must do labour for the occupiers, mainly laundry and dismantling German factories ready for transport to the USSR.

Then there is the hope of job on a new publication, and finally her boyfriend returns, not seen since 1939. They try to connect. He is horrified by the complicity of the women in the rapes – as he sees it. He leaves and you get the sense that, as with so much else, they have to leave each other behind and move into the new post-war Germany.

The themes of the book are to do with how people behave in chaos, how order restores itself, especially for the conditioned German population. And how to deal with the fallout of rape for women – collectively and in writing.

In a post in September 2014 I called this a ‘hard to read book’. It was partly based on the comments of my travel companion, Fiona, who was reading it while we were in Berlin. It was hard, but the humour, courage and resourcefulness of the author made it worthwhile. I refer you to Clarissa’s comments on the post about this book and the author.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Three others to mention:

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

9781907773402frcvr.inddA novella, about Magda the wife of Joseph Goebbels, at various episodes in her life. One concerns Magda’s imagined time in Berlin under Russian rule – the period covered by A Woman in Berlin. The book is a psychological study of how abuse rattles down the generations and through institutions especially the family, the Catholic Church and National Socialism, which is presented as a religion. It’s vivid and raw.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

This collection of six sketches form a roughly continuous narrative. The book is ‘an ironic and compassionate picture of Berlin during the death throes of the Weimar Republic and of the foreign birds of passage who were drawn there temporarily for one reason or another,’ according to the Times obituary (1986) tucked into my copy. Isherwood lived in the city during the early 1930s. Cabaret is based on his memoirs. This was an exciting place, where the art was experimental, pushing boundaries, where excess and excitement lured the experimental and the young.

128 Goodbye cover

Stasiland by Anna Funder

After the fall of the wall and the end of the control of Eastern Germany and East Berlin by the communists, the citizens had to live with their past, and the way in which the Stasi had corrupted everyone, created its own state of secrets: Stasiland. Anna Funder is an Australian who researched and wrote about the lives of people who lived in the Stasi state, before and after the fall of the Wall.

 

What I notice about all these books is that they are all based on fact, even the novels draw on real events. It is as if Berlin’s history is rich enough, does not need to work much on its fiction.

Here’s a link to Ten of the best books set in Berlin chosen by Malcolm Burgess.

What would your Berlin stories be? I’m going to Amsterdam next week. What are the best Amsterdam books?

 

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Reading with others

Anything you enjoy is better done in the company of fellow enthusiasts. I love talking about reading and books. Here are my six top ways of sharing reading.

 1. On the bus

Actually it has only happened once, or rather twice but about one book. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I was preparing for a reading group. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ a total stranger asked as he sat down next to me. We had a conversation about it how he had always intended to read it. ‘How are you getting on with The Master and Margarita?’ asked the second. I got a 4 minute critique. ‘One of my favourite books,’ she said before getting off.

Great! I thought – conversations on buses, about books. I thought about the conductor who sang calypsos on the 38 bus, and began to imagine poetry readings on the 210 and a 73 bus route reading group. On reflection it seems that the conversations were more a response to the book than the potential of buses for such conversations.

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 2. With friends

Naturally, friends recommend, deconstruct, give me (I can’t bring myself to say gift me) books. Thanks to Rose I found Sebald, and my sister recommended Barbara Kingsolver years ago. I read Alone in Berlin recently, by Hans Fallada, recommended by a friend (thanks Jennifer). Most meetings with friends include enquiries about current reading and lead to most pleasurable talk about books.

3. When I have my hair cut

Usually the conversation is about holidays. I’ve never sat and stared at myself, all red eyed and too like my parents, and discussed books before. Great stuff. Recently, after 9 months I decided to have my hair cut, and went to see Gill Goddard in Totnes, who subscribes to this blog. Gill did ask me for my holidays recommendations – so watch out!

 4. In a reading group

96 J&JLove this – being required to read a book I may not have considered before, and then discussing reactions to it, hearing other people’s responses, and sometimes seeing things differently. Next up for discussion in my group is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. It’s about food and blogging and life. Lots to enjoy and talk about there then. The first book I ever read for a reading group was one I had decided would be too difficult: A Child in Our Time, by Ian McEwan. A young child disappears from a supermarket … I am glad I have faced that one, and (like much of McEwan) it’s a tough starting point.

5. On courses

A day talking with other people, usually women, who I have not met before, and learning about books on a particular theme. What’s not to love? While I was in London I attended courses at City Lit. I remember one excellent course on women’s short stories at the end of the C20th. We focused on the collection edited by Elaine Showalter called Daughters of Decadence (Virago). And that led me on to Women Who Did, a Penguin Classic collection of stories 1890-1914. That was a good course, one that extended my reading.

A good way to talk books in Devon came my way a couple of weekends ago. I attended a day in the Reading Room on madwomen in the attic. Oh, the pleasure, an indulgence as so many of the participants described it, of a day looking at fiction, in an environment entirely consonant with the conversation! The house was on a hill, just outside Chagford. The drive through Dartmoor was a treat, the refreshments and lunch entirely delicious, and the room itself comfortable, warm, everything a reading room should be.

96 2 booksThe day provoked, entertained, introduced new ideas and we enjoyed much laughter. Again I want to revisit some of the books we explored: The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilmour Perkins are two of them. Thank you to Leah, Naomi and Frances.

6. With children

96 Reading with motherThe physical closeness of reading to a small child, watching them engage with the text and pictures, sharing the love of certain books – I spend hours doing this. Current favourites with my nearly 3-year-old grandson are still the Aybeeceedee book (in the picture), and also Not Now Bernard, by David McKee. I’ve been reading with both grandsons since they were just weeks old. Magic. I hope to read to their children in time. (That’s my daughter in the picture, by the way.)

96 Not now BAnd there is another way I am coming to enjoy conversations about books …

 7. Blogs.

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Let slip the novels of war

War novels have their own ‘best of’ lists on the internet. Frequently these lists have too many testosterone-fuelled novels and horror for me. The five novels I pick out in this post have something else. They use the best of the novel to reflect on something beyond the experiences of most readers. They show the bigger picture – bigger geographically, in scope and in meaning – through individual stories. They use the power of story to explore the urge to survive, the horror of what man does to men, women and children, and how humans react when faced with the vastness of war.

Here are my five (plus two) to think about.

72 all q

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques

The First World War will be the subject of much remembrance as we reach the centenary of its outbreak. In Britain literary merit seems to be the preserve of the poets. The novel of choice is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarques, written, of course, in German. I did not read it until 2012, having been presented with extracts on a writing course. It was published in 1929, eleven years after the Armistice.

Paul Baumer tells the story in the first person. He and his school friends enlisted in the German army in 1916 as 18 year olds, on the encouragement of their schoolteacher. The story opens on the battlefield and hardly leaves it, except to go home on leave and for a spell in a military hospital. The narrator is killed in October 1918, feeling he has nothing left in his life, that the young person he was has been destroyed in the war. It has killed his friends one by one, and his country has been reduced to sending inadequately prepared raw recruits into battle to die. There are vividly descriptions of battle, but also some lighter scenes such as the theft of the goose, or the canal swim to be with some girls one evening.

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The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

My choice for a novel set in the homefront in the Second World War has to be The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen – the subject of a Readalong on my blog earlier in 2013. You can find my review here. One of the best novels of the twentieth century I believe.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The fate of the author (in Auschwitz in 1942) and the location in war-time France meant I was initially reluctant to read this book. But I was charmed and thrilled by it.

Part 1, Storm in June, concerns the flight from Paris in June 1940. The story follows several families as panic hit the capital and they scrambled out as the German army advanced. It’s an amazing exploration of what people do in a crisis, how some have great generosity and others think only of themselves. There is lovely humour, black in places, great tenderness and overall an affectionate look at people through the details of their lives.

Part 2 called Douce concerns life in a village in occupied France a year later, when German troops are billeted on the population. Here the story picks up some of the characters from Storm, but mostly concerns the relationship between a young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the young cavalry officer, Bruno. The development of the relationships between victors and conquered, between occupiers and residents is beautifully observed, as are the accommodations that people make to this situation in order to preserve their own values and lives.

The manuscript was carried by Irene Nemirovsky’s daughters, taken in haste to remind them of their mother. It was only produced for publication recently.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

For a novel from the battlefield (or the air battle in this case) in the Second World War I must nominate Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book is one of my desert island choices because it is so inventive, so rich in detail, so brilliant at showing the absurd in absurd situations. The title and some of the characters have entered our culture.

72 Disp

Dispatches by Michael Herr

Some brilliant writing came out of the Vietnamese War. The novel that made the strongest impression on me was Dispatches by Michael Herr. It’s a searing condemnation of what happened to the fighting men. It convinced me that war is never an answer to anything. The damage inflicted upon the participants is as futile in the Vietnamese war as all others, despite individual acts of heroism.

And the first other one:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

On publication it was celebrated as the work of a new voice, creative and strong. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is about US soldiers in the (second) Iraqi war. I read it in preparation for this blogpost. In my reading log I commented, ‘nothing to like here’. Too much of that male stuff here for me. Geoff Dyer was more critical of it in a review of another (non-fiction) book about the Iraq war. You can find his comments here: Thank You For Your Service. He includes these comments:

Kevin Powers served in Iraq but his novel reads as if he were the veteran only of serial deployments in MFA writing programmes. … [His novel is] inadequate as a form of response to the subject matter.

Here’s an example of creative writing class fiction perhaps: ‘while we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’ (p1) There was plenty more like that.

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The title comes from a US Army marching cadence:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

 

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head …

And the second other one:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This one is on my tbr pile, having been recommended by a friend. Have you read it? Have you an opinion about it?

And a few more recommendations from browsing the web

Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War)

Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Napoleonic invasion of Russia)

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five (Second World War)

D.M Thomas The White Hotel (Second World War)

And there are countless excellent non-fiction books as well.

 

Powerful stuff. What have you read that spoke to you about war? I was disappointed to find nothing outstanding in the twenty-first century. Have you come across anything you would recommend?

 

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