Six Must-Read Berliners
There's a lot to love about Berlin. The history, the street art, the unexpected. Hollywood-style stars festooned on the pavement in Potsdamer Platz. A four-storey stationary shop where you can play with a 3D printer. A bookshop that sells stunning art and design magazines from simple black shelves on simple black walls. The best burger I’ve ever eaten, and currywurst kiosks dotted all over the city. The endless galleries and Bowie tours.
As you might imagine for a city brimming with art and culture, a city with a Museum Island and an artistic district, Berlin has long attracted writers to its bosom. During the early part of the 20th Century, Henry Miller, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Kafka all traipsed through Berlin at one point or another. Since then, Berlin has become not only an incubator for homegrown talent, but an alluring and nurturing home to many writers from abroad.
Grass was born in Gdańsk, Poland, in 1927. Drafted as a teenager, he found himself a prisoner of US forces by 1944. After this he traveled, studying at various stages to be a sculptor, an illustrator, and a graphic designer before finally settling on writing, and settling in at the Berlin University of Arts in 1953. It was in Berlin that his first and best-known novel The Tin Drum (1959) was published. The novel revolves around the life of Oskar Matzerath, an unreliable narrator who refuses to grow up, remaining stunted in growth even as his mind expands over the years. Oskar is gifted with a piercing shriek and will do anything to protect his most treasured possession: a tin drum. There is much more to the novel than can be summarised here, but it is a beautifully written text, full of allegory, magical realism, and metaphor.
The Tin Drum was the first part of Grass’ interwar Danzig Trilogy, followed by Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). The film adaptation of The Tin Drum won a Palme d’Or in 1979 and an Oscar the following year. And when Grass won the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy's press release paid special attention to the impact of The Tin Drum.
Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller was born in Nițchidorf, a German-speaking village in Romania. In 1979, she was removed from her post as a translator as punishment for not cooperating with the Communist regime’s secret police. After this, she became a teacher, and by 1982 she had published her first book. Her books skirted controversy by playing with storylines that often illuminated the strict censorship laws of her home country. Since 1987, she has lived in Berlin, where she has written many important works: the short story collection Barefoot February (1987), Nadirs (1999), International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award winner The Land of the Green Plums (1994) and, in 2009—the year she won the Nobel Prize in Literature— The Hunger Angel.
Isherwood is perhaps Berlin’s most famous adopted son. He came to Berlin for the active and open social scene but only lived there for four years, 1929-1933. He made his mark though, and there are even Isherwood tours available these days. He is best known for two volumes: Mr. Morris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Both were published after he left Berlin and are often joined in one volume as the The Berlin Stories (1945). This book inspired the play I Am a Camera (1951) which in turn inspired the 1972 Oscar winning film Cabaret. If you have any interest in the Berlin literary scene, I would highly recommend this omnibus. Isherwood's writing is simple but incredibly detailed and elegant, evoking a scene that is both strangely familiar and yet very much different from modern day Berlin.
Brecht was born in Augsburg but lived and died in Berlin. He was a formidable talent with a prodigious output who managed to write dozens of plays and screenplays, and hundreds of poems, but only three works of fiction. His first play, Baal, premiered in 1923 and was heralded an immediate success. (There is an excellent 1982 Alan Clarke-directed version of Baal online starring David Bowie.)
Brecht was only 25 years of age at Baal's premiere. From there, he wrote plays year on year for the next three decades, over the course of this career becoming a highly influential playwright and poet.
Born in Stettin, Döblin moved to Berlin at ten and lived there for the next 45 years. In that time he would become the forefather of the German Modernist literary movement and, although he has a sizeable canon of work as a novelist and essayist, most of his reputation rests on his 1929 masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz, an important and intriguing work for a number of reasons. For one, the book is set entirely within Berlin as it faces the ascension of the Nazi party. It is a pressure cooker atmosphere for the inhabitants, but also for the protagonist Franz Biberkopf as he faces a new reality fresh from prison. Using multiple narrative voices and points of view, the book is often referenced alongside Joyce's Ulysses. There are similarities but to be fair, Berlin Alexanderplatz is much easier to read; turbulent and chaotic, but always engaging and really thoroughly enjoyable. It is also the basis for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 16-hour epic film of the same name, a masterpiece in its own right.
It’s only in the last number of years that Fallada has really made a significant impact on the English language scene. His book Alone in Berlin was translated in 2009 and very quickly became a bestseller and now in 2017, a film. This success is not without merit. Fallada writes much like Graham Greene; that which was quite probably stressful and laborious to get down on paper reads so fluidly, so beautifully, it is a pleasure to read, again and again. Hans Fallada’s birth name was Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen; his pseudonym was derived from the characters in the Grimm fairy tales: Lucky Hans (the protagonist) and Falada (a horse) in the Goose Girl.
Born in Greifswald in 1893, Fallada moved with his family to Berlin six years later. A turbulent life followed; a road accident at 16 and typhoid at 17 led to on-and-off alcoholism and drug addiction. Scared to admit their yearning for other men in a very regressive and critical society, he and a friend settled on a duel to disguise their suicides, only for Fallada to hit his target while his friend missed. Along with everything else, the guilt from this incident weighed heavily on him. Fallada found solace in farm work, though his brother's subsequent death in the war saw him relapse. By 1928 he found himself free of addiction, jail and the asylum. By 1929 he was married and working as a journalist. And by 1930 his breakthrough novel A Small Circus was published, setting him on a new course.