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Berlin is not beautiful. You need to know that in advance. You don’t come here for the beautiful architecture of an old European city.
Berlin Cathedral feels too big. Across the street is the absurd Stadtschloss – a castle that was demolished in 1950 and replaced by a rather brutalist building and then recently completely rebuilt true to its 19th-century facade, with a cutting-edge 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. A little further on is the Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical monument that became a symbol of the new, reunified Germany.
The 20th century has left deep marks in this city. Not so long ago, Berlin was separated by a wall. And the history before the wall was even darker: watch out for the little golden rectangles on the sidewalk – the stumbling blocks, or stumbling blocks — each bearing the name of a Jewish resident of Berlin who was murdered by the Nazis, and a constant reminder of the people whose children and grandchildren might now live here. If you know your history, you will find pain on every corner in Berlin.
But if the weather is nice and you cycle from the Neukölln district to Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain to Prenzlauer Berg, the architecture disappears and you find a feeling of freedom zooming in along the endless expanse 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 the cafes and clubs and in people’s apartments. The city’s grim history has led to a quest for joy, sometimes extreme. There is a serious dance and club culture ranging from techno music to afrobeats, in dance schools and on the street. The availability of many large spaces after the fall of the wall also meant that many great artists had studios in Berlin and thus a thriving contemporary art scene† And as far as literature is concerned, many prominent German-language writers, including those from Austria and Switzerland, now live in Berlin.
But perhaps the best thing about Berlin is that its mantra that everyone is equal is still played out in many ways. Berlin is still affordable (well, relatively speaking) and you don’t need a lot of money to be cool. Come in with style and attitude Berghain or some other exclusive club above a 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 packing my bags?
The great classic is Alfred Döblins”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.
Which books or authors should I bring?
Vladimir Nabokovs”The gift† It is the last book he wrote in Russian – a great novel about a man and a woman who tries to bring fate together (for a long time in vain). It is also about the huge community of Russians who took refuge in Berlin after the revolution. For obvious reasons, this is a hot 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 soon forget.
Hans Fallada’s †Every man dies alone† This is the only major social novel set in Berlin under Nazi rule, written by someone who lived it. It gives you nightmares, but it does give you a sense of what it really felt like, like only good novels can.
Let books take you to your next destination
We asked renowned writers from around the world to compile literary guides to the cities they hold dear.
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 by Picador Original in April 2023.
Sven Regener’sBerlin Blues† One of the funniest German books ever, it explores what it was like to live in Berlin after reunification with a lot of booze and no money.
And if you read some German, try Jens Bisky’s newly published and thus untranslated history,”Berlin† As with the city itself, don’t be put off by its sheer size.
If I don’t have time for day trips, what books can help me explore further?
Any of the novels of Theodor Fontane, the great writer of the 19th century. They often take place in the rather idyllic landscape of Brandenburg, the region around Berlin.
And Voltaire’sMemoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire† Potsdam is only an hour’s drive from Berlin, and the friendship of Frederick the Great and the greatest writer of the 18th century, which led to much amusing mutual slander, is endlessly interesting to explore.
Which 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 reached Germany and cannot return home for political reasons, such as Vladimir Sorokin† Ludmila Ulitskaya and Victor Erofeyev† These are household names in Europe, which means that like the names of almost all the great writers in the world who do not write in English, they are little known in the US
Tell me which audiobook would be for good company as I walk around.
Listen to Bertolt Brecht’s “threepenny opera† There’s even a BBC production with David Bowie. Yes, it’s officially set in London, but it’s the quintessential play about 1920s Berlin. Don’t try to understand the story: just enjoy the songs.
Who are the literary icons I might see on street signs, statues, public monuments?
While listening to the “Threepenny Opera”, you may want to take a stroll through the Berliner Ensemble, the theater where “Threepenny Opera” premiered in 1928 and where Brecht himself directed his plays after returning from exile in Hollywood. There is also a statue of Brecht, but the real landmark is of course his theatre.
Which literary pilgrimage destination would you recommend?
This is not a nice recommendation, but go to Hohenschönhausen prison, where the East German secret police interrogated dissidents, including many writers. At the time, you couldn’t find it on any map: very few people even knew it existed. Now former prisoners are the guides! Relatively speaking, the ex-prisoners are so young that it is easy to understand how recently the dictatorship still existed. It might ruin your day, but it will help you understand more about the second 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 was the train station between East and West in the days of the Wall – to the gigantic Dussmann bookshop, on Friedrichstrasse. It has everything, in all languages, and is so big that you may never find your way out.
Or, if you’re already in the western part of the city, head to Bücherbogen on Savignyplatz. It’s smaller than Dussmann, but it’s probably Berlin’s finest independent bookshop.
Then take all the books you’ve bought and, if it’s spring or summer, head to the drab Volkspark Friedrichshain and stay there until the sun finally sets. However, if it’s winter, 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 Doblin
“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
“Threepen Opera”, Bertolt Brecht
Daniel Kehlmanhis latest novel, “Tulle”, adds humor to a story set in a conflict-ravaged Europe and is adapted into a major film. It is his eighth novel and has been or is being translated into more than 20 languages.