So far, in my search for English-language writing about Germany, I’ve ended up with a couple of big names (David Hume, D. H. Lawrence), one modern commercial author (Ben Donald) and a couple of authors from the past forgotten by all but the most specialised of scholars (Fynes Moryson, Martha Dodd). I definitely expected the latter: what with Germany having for large portions of recent British and American history been either enemy territory or wholly uninteresting to both intellectuals and the general public, I had assumed that English-language writing about the country would have been something of a niche topic.
For this reason, I was surprised by the big names who had been there and written about it (in contexts other than the Second World War, of course). This limitation of Germany to niche literature seems to persist to the present day, too, with the best-known travel literature tending to be about France (think A Year in Provence) and the most popular novel settings abroad seeming to be Russia (James Bond), Italy (all that Dan Brown) or, in translation, Scandinavia.
This state of affairs makes it slightly more difficult to unearth modern writing in English about or set in Germany – but that really doesn’t mean there isn’t any, and that some of it isn’t very good indeed. If anything, the current resurgence of interest in Germany (especially Britain seems to have remembered recently that the Germans are numerous, near and of not inconsiderable economic importance) is sure to lead to an increased publishing profile.
Feeding into this is the lively, fast-growing literary expat community in Berlin, that Mecca for modern European artists lured by cheap rent and bars you’re still allowed to smoke in. Not that Anna Winger, who is the topic of this post, seems part of the roll-your-own, out-all-night-and-only-spent-five-Euros-crowd that defines the artistic end of Berlin life.
Where, how & why did she write about Germany?
No, Winger must be part of another set entirely. The Columbia-University-educated writer is a family woman and has been published in the New York Times Magazine. Yet she has made the most of what Berlin has to offer both in terms of history and of exciting alternative lifestyles by creating Berlin Stories, a radio series for NPR Worldwide. In these broadcasts, Winger caters both to fellow English speakers in Berlin after highbrow, own-language content related to their place of residence, and to listeners at home in America hungry for fascinating stories from old Europe.
This is what her debut novel does, too. In This Must Be The Place (2008), Winger creates a fictional framework that allows her to examine both Germany today and its relationship to America – and especially to American popular culture – as well as the weight of the past and ways in which it is being shouldered by people on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the book, Hope has moved to Berlin from New York at the behest of her Jewish husband, Dave, who has taken a German-based job in Poland. Their relationship, already strained by the loss of their first child before birth, deteriorates further as Dave spends time away working, leaving Hope with little else to do but get to know the man in the flat above them, Walter Baum. Walter, who works as a voiceover artist, has his own special connection to America, and as the two get closer and closer, a classic case of cross-purposes develops: the American Hope starts to adapt to Berlin and the German Walter gets more and more concrete about his plans to move to California – for the second time.
The extract below is taken from near the end of the book: Hope is becoming increasingly curious about the history of Berlin, and that of her apartment. Meanwhile Orson, a colleague of Walter’s, is looking for a location for his film project – a project in which he would like Walter to take the leading role.
“It’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here.”
“Because bad things don’t happen to rich people?”
“Maybe. Maybe because I can’t imagine that anyone even lived here before me. I know this is an old apartment, but the walls are so white and perfect. It seems completely new.”
“Americans are the greatest customers in the world. You’re so easily sold.” He had been facing her, standing in the middle of the room, and now he walked to the nearest wall by the window and ran his hand over it as if feeling for the latch of a secret door.
“What are you doing?” She took a step toward him. His finger moved vertically and then across the wall from side to side, as if drawing boxes on the plaster.
“I’m just trying to prove a point. Come here.” His finger was pink and slim, the nail bitten ragged. At the point in the wall where it rested was a nearly invisible seam, where one sheet of paper appeared to have been glued against another. The seam ran from the ceiling to the floor.
“White Raufasertapete,” said Orson. “It means rough, textured wallpaper. It’s a special German invention. Looks like plaster at a distance. It’s a faster and much cheaper way to cover things up.”
“Is it all over my apartment?”
“Of course. It’s all over the walls of every apartment in Berlin. When one tenant leaves, the owner just wallpapers over his mistakes and starts again with the next one. Check this out.” With what was left of the nail on his finger, he picked at the seam until he was able to lift the edge, then quickly pulled away a chunk of it about the size of a quarter to reveal a glimpse of bright orange wallpaper underneath it.
“What is that?”
“The good taste of the people who lived here before you did, obviously.”
“They left up the old wallpaper?”
“God knows how many layers there are underneath. That’s my point.”
“That’s disgusting.” Up close, it smelled of old smoke, she thought. She could practically hear it exhaling through the hole in the white top layer. Long, sour breaths held in for years. Then she realized it was Orson she smelled. His arm was almost touching hers, as if they were trapped together in a telephone booth at a bar. Did they still have telephone booths in bars, or anywhere else anymore? She stepped back trying to remember the last time she had actually been in a proper bar in any city.
“Don’t worry, the crew can fix the hole when we’re finished,” said Orson.
“Along with anything else we move around. We’ll leave the place looking exactly as we found it.” When he turned to make a telephone call, Hope stared at the orange spot. From a few feet away it was hard to tell if it lay on top of the white wallpaper, like a stain, or was actually a hole, sucking the brightness of the room in toward it. But when she touched it, she could feel its depth against her fingers, and was struck by the sense of reaching through a portal, as if, when her finger pushed into the orange wallpaper, it might pull her hand with it, her arm, the rest of her. She looked up at the white wall, stretching to the ceiling, that only moments earlier had seemed flat and lifeless, but now rippled with the possibility of layers beneath it.
My two pfennigs
One of the things that makes Winger’s book so accomplished is her knack of bringing in details about German life in such a way that they not only serve to provide an authentically foreign background, but actually have symbolic value or a role in the plot. Throughout the text, Walter pieces together a map of Berlin and, when he has finished, decides to stay there: this allows Winger to comment in passing on the distinctive pink-yellow colouring used on German pocket maps. Another example is that Hope gets caught on the U-Bahn without a ticket, having blithely assumed that it must be for free because there are no barriers to entry like, say, in New York or London. This in turn causes her to spend more time in her flat and leads to her increasing interest in it and Berlin’s history. Rather than simply listing local detail, Winger weaves it in.
In this passage, it is Rauhfasertapete that gets this treatment. This favourite bugbear of German bobos renovating their chic vintage townhouse flats not only adds (quite literally) local texture to the story, but gives Hope a theatrical, almost filmic way to explore Berlin’s history as she peels away layer after layer on it. At points like this, nonetheless, British readers realise that Winger is definitely writing for an American audience above all: as if “about the size of a quarter” weren’t a big enough clue, Hope’s naïve surprise at the fact that wallpaper is not always stripped from the walls before a flat is put back on the market will make British readers chuckle at her as much as Orson does.
Having said that, Berlin real estate does have a long, rich and often frightening history – far more so than urban British property does in any case. Yet the point stands that, in many ways, this book is more about general European-American than specific German-American differences. With her female protagonist who, despite having lived in New York, the narrator assures as has “kept her Midwestern sensibilities”, Anna Winger has created a not unintelligent but certainly rather average American woman who can be trusted to fall into all the traps that Winger herself was probably quick-witted enough to evade during her first years in Berlin. I think this is quite deliberate on the part of the author: by creating a character who has only been to Europe once before as a teenager, Winger gives her American readers someone like themselves with whom they can sympathise.
British readers will certainly get exasperated with Hope at some points – that’s if they’re not already put off early by her name, which they might read to be a rather heavy-handed personification of the theme of the book – but they will probably grow to like the voiceover artist Walter. Although Britain does not dub American shows of course, the continuous cultural disconnect Walter lives in, stuck between the Hollywood vision of the sunny USA onscreen and the gruff, gray reality of northern Europe off it will be familiar to many. Winger also has an excellent eye for Americana, for what many in Europe – and, I imagine, lots of sophisticated East Coasters – think of when asked to describe the America they’ve seen in the movies.
The book as a whole is very cinematic, both in plot and form. Whilst the male protagonist Walter’s work with Orson dubbing films into German makes up a large portion of the story as it is, Winger matches this focus on film in the way in which the book is written. In this extract, the way Hope touches the wall, feeling the pull of the past, seems like something pulled out of a film: the vortex-like quality of orange spot, the ‘rippling’ wall conjure up a range of celluloid allusions. I’d suggest that this is more than a subconscious cross-fertilisation between the author’s topic and her use of language: so much else about the book seems well-planned that I’m assuming that this clever little device is there to remind us of the importance of cinema in the modern world when it comes to depicting other cultures and bygone eras.
Also, I wouldn’t rule out that Winger was gunning for a film version and leaving a few not-to-hard-to-miss cues for the screenwriters. Good luck to her, though: if they managed to make a film of this, I’d watch it – although the continuous references to Tom Cruise, the actor Walter dubs in the book, would probably be more (legally) complicated to film than this scene, in which the main character would place her hand through a pulsating vortex wall into the various stages of Berlin’s tortured past.
Thanks to Flickr's Snurb for the photo.
Monday, 3 October 2011
The Oktoberfest: a source of German clichés and yet a great way to enjoy the country, as Ben Donald discovers
After launching my series on writing about Germany at the worthy end of the literary canon, I thought it might be interesting to look at something newer and more light-hearted. ‘Newer’ and ‘lighthearted’ are of course two words that, until recently, one wouldn’t have necessarily associated with literature in English about Germany, getting bogged down as it understandably does in the horrors of the Nazi years and the grimness of post-war central Europe.
Yes, pleasant, peppy little travel accounts were long the preserve of expats writing from France – see Peter Mayle and the twenty-year publishing trend he set off, culminating in A Year in the Merde and Petite Anglaise. Germany was essentially reserved for counter-factual or spy fiction à la Robert Harris and John le Carré respectively.
This state of affairs reflected tourist preferences, of course, so it’s easy to see why the British and American publishing industries have tended to commission and then push writing about France. Nevertheless, it did pose a series of tantalising, interlocking questions: has the English-speaking relationship to Germany been so soured by the events of the twentieth century that it somehow seems inappropriate to set jokey, enjoyable romps in it? Or is Germany per se a not particularly attractive destination for the more comic of writerly types? Is it perhaps too familiar, too typically Anglo-Saxon in terms of aesthetics and mindset to offer the same imaginative space for exciting travel fiction as its Gallic neighbour? Or is simple post-war prejudice and an ensuing lack of interest to blame for the paucity of Teutonically-themed travel literature?
For the longest time, it seemed hard to rule out the latter. Now, however, attitudes towards Germany are changing, helped considerably by the 2006 World Cup, and it seems to be no coincidence that the years since 2007 have seen an increasing amount of general interest travel literature about Germany on the market – especially in the UK, which has defined its post-war mass-media relationship with Germany in terms of soccer and so was probably more liable to change attitudes post 2006 than the United States.
In the vanguard of these new writers were Roger Boyes and Ben Donald, both of whom seem to have been aiming to replicate popular successes about France on the subject of Germany. Yet whilst Boye’s 2008 book openly parodies the title of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, and follows its structure and style, too, Donald takes quite a different path to try and make a commercially successful book out of his experiences in Germany.
Where, how & why did he write about Germany?
Donald published Springtime for Germany: Or how I learned to love Lederhosen in 2007. In the book, the BBC journalist compiled his travel experiences of various parts of the Federal Republic into a semi-fictional series of visits linked together into a narrative by a rather peculiar plot device.
The idea is that the narrator (who we assume is Donald himself) is despairing of the usual round of travel locations for educated, well-to-do professionals and is in search of something new and exciting. At an airport, he meets the supposedly Californian ‘travel therapist’ Manny who all but frogmarches the apparently reluctant Donald onto a plane bound for Germany and then coaches him through a course of visits to the North, to Berlin, Heidelberg and Munich. At the end, Donald’s narrator is both convinced of Germany as a travel destination and cured of his luxury malaise. And, as it turns out, there is more to this Manny fellow than meets the eye.
In the extract below, we join Donald’s as yet under-informed narrator in conversation with Manny about British views of Germany as a travel destination.
“You want me to romanticise Germany?” I said, sitting up and barely restraining a snigger. “Romantic weekend in Frankfurt, anyone?”
“Typical!” Manny cried defensively. “This is just part of the hypocrisy and prejudice with which you are spending the post-war package-tour age viewing Germany. Germany is simply off the map you tourists seek to conquer like it was some kind of world war.”
Steady on, Manny, I thought. Did you have to bring up the war? I was doing so well.
“Germany is a country that has had to bear the weight of over half a century of post-war British prejudice as outdated as a John Mills Christmas movie.”
There was something about Manny that didn’t quite add up. He was no “normal” consultant or shrink. There seemed to be some private agenda, some personal crusade. And then there were those funny mood swings between passion and clinical coldness.
“If you want to learn how to goosestep, come to Britain!” he continued, apparently incensed.
The theme from Mel Brooke’s The Producers popped into my head: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Goosestep’s the new step today…”
“You just can’t seem to move on and can’t resist an opportunity to scaremonger. With you clever reviews off German-built Minis with sat-nav that leads straight to Poland…”
I could do better than that. How about Bette Midler’s line, “I’m married to a German. Every night I dress up as Poland and he invades me!”
Even in these castrated, politically correct times I felt bound to defend a proud British tradition of nation-bashing and playful xenophobia.
“They are only harmless jokes,” I pleaded.
“But it amounts to a racist slur! It is not tolerated to joke about Jews, Muslims or disabled people. But the Germans are clearly an Untermensch. And on the rare occasion someone does take offence at a Hitler joke it is on behalf of the Jewish people! No, for you Brits Boche-bashing is a Pavlovian reflex.”
This wasn’t just a clinical diagnosis now. He sounded like a German foreign minister. Was Manny making a bid from his basement bunker to be the next German ambassador? Forget Weltschmerz. Manny seemed to want to cure me of some British psychosis about Germany.
“You Brits have so much baggage with Germany, it amounts to a special relationship! If you must have your stereotypes, then you should see them as indicators of a long, rich and healthy culture. Far better to be a nation with stereotypes than none at all.”
It was true. What did the world know of Paraguay or Taiwan? But Manny now wanted me not just to go on holiday to Germany but to romanticise it, to render Germany impressive and unfamiliar; when it was precisely a very accepted kind of familiarity and ordinariness about Germany, like the newfound unsexiness of its nudist beaches, that had probably bred such indifference among travellers.
“The point is,” insisted Manny, “that however unique you are considering each of your previous travel experiences, they can all be reduced to a system of desires and prejudices. It is not Germany that is the problem. It is you and your system. This is why the magic and romance have disappeared. You need to desystematise yourself.”
How German! How Vorsprung durch Technik.
My two pfennigs
For those of you who aren’t on the trolley yet, Manny is of course no truly Californian shrink, but one born in Germany with a “private agenda” of making his country of birth a more popular holiday destination. The well-observed clue to this that Donald has strewn for the linguistically knowledgeable is the misemployed present participle (“you are spending”); the far clumsier hint for those with less German language skills is the “mood swings between passion and clinical coldness”.
This dichotomy between a rather adroit dissection of the classic mistakes German learners of English make and the would-be ironic trotting out of the old English clichés about Germany kind of sums up Springtime for Germany: it’s a book with so much to offer and yet so much that detracts from this offer.
What this passage offers, for example, is a critique of the way even some educated British people continue to write Germany off as an unattractive lump of concrete and pine trees populated by unreconstructed Nazis. What detracts from this is that Donald’s narrator – i.e. Donald himself – feels consistently compelled to prove that these clichés exist by resorting to them.
Not, of course, that Donald means any malice by doing so. In fact, I can see two obvious reasons to keep referring to the old Mel Brooke and Bette Midler gags: firstly, if you think these clichés are going to be occurring to your reader, it’s best to bring them out into the open and fight them through humour; secondly, Donald is of course trying to prove his own point of the British being so blasé about their hackneyed view of Germany that they just can’t help themselves: “I felt bound to defend a proud British tradition of nation-bashing and playful xenophobia.”
In other words, it’s the old circular irony predicament with which German writers like Thomas Mann had so much trouble in the 1920s. Donald is ironising the supposedly ironic jingoism of his countrymen; but, once you get to two layers of irony, the danger is that they end up melding back together and leave you looking like you’re being serious.
Of course we know that Donald really, really isn’t being serious. Why else would he be writing a book about Germany with many very informed and very heartfelt passages if he didn’t actually like the place and actually want to turn it into a travel destination? It’s just that the anti-jingoistic jingoism is so insistent – especially in these imagined conversations with ‘Manny’ – that it seems to put most readers off.
This passage has two valuable insights for those of us looking at the history of Anglo-German writing and trying to conceive of its future. Firstly, whilst we Brits may be famed for our ironic sense of humour, it’s so easy to overegg the pudding: just a brief hint in the direction of Mel Brooke or Bette Midler might have worked as a way of showing how easily even the educated British mind can be bought to laugh at simplistic, outdated Germany gags; actually reproducing both quotations in full makes the narrative turgid and opens the writer to accusations of tastelessness.
Secondly, and following on from this: ‘Manny’ is right about the special relationship between Britain and Germany, but since so much as already been said about it – and since every British person has the image of John Cleese’s comedy goose-walk branded onto their mental retina anyway – mightn’t it just be better to really, seriously, just for once, actually not mention the war?
Donald’s narrator clearly doesn’t think so, but perhaps Donald himself once did. The clue is in the acknowledgements: “To my agent, Patrick Walsh, for initially picking up the project and also convincing me that no one would ever buy a straight travel narrative on Germany.” Donald himself probably conceived of this book quite differently (and probably in a far more sensitive, nuanced way), but his agent didn’t think it would sell. This brings us back to the set of questions above about the English-speaking travel writing market and Germany – questions which, however, might well have been answered by books such as Peter Watson’s The German Genius and Simon Winder’s Germania – and also makes us reconsider who the narrator in the book really is: my bet is that the clumsily-(un)ironic jingoism of the narrator is more Donald’s agent and that Donald himself is in fact often to be found hiding behind ‘Manny’.
Springtime for Germany is in places like the above confusing, but stimulating reading: it is essentially trying to define where the current taboos are, where British irony about Germany still works and where it doesn’t – and makes the informed reader think about why certain jokes fall flat on their face whilst others don’t. There are also some great passages – the one about the Oktoberfest stands out – that show that when Donald lets the perceived need to tackle clichés take a back seat, he can succeed in making Germany an attractive travel destination – and making a good read out of it.