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.