Alongside relishing delicious tapas, sunbathing, and swimming in the sea, I spent our two-week summer holiday in Andalusia last year reading “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving. Reading relevant books for the location is something I like to do – Henry James in Italy, Jan Morris in the Middle East, Alice Walker in the US – providing a more nuanced dimension to fact-filled travel guides.
I did this, too, when I first came to Berlin as a student – sniffing out obscure, vaguely relevant works in the glorious Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz. Though after 6 years here, my location-focused intellectual pursuits have been waylaid by work, family life and lots of other good, unrelated books I’ve been keen to read, I still believe books – both fiction and memoir – represent one of the best ways to understand the spirit of Berlin. Here are my top seven recommendations spanning genre and historical period – mostly available in translation – to help you get to know Berlin.
1. “Die Poggenpuhls” / Theodor Fontane
Set in 1888 in what is referred to as the Kaiserreich, “Die Poggenpuhls” depicts an impoverished Prussian aristocratic family struggling by in Berlin. The father has died, the two brothers are away with the army, leaving the mother and three sisters in a pokey, rented apartment just on the edge of an acceptable part of town, desperately keeping up appearances despite the financial constraints. The novel shows the shifting of power and wider societal change at a crucial point in German history.
Following the story of a day labourer just released from prison, attempting and failing to create a new, respectable life for himself in 1920s’ Berlin, Döblin’s novel reveals the underbelly of Weimar Berlin and stands as a superb example of the artistic experimentation in that period.
Another Weimar novel, “Goodbye to Berlin” is a semiautobiographical account of British novelist Isherwood’s time in 1930s Berlin. The book portrays pre-Nazi Germany, showing the rich and the poor, from a Jewish heiress to a caring landlady, from a gay couple to an Englishwoman who sings cabaret.
The anonymous memoir of a German woman in Berlin as the Red Army troops enter Berlin between April and June 1945, the writer describes widespread rape and extreme deprivation for the Berlin population in the anarchy of those times.
Set immediately after the wall fell, journalist Anna Funder uses the voices of people who resisted the GDR regime and those who worked for the secret police (Stasi) to describe a range of experiences and extreme difficulties in the previous politically repressive era.
Written by Russian writer, Vladimir Kaminski, who became a prime figure in Berlin’s art and literature scenes in the 1990s, the novel is based at a nightclub on Torstrasse (in Berlin Mitte) and the people who interacted there. It captures the creativity, freedom and excitement of 90s’ Berlin.
In 2005 Ansgar Oberholz set up the cafe “St Oberholz” on the corner of Rosenthaler Platz which has since become the heart of Berlin’s burgeoning startup ecosystem. It was the first cafe to provide Wifi and a sort of co-working environment, crucial to inspiring the creative minds of Berlin’s tech founders. Ansgar Oberholz’s novel tells the story of how he and his business partner took a shabby old apartment building in Mitte and made it into the place to be for entrepreneurs.