Category Archives: Berlin

Political meetings were well attended; they were cheaper than going to the movies or getting drunk.

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris Changes Trains was published in 1935. It’s a funny and well observed novel of a Berlin lost in decadence and violence, before the horror that was soon to come.

Norris

William Bradshaw is a young man living in Berlin (any resemblance to Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood is I understand entirely intentional). On the train into the city he finds himself in the same carriage as a Mr Norris. They strike up a conversation, with Bradshaw innocently wondering why Mr Norris seems quite so concerned at the prospect of border checks. It’s the first sign that whatever it is that Mr Norris does for a living, it’s not entirely legitimate.

Here’s Mr Norris:

He had a large blunt fleshy nose and a chin which seemed to have slipped sideways. It was like a broken concertina. When he spoke, it jerked crooked in the most curious fashion and a deep cleft dimple like a wound surprisingly appeared in the side of it. Above his ripe red cheeks, his forehead was sculpturally white, like marble. A queerly cut fringe of dark grey hair lay across it, thick, and heavy. After a moment’s hesitation, I realized, with extreme interest, that he was wearing a wig.

Mr Norris is an absurd figure, but oddly likable and one of the many charms of this book is that I found myself liking him even though there’s really very little reason why I should. Norris is a petty schemer, a political opportunist, self-pitying and grandiose in turns and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, he has a certain absurd charm, and Isherwood’s great talent here is to let Norris’s character shine through the page.

By the time we had reached Bentheim, Mr Norris had delivered a lecture on the disadvantages of most of the chief European cities. I was astonished to find how much he had travelled. He had suffered from rheumatics in Stockholm and draughts in Kaunas; in Riga he had been bored, in Warsaw treated with extreme discourtesy, in Belgrade he had been unable to obtain his favourite brand of toothpaste. In Rome he had been annoyed by insects, in Madrid by beggars, in Marseilles by taxi-horns. In Bucharest he had an exceedingly unpleasant experience with a water-closet. Constantinople he had found expensive and lacking in taste. The only two cities of which he greatly approved were Paris and Athens. Athens particularly. Athens was his spiritual home.

Norris is fond of privately-published books featuring schoolgirls and spanking. His secretary is a menacing figure who seems to hold more power over his employer than vice versa. Norris has an extraordinary array of contacts from Communist organisers to influential aristocrats, but very rarely any money. He’s generous with what he has though, when he has it, and there’s no real meanness to him.

Literature and history both are full of men like Mr Norris. People who are rogues, but not monsters. They may do harm, but not from malice. In another time and place a Mr Norris could look much more blameworthy than he does here – if he were to appear today for example making money from insider trading and dodgy investment schemes I doubt he’d seem so comic. In 1930s Berlin though well, there are much worse sins than greed and vanity.

In 1966 Isherwood looked back on Mr Norris Changes Trains and condemned it as “a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation.” I think that’s too harsh. Yes, Bradshaw is depicted as something of an innocent abroad in a city of grotesques, but the book has for me more compassion than Isherwood later came to see in it. The characters are mostly thugs, dominatrices and wheeler-dealers but I could easily imagine each having their own novel following them as this one follows Mr Norris. If Isherwood had written those novels, I’d read them.

As the novel continues the situation in Berlin worsens. Behaviour that was already risky becomes downright dangerous. It’s no place for a gentle crook like Mr Norris with his schemes and fantasies.

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared.

The newspapers were full of deathbed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner, and Communist.

This is a world where the Nazis are the authorities. What do Mr Norris’s peccadilloes count for against that?

Far from being heartless, for me this was a warm and affectionate book. It’s barbed, but Mr Norris would understand that friendship can be genuine without having to be blind to the friend’s faults, as long as everyone behaves with discretion …

Isherwood’s prose-style is clean and lucid. He’s a good writer in a very classic sense – credible characters, evocative descriptions, wit and intelligence showing but never showy. This is writing which repays attention, but never requires it and because of that it makes a surprisingly relaxing read.

Four years later Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin (the book the film Cabaret is based on). It’s often published in a single volume alongside Mr Norris Changes Trains, and is closely linked to it. I’ve already bought Goodbye and look forward to it, and hopefully to more Isherwood after that.

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Filed under Berlin, Isherwood, Christopher

He stood in front of the Tegel Prison gate and was free.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

I read this book badly; much worse than it deserved. When I read it in solid chunks of fifty or a hundred pages it fizzled and raced along, forcing me to work to keep up. When, as I mostly did, I read it in ten or twenty page slices it lost me instead in a sea of disconnected images.

That’s the risk you take with Modernism. It does rather make demands of you.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of Franz Biberkopf, a newly released ex-convict determined to go straight. He’ll suffer three tremendous blows, is laid low, but ultimately comes to a kind of redemption, or at least a sense of meaning and self-awareness. Are these spoilers? If so blame Döblin, because the book opens with a foreword which forms part of the novel and in which Döblin sets all this forth. Like Nabokov’s much later novel in Laughter in the Dark, we know where we’re going, what’s interesting is how we get there.

That foreword is the first clue that we may not be in for a straightforward narrative here. Then again, the back of the book with its comparisons to Joyce and Dos Passos (and Dos Passos for me is easily the more relevant of those comparisons) gave that away anyway.

Franz leaves prison fearfully. He’s been institutionalised, and he doesn’t know how he’ll make it outside though he wants to do better than he did before he went in. He takes a tram into the centre, but is soon overwhelmed by the indifferent crowds, by the sights of people doing ordinary things like drinking beer and having lunch. He doesn’t know how to cope, outside the ordered environment of the prison.

A passing Jew takes pity on Franz, invites him into his home and gives him a moment’s refuge in which to find himself again. Franz, and the reader, listen to an old Jewish man tell a story, and by the end of it Franz is ready to head back into the streets and to take on the world. There won’t be many more examples of altruism in the book, and in a German book written in the late 1920s it’s hard not to see some significance in the only real act of kindness coming from Jews.

Berlin Alexanderplatz does have a plot; mostly concerning Franz’s attempt to go straight, his friends and girlfriends and how he becomes entangled against his will with crime once more. It’s actually not a bad story on that level, and it’s not a surprise it’s been made into a TV series and film because Franz’s journey is interesting in its own right.

The real interest though of Berlin Alexanderplatz is its evocation of Berlin as a city. Döblin draws heavily on film techniques of his day, with the novelist’s eye panning like a camera across scenes and with frequent use of montage. Descriptions merge with fragments of adverts, with overheard conversations, fragments of newspapers, even with street signs. Here’s an early example:

From the south the Rosenthaler Strasse runs into the square. Across the way Aschinger provides food as well as beer to drink, music, and wholesale bakery. Fish are nutritious, some are happy when they have fish, and others are unable to eat it, eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish. Ladies’ stockings, genuine artificial silk, here you have a fountain pen with a 14- carat gold point.

Genuine artificial silk, how can you resist?

Berlin is awash with politics and people trying to make a Deutschmark. They all rub against each other, live-stock dealers, thieves, communists, ex-soldiers, the revolutionary left and the far right. Among all this Franz is trying to find his own place, at one point selling gay magazines, at another necktie holders, whatever it takes to get along.

Two days later it is warmer. Franz, who has sold his overcoat and is wearing thick underwear, which Lina got him somewhere, stands on the Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabish & Co., high class men’s tailoring to measure, excellent work and low prices are the characteristic of our products. Franz is hawking necktieholders. He reels off his patter:

‘Why does the smart man in the West End wear a bow tie when the proletarian doesn’t? Ladies and gents, right up here, you too, Fraulein, and that lady with her husband, children under age admitted without extra charge. Why doesn’t the proletarian wear bow ties? Because he can’t tie ‘em. Then he has to buy a tie-holder, and after he’s bought it, it’s no good and he can’t tie his tie with it. That’s swindling. It makes the people bitter; it pushes Germany still deeper into poverty than she is already. But why don’t they wear those big tie-holders? Because nobody wants to put a dustpan around his neck. No man or woman wants that, not even the baby, if he could speak for himself. Please don’t laugh at that ladies and gents, don’t laugh, we don’t know what’s going on in that dear little child brain. Oh Lord, the dear little head, the little head and the little curls, it’s pretty, ain’t it, but when you have to pay alimony, it’s not to be laughed at, that gets a man into trouble. Go and buy yourself a tie like this at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s or, if you don’t want to buy it from Jews, get it somewhere else. I’m a Nordic, I am.’ He raises his hat, blond hair, red ears standing out, merry bull’s eyes. ‘The big shops don’t have to get me to advertise them, they can exist without me. Buy a tie like the one I have here, and then decide how you’re going to tie it tomorrow morning.’

The patter continues for another page and a half or so, often quite funny, but then that’s part of the point of patter. Notice the little dig against the Jews there, the assertion of racial purity. Later Franz changes profession again:

Franz now peddles Nationalist pro-Nordic newspapers He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order.

Franz isn’t in fact “against the Jews”, and he knows perfectly well it was Jews who first helped him when he left prison. Franz though is not a reflective man, and if a little anti-Semitism helps pay the rent he’s not the sort to think about any wider issues that might come with that.

In Döblin’s Berlin everyone is hustling in one way or another. Crippled veterans of the Great War beg in the streets; those with jobs mostly seem to be just getting by while pimps and burglars are leading the good life. Berlin is a vast human hive, permeated by adverts, noise and bustle.

Everywhere there are building works, rents are going through the roof, empty political slogans are disgregarded while the promises of literature and philosophy are packaged and commoditised and sold in the same way as ale or life insurance. There’s an extraordinary three page section, too long to quote here, which merges all these elements and more cutting between adverts, description, court rulings, and tiny vignettes showing the marital problems of a couple running a shoe business and the tensions between a poor lawyer and his cleaning lady.

In one harrowing sequence Döblin’s gaze wanders into a slaughterhouse, where he follows cows, pigs, sheep and lambs all going to the slaughter. He observes them dispassionately, no different to how he regards the people who will later eat them. What separates us from them? Perhaps just that we can kill them, and they do not know that and cannot in any event kill us. Döblin’s gaze is not without compassion, but those he watches largely have none.

At these times the narrative wanders like a camera. When that takes you inside the slaughterhouse it’s chilling, when it enters homes and shows neighbours packed in together it’s fascinating. Here’s an example, from the end of a five and a half page passage:

At the very top a tripe butcher, where of course there’s a bad smell and also the howling of children and plenty of alcohol. Next door a baker’s apprentice with his wife, an employee in a printing shop, she has inflammation of the ovaries. Wonder what those two get out of life? Well, first of all , they get each other, then last Sunday a music-hall show and a film, then this or that social meeting and a visit to his parents. Nothing else? Well now, don’t drop dead, sir. Add to that nice weather, bad weather, country picnics, standing in front of the stove, eating breakfast and so on. And what more do you get, you, captain, general, jockey, whoever you are? Don’t fool yourself.

Here’s a slightly different illustration of how Döblin applies this technique:

Opposite, in front of the little Web Radio Store – till further notice free charging of batteries – there stands a pale young woman, her hat pulled down over her face, she seems to be thinking intensely. The driver of the big black and white taxi standing nearby thinks to himself: Is she wondering now whether she ought to take a taxi, and if she has enough with her or is she waiting for somebody? But what she does is to twist about in her velvet coat as if her body were being wrenched, then she walks on again, she’s unwell, that’s all, and has the cramps, as usual. She is about to take her teacher’s examination, today she would have liked to stay at home with a hot water bottle, she’ll be better tonight, anyway.

What this passage does is show the difference between film and literature. Film can show the outside of things, and does so much more efficiently than language can. Film though can’t show us what’s on the inside, and so Döblin uses his language-camera to show us the Berlin not just of people’s homes and streets, but of their thoughts too.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is then a challenging novel. It demands close concentration, and when I couldn’t do that the result was that I became deeply confused about who was who and what was going on. When I did pay attention though, it unpacked itself into a brutal vision of the life of a city, and showed itself as a huge accomplishment.

It’s a moral book. That’s clear from the outset of course, when we’re told that Franz will receive three setbacks on his path to self-knowledge, but it’s present too in a frequent use of the most powerful biblical language and imagery, applied to lives as far from biblical as one can imagine.

The last 150 pages or so of Berlin Alexanderplatz I read over a weekend, and it was a joy. I read while listening to early Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer, and to Jelly Roll Morton. They work with it, because the book itself is a form of jazz, pushing its own boundaries and veering so far on tangents you wonder how it will ever get back to the main themes and yet it does. It pulses, full of rude life and the vitality of a new century in which anything, everything, is possible.

Is it worth reading, given the challenge it represents? I think so, yes, but again like the best jazz it’s not background music to listen to while making polite dinner conversation. It’s not a book that goes down easily; it’s not tasteful. Franz Biberkopf is in many ways as unsympathetic as a protagonist can be (particularly as details of his past crimes and his propensity to violence against women become clearer), and yet he is the spirit of his age, hustling and prepared to do whatever he needs to, steeped in blood and error yet perhaps not beyond hope.

Is it still relevant? Here’s a final quote, taken from a diatribe from one of Franz’s political friends which Franz only part listens to:

Not the satisfaction of human needs, but the expectation of profit is at the hands of modern production. Every technical advance multiplies the wealth of of the possessing classes to an infinite degree, in shameless contrast to the misery of vast sections of the community.

As I write this some 83 or so years have passed since this was published. Sadly, despite that great passage of time, it remains a contemporary novel.

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Filed under Berlin, Döblin, Alfred, German Literature, Modernist Fiction

Saying true things on half a page

What I Saw, by Joseph Roth

What I saw is a collection of short pieces of journalism by Joseph Roth, translated and ably introduced by Michael Hofmann, and containing Roth’s experiences of Berlin between the years 1920 and 1933 – the years of the Weimar Republic. The pieces are typically between three and five pages long, often focussing on one location or experience and drawing from it a short but memorable series of observations. It is a form of journalism not uncommon in Continental Europe, but is I think rarer in the English speaking world.

Short pieces of this kind are known as feuilletons. Roth was a master of the form, although famous now for his work as an author (I have only read his Hotel Savoy, which I recommend without reservation), Roth was a lifelong journalist with a passionate belief in the importance of newspapers. The feuilleton is a short piece, but it is not a slight piece. It is intended to amuse, but also to provoke and to enlighten. For Roth, the feuilleton was serious journalism, for all the subjects might be comic or mundane. As Roth himself said:

I don’t write “witty columns.” I paint the portrait of an age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist. I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.

Today probably the most famous writer of feuilletons is Umberto Eco, who has a fondness for the form (and a talent for them, his collection How to Travel with a Salmon is essentially a collection of feuilletons for example).

Roth moved to Berlin in 1920, then to Paris in 1925, but continued to spend time in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler took power. His feuilletons of this period, collected in this volume and arranged by subject matter rather than chronology, capture then the Germany of the Weimar years, a Germany that he knew was fragile and beset with difficulties but one where the horrors of the future were of course yet unknown.

The pleasures of this collection lie in Roth’s skill as a writer, and in his keen observational eye which brings to life matters as disparate as night shelters for the homeless, department stores, a cafe frequented by intellectuals, Jewish refugees from the East, photographs of the city’s dead at police headquarters and much more. Roth was catholic in his choices of subject matter, recording the city and the lives of those within it, this collection is a fascinating record of what it was like to live in the Berlin of those times.

In the course of his columns, Roth takes us through the full range of Berliner life, including here on a journey through its late night dives:

Kirsch the burglar and Tegeler Willy and Apache Fritz are sitting at a table together, while the policeman stands and watches. At the bottom of the well-like passage , Elli’s sitting on someone’s lap, because she’s got new stockings today. If you’ve got new stockings, you’ve got to show them off. Her little blonde ringlets are combed down into her face. They hang there a little stiffly, like starched ruffles. I really think she wants nothing more from the world than to have half a kümmel inside her, and the knowledge that there is another half to come. Let her have it, please. My friend buys her some bread and butter. Now I think she’s happy beyond dreams. New stockings, a kümmel and some bread and butter. It really is an angels’ palace.

And later, in the same article:

Max says to the man in the cap: ‘I need a woman and a claw-jimmy.’ The claw-jimmy won’t be a problem. As early as tomorrow. But a woman – apparently that’s not so easy.
In case of any misunderstanding, Erna screeches: ‘I’m spoken for!’ Erna loves Franz. Erna got a gold filling a week ago, and she hasn’t stopped laughing since. She can’t just let her mouth hang open like a hungry crocodile’s! Oh, no! So if the world is to see her gold filling, Erna will just have to laugh. Erna laughs at the saddest things.

Here Roth brings not only the feel of the dives to life, but also their inhabitants, their small dreams, their vulgarity but also their humanity. Roth is a compassionate writer, it is only the harbingers of the new regime for whom he has no sympathy. Here he describes a bidder at an auction, a man who nearly comes to blows with a rival over a wood carving and a copper vat:

The man is not buying out of sentiment. He is, rather, an exemplar of the new times, in a short fur coat, cigar jammed between metal teeth, all calm and calculating: a schemer, a man working his percentages, confident of victory. God knows what his hands will make of those pots and plates and carvings, how the horrid monsters will change in his storehouses. Twentieth-century man can turn ducats out of all sorts of trash.

What is interesting with Roth’s journalism, is that although it is often full of humour, of warmth and affection, it is not frivolous. Roth was, I understand, highly paid for his pieces, certainly he himself took them very seriously (as the quote I opened this piece shows). His intent is not merely to amuse, but also to show us what he sees around him, to let us see through his eyes. As such, the humanity of his gaze is itself a part of his journalism. For Roth, journalism is not necessarily about objectivity, it is about reportage, it is about sharing a personal understanding so that we might understand too.

Frequently, his pieces while on the surface merely descriptive, contain on closer review social comment. In one piece he describes a park, talking of its benches, trees, park wardens. He describes those who use the park, few in the morning as the locals are at work then – just a handful of unemployed men, later some teenage girls, and come three in the afternoon mothers with their small children who play in the sand. It is a piece of careful observation of the inconsequential, and then we come to the following passage:

Even in Schiller Park the leaves drop from the trees in a timely fashion, in the autumn, but they are not left to lie. In the Tiergarten, for instance, a melancholy walker can positively wade through foliage. This sets up a highly poetic rustling and fills the spirit with mournfullness and a sense of transience. But in Schiller Park, the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel.
Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.

Roth is still describing the park, the gathering of the leaves is one of the activities that occurs there, as is the children’s play or the habits of the park wardens. That said, Roth is also commenting on how poverty can destroy the sense of the aesthetic, how the appreciation of beauty can itself simply be another luxury. Roth is making an important point, in an article less than three pages long. That, in essence, is the point of a feuilleton. Similarly, in a piece on the Berlin pleasure industry in which Roth describes the various nightclubs of the city, he moves on to discuss the commercialisation of entertainment:

Yes, I had the sensation that somewhere there was some merciless force or organization — a commercial undertaking, of course — that implacably forced the whole population to nocturnal pleasures, as it were belabouring it with joys, while husbanding the raw material with extreme care, down to the very last scrap. Saxophonists who have lost their wind playing in the classy bars of the West End carry on playing to the middle class till they lose their hearing, and then they wind up in proletarian dives. Dancers start out reed thin, to slip slowly, in the fullness of time and their bodies, in accordance with a strict plan, down from the zones of prodigality to those where people keep count, to the third where people save their pennies, to the very lowest finally, where the expenditure of money is either an accident or a calamity.

Again, we move from the merely descriptive, to an analysis of wider forces, but we never leave behind how those forces impact on the lives of the people of Berlin.

Roth does not simply deal in the apparently trivial, he also engages with the Republic itself and with politics (though he treats politics with no more seriousness, nor any less, than he does the discussion of a railway junction). Roth writes pieces discussing how the city comes to a stop for the death of the president in 1925, or on the empty slogans of election campaigns. He satirises modernity, though too he celebrates it and sees something wonderful in human progress. This seems like an ambivalence, but rather I think he is a supporter of modernity when it is in service of human values, and suspicious of it when it seems to traduce those values.

The lives of our fathers’ generation were lived in such poor taste. But their children and grandchildren live in stupendously bracing conditions. Not even nature itself affords as much light and air as some of the new dwellings. For a bedroom there is a glass-walled studio. They dine in gyms. Rooms you would have sworn were tennis courts serve them as libraries and music rooms. Water whooshes in thousands of pipes. They do Swedish exercises in vast aquariums. They relax after meals on white operating tables. And in the evening concealed fluorescent tubes light the room so evenly that it is no longer illuminated, it is a pool of luminosity.

And in another piece:

Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternisation between man and eagle. The earliest miner did not barge his way sacrilegiously into the depths, he returned home to the womb of Mother Nature. What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements; man and nature becoming one. There is exhilaration in skyscrapers as much as on mountaintops.

Roth then is a satirist, but he is also something of a poet. Above all these things, however, he is a journalist and it is as that I think he would most have wished to be remembered.

The final piece in the collection is very different to what has gone before. Written in 1933 and titled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” it is a furious piece written in reaction to book burnings carried out by the newly elected Third Reich. Roth writes proudly that German writers of Jewish descent have been defeated, and with them the “banner of the European mind”. Proudly, because with defeat comes no possibilty of collaboration, proudly because what they stood for was the European ideal, the ideal of the intellectual and that the life of the mind has meaning. For Roth, the Nazis are profoundly anti-intellectual, and in expelling the Jews they expel the best of German culture for German intellectual life has been in large part the product of its Jews.

For Roth then, the coming of the Nazis is a defeat for civilisation itself, the German Jew is inseparable from German culture, and in their quest for a pure German nation the Nazis are destroying that which made Germany a country worth living in. His piece is filled with horrifically prescient imagery, poison gas is used repeatedly as a metaphor, and it contains a roll call of defeated authors, poets and playwrights “fallen on the intellect’s field of honour. All of them, in the eyes of the German murderer and arsonist, share a common fault: their Jewish blood and their European intellect.” For Roth, the Nazis were not simply attacking the Jews, they were attacking the very principles that underpin European culture itself. Roth sees no possibilty of coexistence, no means by which the intellectual and the Nazi can live together, their arrival means the death of all he stands for as a Jewish intellectual:

It is only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the swastika’s shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed….

Roth, more than most, understood that when you begin by burning books you end by burning people. The final essay in this collection is a passionate defence of the importance of the intellectual, of the European ideal, of the Jew as a central component of European civilisation.

Looking above, I have quoted Roth a great deal in this piece, it’s hard not to, he’s a gifted writer and eminently quotable. In keeping with that, I end with a final quote on the role of the Jew in Germany, from The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind:

Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany. We have spilled our blood for Germany in two ways: the blood that runs in our veins, and the blood with which we write. We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!

What I Saw

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Filed under Berlin, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Personal canon, Reportage, Roth, Joseph