Berlin



Photo by Martin Biskoping used under a Creative Commons license.

Ian McEwan, The Innocent (Anchor, 1998).
A thriller set in the 1950s.  The protagonist, Leonard Marnham, is a young English technician detailed to assist with an American operation to tunnel under East Berlin to intercept Warsaw Pact communictions.  On his own time, he finds himself seeing a rather more experienced German divorcee. In time, these two parts of his life begin to interfere with each other, though it would be a shame to say much more about it.

Here are McEwan’s site and Wikipedia’s page on him. Bob Corbett recommends it as a quick and fairly interesting story, better than the run-of-the-mill popular novel. Orrin Judd calls it an adequate spy novel, with some interesting true background and some entertaining psychological twists and turns. Paul says that if you want an intelligent cold war thriller, and you want it about Berlin, then you could do much, much worse; he also recommends a Berlin bookstore. L.S. Kiepp (EW) calls it a haunting black comedy with a silver lining, charged with psychological complexity, sex, and suspense, full of narrative cunning and precise, darkly witty prose. Roger Boylan (Boston Review) says the novel’s Berlin is scented with the real thing, the diesel fumes and beery scents and the Wurstwagens and the bracing Berliner Luft, the air of Berlin. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) calls it a powerful and disturbing novel, a tour de force of horror and philosophical suspense. Shane describes it as a coming-of-age story wrapped up in an espionage novel. Madhvi Ramani calls a thrilling tale about lost innocence and loyalties that plays out in pre-wall Berlin, and says it’s one of her top 10 Berlin novels. Karen read it desperately to the end. Nathan Hobby (n.b. – spoilers) sees it as a precursor to later McEwan novels. Anne (spoilers) couldn’t suspend disbelief. Larry says beware: it’s not a Hollywood love story. Shuggie is becoming a McEwan fan. Devora calls it a bleak portrait of post-war and mid-Wall Berlin. P. says it captures the sense of the era. Don Swaim interviewed McEwan in 1990 about the book. Patrick McGrath interviewed him in for BOMB in 1990. Adam Begley interviewed him in 2002 for The Paris Review. Dan Zalewski profiled McEwan for The New Yorker in 2009. Caryn James (The New York Times) called the 1993 film a slowly satisfying thriller.

Buy it at Half.com.

Greifswalder Strasse
Photo by Malkav used under a Creative Commons license.

Philip Kerr, Berlin Noir (Penguin, 1994).
Three separate novels published under one cover, all featuring Berlin private detective Bernie Gunther, a former policeman. March Violets, a term for late converts to the Nazi Party, is set in 1936 and finds Gunther investigating missing jewels and two murders that implicate senior Party members. In The Pale Criminal, set in 1938, Gunther runs afoul of Reinhard Heydrich. A German Requiem is set in 1947 Vienna, where Gunther must deal with the war’s aftermath. Kerr’s writing evokes Raymond Chandler, and the noir genre is apt enough for the corrupt, dark world of Nazi Germany. (I haven’t read it yet, but Kerr recently wrote a fourth noir featuring Gunther, The One from the Other.)

Here are reviews and posts from C. Michael Bailey (Blogcritics and also here), Orlando Zepeda (Boldtype), Fredric Smoler, De Scribe, Claire Helene, Ron Rosenbaum (The New York Observer), Rogue, wintermute2_0, Tim Welch and Matt. Nick Rennison recommends it as Berlin reading (scroll down).  See also James Fallows, Mort, and this list from National Geographic’s Traveler.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

seeing in Berlin 2007 - sausage man
Photo of the Alexanderplatz by *Solar ikon* used under a Creative Commons license.

Alexander Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf (Continuum International, 2005).
In “Reading the City: Berlin,” Nick Rennison writes that Berlin Alexanderplatz is

the story of Franz Biberkopf and his anguished attempt to forge a life for himself after emerging from prison. Biberkopf, who has a violent past, is intent on living a reformed and decent life but, returning to his old haunts in the Alexanderplatz area of Berlin, he finds it impossible to escape a world of prostitutes, petty thievery, thuggery and the emerging street violence of the times. Using interior monologue, Berlin slang, psychological insight drawn from his early academic training and cinematic techniques of jump-cutting and visual metaphor adapted for literary purposes, Doeblin creates a rich portrait of Biberkopf and the Berlin he inhabits. As an evocation of the sprawling anonymity and dangerous maelstrom of the modern city, Berlin Alexanderplatz remains a remarkable achievement.

Rainier Werner Fassbinder made it into a 15+ hour film in 1980, recently restored. An earlier film was made of it in 1931.

Google Book Search has a long excerpt and more. You can read some of the entry on the book at The Literary Encyclopedia for free. P.D. Smith wrote about the novel in London Magazine. Here is Time’s 1931 review. Here is an abstract of and links to (HTML) (.pdf) Christine Sieg’s article, “Homer takes the Streetcar – The Modernist Appropriation of the Epic and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Christine Smallwood recommends the novel in her piece on Berlin for Salon’s Literary Guide to the World. And here is Keith Law. Ian Buruma writes about Fassbinder’s adaptation in The New York Review of Books, and does not ignore the novel. Answers.com has a primer on the eponymous square, and NPR reports on development there. Celso Junior took some pictures there.

Buy it at Amazon.com.