Ten Great Berlin Novels

Berlin-based writer Madhvi Ramani rounds up ten of her favourite books about Berlin…

Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis

book of clouds

‘Ever since arriving in Berlin I’d become a professional in lost time. It was impossible to account for all the hours. The hands on clocks and watches jumped ahead or lagged behind indiscriminately. The city ran its own chronometric scale.’

Tatiana is a Mexican in Berlin who flits from one job to another. One of her jobs is typing for a reclusive old historian. The subject? The history of Berlin. This book is very much about the city, where the past seeps into the present and the story unfolds in a dream-like sequence.

The Innocent by Ian McEwan

the innocent

‘On weekday evenings they walked to the Olympic Stadium and swam in the pool, or, in Kreuzberg, walked along the canal, or sat outside a bar near Mariannenplatz, drinking beer. Maria borrowed bicycles from a cycling club friend. On weekends they rode out to the villages of Frohnau and Heiligensee in the north, or west to Gatow to explore the city boundaries along paths through empty meadows.’

Set between 1955-56, the novel centres around English spy Leonard Marnham and his love affair with German woman Maria Eckdorf. The novel brings together the story Marnham’s mission, which is to help build a tunnel from the American sector to the Russian sector to tap important phone lines, with his love affair, making it a thrilling tale about lost innocence and loyalties that plays out in pre-wall Berlin.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Berlin Alexanderplatz

‘There is a lot of wind on the Alex, at the Tietz corner there is a lousy draft. A wind that blows between the houses and through the building excavations. It makes you feel you would like to hide in the saloons, but who can do that, it blows through your trousers pockets…Early in the morning the workers come tramping along from Reinickendorf, Neukoelln, Weissensee. Cold or no cold, wind or no wind, we’ve gotta get the coffee pot, pack up the sandwiches, we’ve gotta work and slave, the drones sit on top, they sleep in their feather-beds and exploit us.’

I have to admit, I put this novel in here because I had to; it is considered to be a literary masterpiece, influenced strongly by Joyce’s Ulysses. It has a cinematic, shifting, collagic style, and captures the speed, anonymity and chaos of modern city life. Set in 1920s Berlin, it is about small-time criminal Franz Biberkopf. The fragments describing life around Alexanderplatz are beautiful, but it is a hard read.

Pleasured by Philip Hensher

“The car drew to a standstill. The moment of fear and memory and excitement was gone. He was stuck in the middle of a vast and terrifyingly foreign country, on an East German transit road between the borders of West Germany and West Berlin, with two strangers, on New Year’s Eve. The worst place, the worst time, the worst people.”

It is New Year’s Eve 1988 and three people find themselves stranded in a car in East Berlin; Englishman Herr Picker, who has a plan to flood East Berlin with ecstasy tablets in an effort to liberate its occupants, half-hearted terrorist Daphne, and Kreuzberger Friedrich. The novel follows the lives of these three characters over the course of the following year.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

‘The Rosenthals used to have a little haberdashery shop on Prenzlauer Allee that was Aryanized, and now the man has disappeared, and he can’t be far short of seventy. […] And now the old woman is sitting in her flat all alone and doesn’t dare go outside. It’s only after dark that she goes and does her shopping, wearing her yellow star; probably she’s hungry.’

Primo Levi called this ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.’ It centres around an apartment block where a couple who lose their son in the war start resisting the regime in their own way. A sad but moving picture of Berlin during the Third Reich.

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

the kindly ones

‘In front of me was the entrance to the U-Bahn station, Stadmitte on the C line. I ran down the steps, went through the gates, and kept going down into the darkness, guiding myself with one hand on the wall. The tiles were wet, water was welling out of the ceiling and streaming down the vault. Sounds of muffled voices rose from the platform. It was littered with bodies, I couldn’t see if they were dead, sleeping or just lying there, I stumbled over them, people were shouting, children crying or moaning. A train with broken windows, lit by wavering candles, was standing at the platform: inside, some Waffen SS with French insignia were standing to attention, and a tall Brigadefuhrer in a black leather coat, with his back to me, was solemnly handing out decorations to them.’

Okay, so this isn’t entirely a Berlin novel, but a lot of it is set in Berlin—and what a gripping, vivid Berlin it is. The novel is about an SS Officer who encounters people such as Himmler, Speer and Eichmann and is present during significant events such as the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine, the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin. Historians have praised the novel for its historical accuracy so if you would like a meticulous portrait of Berlin as the centre of the Nazi regime, look no further.

Berlin Blues by Sven Regener

Instead of a quote from this novel, I’m going to give you a clip from the film, which was made in 2003, because it is the most hilarious depiction of the fall of the Berlin Wall I have ever seen. Like the clip, the novel by Sven Regener, who is also the lead singer and songwriter of band Elements of Crime, is immensely funny. It centres around Herr Lehmann, who is about to turn thirty, and his life as a barman in Kreuzberg just before the fall of the wall.

Berlin Noir Series by Phillip Kerr

berlin noir

‘Berlin. I used to love this old city. But that was before it had caught sight of its own reflection and taken to wearing corsets laced so tight that it could hardly breathe. I loved the easy, carefree philosophies, the cheap jazz, the vulgar cabarets and all of the other cultural excesses that characterized the Weimar years and made Berlin seem like one of the most exciting cities in the world.’

Three books—March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem—make up this series, which centres around a Berlin private investigator Bernie Gunther solving crimes during the Nazi regime (March Violets is set in 1936, Pale Criminal in 1938 and German Requiem in 1947). Kerr’s Berlin is a dark place full of corruption and moral ambiguity and his stories are tight, complex page-turners.

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

‘A multitude of streets diverging in all directions, jumping out from behind corners and skirting the above-mentioned places of prayer and refreshment, turned it all into one of those schematic pictures on which are depicted for the edification of beginning motorists all the elements of the city, all the possibilities for them to collide.’

The Gift tells the story of a Russian writer Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev living in Berlin, and his love affair with Zina Mertz. It is filled with vivid descriptions of 1920s Berlin, and focuses on the Russian émigré population in the city. Nabokov lived in Berlin between 1922 and 1937 and for anyone interested in his literature and relationship with the city, I would really recommend Dieter E. Zimmer’s article on Nabokov’s Berlin, complete with pictures. (And if you like that, he‘s written a book with the same name too).

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

goodbye to berlin

‘Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the iron-work of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.’

Goodbye to Berlin is one of the two novels that make up Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (the other being Mr Norris Changes Trains). Set in Berlin between 1930 and 1933, Isherwood depicts an intriguing array of characters, from prostitutes to wealthy Jewish store owners, and their lives in the city during the Nazi rise to power.

The fact that Isherwood lived in Berlin during this period, the novels’ easy style, and the claim that his main character (also a writer named Christopher) makes as being ‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’, fools the reader into thinking that this is a memoir. However, it is a well-crafted piece of fiction as James Wood’s insightful analysis of the following paragraph shows:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickle and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk-jugs. The pavement was chalk-marked for the hopping game called Heaven and Earth. At the end of it, like a tall, dangerously sharp, red instrument, stood a church’

The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems “a slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet. The passage begins with an entrance: the entrance of the chapter. The reference to hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses introduces a note of menace, which is completed by the sardonic reference to commercial bills advertising ‘auctions and crimes’: this may be commerce but it is uncomfortable close to commercial graffiti—after all, isn’t auction and crime what politicians, especially the kind involved in communist or fascist activities, do? They sell us things and commit crimes.

The Nazi ‘crosses’ nicely link us to the children’s game called ‘Heaven and Earth’, and to the church, except that, threateningly enough, everything is inverted: the church no longer looks like a church but like a red instrument (a pen, a knife, an instrument of torture, the ‘red’ the colour of both blood and radical politics), while the ‘cross’ has been taken over by the Nazis. Given this inversion, we understand why Isherwood wants to top and tail this paragraph with the Nazi crosses at the start and the church at the end: each changes place in the course of a few lines. (Wood, How Fiction Works 44-45)

Goodbye to Berlin inspired the play I Am a Camera and the Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret, which in turn was adapted into Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli.

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