Freunde und Liebhaber, ich bin (k)ein Berliner

Sam Cooney

Chances are the wizardry of your web browser automatically deciphered into English the title of this blog post, but in case not, it translates roughly as Friends and lovers, I am (not) a Berliner.

I’m a Melbourne lad, a writer and editor of sorts, born and raised by windy Bayside beaches, and right now I live in Berlin, Germany. There are several explanations I give to people who ask me why, and some of them are even true some of the time. But this here Southerly blog is not the place to muck about, so I’ll tell you the real reason: I am here in hiding.

No, I didn’t commit big crimes in Australia that required me to go all Christopher Skase-y or Tony Mokbel-ish. And no, I’m not like Lara Bingle or Naomi Robson or anyone else who is basically unemployable in Australia and scraping the bottom of the respect bucket to boot. I left Melbourne because I was having an increasingly hard time writing good words there, and writing good words is my favourite and chosen thing. So instead of confronting and defeating those demons of mine, I ran ran ran, and ended up in Berlin, one of the most famous cities of the past century.

There’s a David Sedaris essay that appeared in the New Yorker in August 2009, called ‘Laugh, Kookaburra’, in which during a visit to Australia he delves a little into his own personal history. It’s good. Towards the beginning of the essay he tells of a friend who asks him to imagine a four-burner stove:

“ ‘One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’ The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

This is something I’ve thought about from time to time: whether a writer should sacrifice certain whole slices of the life pie in order to focus enough on writing. Maybe only for a few years? Perhaps for life? Or I could be wrong: for all I know doing so might turn out more detrimental than beneficial? I don’t know. Right now I have definitely cut off my family; we still touch base via email and Skype, but distance is distance. And to a certain extent I have secluded myself from my friends too, although I have great email relationships with many of them, and nothing makes you feel more epistolary than being on the other side of the world. But yes, I definitely feel refreshingly unencumbered here, and (perhaps) consequently my writing is going okay, too.

Nonetheless, although Berlin is in many ways a great place to be a writer, it is in many other ways even more distracting than Melbourne. The most obvious way is that there is just so much going on here. I’ve struggled to justify sitting still at a desk for long stretches when the city beckons with all its wares. There are many excellent English-language bookshops, and more English-language literary events than most modern cities. And don’t get me started on the music and the art and the parks and the bars. I’m sure you have your own perception of this place, and if you don’t then please just google ‘Berlin’ and see if you aren’t tempted to jump on a plane and hang out in this city, where grunge melds with Hochkultur and the Fernsehturm watches over the thousands and thousands of bicycles that click and whir their way throughout the disparate neighbourhoods. Another quandary I’ve been fighting against is that the city has been invading my writing—both my fiction and nonfiction—and yet I still feel like a visitor here, and thus my writing of it reads as superficial. The only way to rectify this is to get overfamiliar with the city, which takes time away from putting words onto the page. Or is that wrong? Can you write about a place authentically only if you know it intimately?

I read three novels about Berlin before I got here, because that is how I set myself to do anything: read about it. The first was Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, a book whose backdrop is the city of the early 1930s. Isherwood the author and Isherwood the protagonist are both cool cats who lived in that decadent and metamorphosing Berlin, and it’s not difficult as a reader to see and hear and taste and smell the vibrant sensual cacophony that bespatter the pages. It’s a strange work in that Isherwood is so completely entwined with the city and its inhabitants, yet the story is narrated in a semi-aloof and reticent style (indeed, on the first page he writes, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”, and the stage version of the novel is called I Am a Camera) and I wasn’t taken by it at first. But when I was still thinking back to it weeks later, I knew that it had some quality I hadn’t quite fully grasped in that first read.

The second book was Stasiland, written by Anna Funder: a work that’s received a lot of acclaim, and deservedly so. It reads like a precursor to that superb film The Lives of Others, but with broader focus and sentiment. All I can say is that since reading it I’ve unearthed a lot more on its subject matter—life in communist Berlin under the German Democratic Republic—and it’s still the most candid and elucidative rendering I’ve found. Never mind whether you know Berlin or couldn’t give two hoots about the place, the book itself is a magic read: a quiet and painterly study of a time and place that is as captivating for its historical context as it is for its narrative sway. (A visiting author friend informed me the other day that Funder has a novel coming out soon; the reading part of my brain is already horny thinking about it.)

The third novel I read that keeps the city in its sights was David Sornig’s Spiel, an über ambitious and successful book that moves from Melbourne to Berlin, a book that raises more questions than answers. With a low buzz of unremitting tension and told through the kaleidoscopic lenses of architectural theory, contemporary fatalism and the unreliability of time, Sornig’s Berlin is more Hitchcockian than the polychromatic city that is today being re-created by Angela Merkel and her ilk.

         (Note: for anyone out there tuning in, I’d love to hear of any more recommendations of Berlin-orientated books.)

A final remark: in the few months I’ve been in Berlin I’ve made staggering attempts to learn the German language. Because I think it would take another whole post just to explicate both the fun and the frustration of the experience, but more because I fear I would blow a mental gasket if I tried, let me instead point you onto an essay by somebody who says everything I would like to say, but with Mark Twain-esque brio and drollery (funny funny, considering it’s actually written by Mark Twain). It’s a corker.

Bis zum nächsten Mal, glücklich schriftlich.

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