Sunday, 23 May 2010

Berlin: A Cold Spell in the Summerhouse

"Summerhouse, Later" is a collection of short(ish) stories – largely set in modern Berlin – which, despite itself, manages to be quite engaging.

I say despite itself because it seems that the author, Judith Hermann, is consciously trying to evoke a sense of isolation and emotional detachment in these disparate stories… This is reflected in both the language (with its staccato, matter-of-fact delivery) and the narratives themselves, which often end abruptly, with no resolution of sorts.

However, despite these stylistic mannerisms I found the book to be extremely enjoyable and affecting. Indeed the narrative coldness of much of the writing only serves to accentuate some genuine moments of pathos and humanity that occur in this book.

I have been speaking in largely abstract terms about the literary feel of this book so far; but that is not to say that the stories themselves are not of genuine human interest. Indeed, there is a fascinating range of scenarios and characters played out in the nine stories contained herein. I won’t detail the stories themselves here – I would rather encourage you to read them yourselves! – but there is a strong thematic link, in that they all feature individuals who are somehow divorced from their surroundings; who are alienated by a fragmented society yet still a part of that society. This is the common thread that Hermann interweaves between the characters here – be they a bohemian twenty-something partying their way through Berlin’s art scene, or a reclusive scriptwriter who has put those days behind him to concentrate on a peaceful family life, or a lonely old man in a tenement whose interest is life is briefly, and painfully, ignited by the appearance of a transient young female neighbour.

Two of these stories ('Hurricane' and 'Hunter Johnson Music') take place outside of Germany; and whilst I believe the former has something to say about modern Berlin (featuring ex-pat Germans on a Caribbean island); the latter is a real surprise. It is evocatively written about an old-timer living in a downtown US tenement and reads almost like a film script based on an Edward Hopper painting. It is shot through with a classic American gothic literary feel, and this only serves to demonstrate the versatility of this debutante German author.

Regarding this point, in several other reviews the word ‘cinematic’ is used in regards to this book, and it is notable that in one of her stories Hermann name-checks Andrei Tarkovsky – a Russian film-maker who was known for his long-takes, his deliberate inaccessibility and his cold, isolated film style. This is a perfect way to describe Hermann's own literary style.

Elsewhere in this book we are treated to a series of vignettes regarding the disparate (and generally dissolute) lives of contemporary Berliners. As the UK’s “The Independent” newspaper review stated:

“The title story is most telling. A group of friends lead typically bohemian Berlin lives, filling their days with drugs, boredom and the odd bar job. They suffer from the malaise of nothingness, while studying a "sophisticated, neurasthenic, fucked-up look". Only Stein has a dream: a summerhouse. Yet when he achieves the dream, it folds. As Hermann says, the summerhouse is "the moment before happiness" that is best put off until later. These stories are not the confused musings of some doe-eyed voguish Berliner who knows not what to do with her time. The Summerhouse, Later is an elegant and perceptive reading on the emptiness that fills our lives. Its author is a master storyteller.”

I would concur with this – and Hermann is an author that I shall revisit after I finally complete my global journey.

Whilst planning my onward trip from Berlin to my next destination (Luxembourg, courtesy of “An Expat's Life, Luxembourg and The White Rose” by Englishman David Robinson), it becomes clear that direct travel from these neighbouring countries is neither easy nor cheap (the cheapest connecting flight quoted on the Internet is over 400 Euros!!). The best deal I can get is by train which involves a connection and a price tag of £154 (which - to be fair – one can easily pay travelling between cities in the UK!).

And so I leave the huge glass structure of Berlin’s main station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof) at 11.48 and embark on the daunting 9hr 46min journey to Luxembourg’s main station. I connect at Köln Hauptbahnhof (the main rail station in Germany’s Cologne area), arriving at 16.09 and - as I don’t leave until 18.18 - I take the time to grab a bite to eat and a quick tour of Cologne Cathedral, which is next door to the station, with its stunning Gothic architecture. From Köln it is a three hour trip into Luxembourg City’s main station – a large baroque-style building which looks more like the previous stop's Cologne Cathedral than Köln station!

Upon finally arriving in Luxembourg I am now looking forward to an informative account of its capital city (and one of its premiere expat pubs: The White Rose) from David Robinson, who left a life in banking in the City of London to seek a new life abroad in the smallest EU member state…

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