Monday, August 12, 2019

Visiting Dorotéenstadt Cemetery in Berlin

People having their lunch break while resting their feet on the centuries-old dark stones. Alone or with company. Young students resting on a bench surrounded by graves. So Romantic. Nearby, a young lady is snitching a short note on a box set on Brecht's grave. A request for feedback, for inspiration?
And there is me, a little voyeur, camera in hand, for the first visit at Dorothéenstadt Cemetery Berlin, also called the Berlin's Père Lachaise.

Weirdly maybe,  I always considered cemeteries interesting places. In France, or Spain or Portugal,  in Central and Eastern Europe or the Middle East, I always searched for little stories beind the stones. It is not always about the famous people, but also about those unknown residents which might left some stories about their lives on the stones. 
I remember how me and my brother we discovered once in the old country a cemetery of pilots. On some of their graves part of their circumstances - flight accident for instance - was revealed - and we used to set up stories about their destiny.
For Berlin cemetery, you don't have to be that creative: most of the lives of the famous residents are told already in tomes.

The 17,000 sqm cemetery situated in the Mitte area - Chauséestrasse 126 - reunites in dead artists, writers, industralists - like Borsig, for instance - or court architects - like Schinckel, my favorite German's architect.

Compared to the notorious Père Lachaise, there are no orgiastic parties here. No desperate screams of the fans of Jim Morrison. Artists and intellectuals do have a high, often unapproachable status in Germany. You treat them with respect, quietly. Or you leave pebbles on the stones - or even a pen - like at Christa Wolf's grave. 

Besides the potential stories - most of them I never wrote - there is the tombal architecture which interests me when visiting a grave. What I've mostly seen here is a very simple one, without glamour and special style. Dorothéenstadt is usually considered an example of 18th-19th century tombal architecture but in my humble opinion someone really interested in good samples in this respect should go somewhere else. 
For instance, I've found more glamour and creative patterns in the Jewish cemetery of Weissensee. The emerging Jewish class wanted to copy the style of the successful gentiles and suceeded to pay for impressive works of tombal architecture. Completely against the average Jewish belief that in death,  all graves shall look the same, simple, without pictures or any significant identification mark.

You have to walk a lot until you find some interesting corners but they are worth the view. There is some information posted at the entrance - in German - and you might find other tourists - or curious locals as me - wandering near the graves. You can ask about famous people eventually.

Although not exactly impressed, it was a literary visit worth doing it once in a lifetime. At least I've learned something about the local tombal architecture, and even learned something about the easygoing way of munching a sandwich at the shadow of a famous person's grave.
I only have a big regret: why I haven't asked the girl with the note on Brecht's grave about her message. I am becoming too private sometimes...

Friday, August 9, 2019

Short Stories from the Days of Awe

Short stories do have such an ephemeral appearance. Such a collection does require a specific order of reading, you don't have to keep in mind a unique story line and characters. You can abandon it for a couple of days or even weeks or months and read it again without influence to the overall knowledge and understanding of the writing.
However, when reading a collection of short stories, I prefer to keep reading it. It goes faster sometimes and in this way I am able to follow patterns and ideas, the so-called red lines which are inevitably a trademark of any writer. 
Days of Awe by A.M.Homes are impossible to be read otherwise. A story delves into the other, the characters are developped from a story to another, in their full strangeness. They are dual - in both their gender orientation and their desires - at the limit, looking for different emotional experiences and obsessed with past - theirs, of the world, of their group. Some of them look like pictures in a therapy book. 
The most complex characters are the women: they might be dual in their sexual desires, They are struggling with their mothers, their past and their identities are often a construction made of multiple layers. The men are almost lost in their shadows.
The dialogues are for me the strongest literary part of the short stories. They reveal a lot about the inner lives and secrets of the characters, about their hidden desires and their past obsessions. They are vivid and spontaneous and a noteworthy part of the staged narrative. 
Although I am not reading so often short stories, this collection left traces into my literary desires and created the appetite for even more such experiments. I may have to continue with more short stories by A.M.Homes maybe.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Visiting Anna Seghers Memorial House in Berlin

In my primary school years, back in the old country, I used to visit a lot of memorial houses and I kept a certain nostalgy for this type of encounters ever since. Visiting the house of a writer means sometimes connecting the dots between the literary work and the personal milieu. However, once my critical thinking developped, my expectations were to experience besides the personal touch of a writer's life also eventually a critical perspective of his or her writings and decisions. This goes especially for those writers with a certain political implications, as it is the case of Anna Seghers. 
I grew up with the full collection of her works in French, and read some of them in my teen years. Most probably, would love to read them in German, now that I am relatively well managing this language. Also, I am a grown up today, with a complex critical thinking system and a new read will definitely shape a different perception on her works and the mentality it reflects.
Anna-Seghers Museum, under the administration of Akademie der Künste, in Berlin is situated on the street bearing the name of the writer, 5 minutes of walk from the Adlershof S-Bahn station. A couple of blocks away lived the Bulgarian communist Georgy Dimitrov. She lived at this address from 1955 until 1983, after she decided to settle in the communist Germany - GDR. During the war Seghers moved to Paris and after Mexico, where she made friendship with other communist believers like the painter Diego Rivera, together with her communist Hungarian husband Laszlo Radvanyi. At the end of the war, she lived shortly in an apartment in a wing of Adlon Hotel which was not affected by bombings.
Seghers was born Netty Reiling in a middle-class Jewish family in Mainz. (Seghers was apparently the name of a Dutch painter she become familiar with, probably through his father art business). During her exile, she wrote many of her important works, including The Seventh Cross, about the escape from a concentration camp, which was turned into a Hollywood movie. Once settled in the communist part of Germany, she was awarded several prizes and was a co-founder of the Academiy of Arts and the World Peace Council.
One of the most important reasons I love to visit memorial houses is for having a look at the libraries. What were the sources of inspiration? What were the authors preferred? Anna Seghers' library includes around 10,000 titles as diverse as the Pesah Hagaddah, Boris Polevoi (which I had the chance to read as a teen too) or Stalin's works in Russian. Originally, she was a sinologist (haven't spotted any book in Mandarin though), and I am not sure if she was fluent in Russian. 
The house - whose interior cannot be photographed - includes the original furniture, including the Remington typewriter she bought from Mexico, where she wrote her books and articles. 
However, what I was really missing from this memorial house, was a complex critical perspective. The visitor who is not very familiar with her works will leave with the impression that she was probably a perfect followers of the German communists. What was her opinion on the freedom restrictions in the GDR? About the incidents that other writers like Stefan Heym, who was a literary friend, went through with the local system. It is a complete painful silence that makes me feel that very often, memorial houses are just a place to have a check of the famous people's libraries.

'We Were Strangers Once'...

In a world which seems - again - more and more dominated by hate and lack of consideration for immigrants, it's good to be reminded that, at least in some countries - like America -  'We were strangers once'. A frequent mention of the Jewish exodus, this sentence invites for understanding and opening towards the 'stranger' because he or she, as we once, are fighting hard with social, linguistic and economic barriers which are hard to figure out. 
We Were Strangers Once by Betsy Carter follows the footsteps of a group of German Jews lucky enough to escape Germany to America. The new life means that they have to give up their old prestigious jobs and social positions for a menial salary but with the promise of a life in freedom and dignity. Egon, the heir of a famous group of scientists, an oftalmologist himself, in Frankfurt is becoming the 'Cheese Man' selling cheese in a supermarket. Meyer, his journalist friend, will give up for a while his writing ambitions for doing street advertising. Their language skills are limited, therefore they end up in the regular company of each other's.
But once life starts to settle down, their lives are becoming more and more complex and so are the challenges. New people are entering the small German circle, like the Irish-born Catrina, Egon's new girlfriend, with whom he connected through their reciprocal love for animals. 
Betsy Carter created a beautiful story with so many unique characters, so realistic that you might even figure them out in flesh. The story is developing in a complex way and has elegant turns, but do not expect anything dramatic or unexpected. It flows like life, in a very easy, down-to-earth still unexpected way. 
The connection with the historical reality is also well done, which creates the authenticity ambiance, so important for a historical novel. 
I am very happy to discover this writer and would be want to read more from her. This creates such a genuine intellectual ambiance that it's hard to escape and this effect is a real gift for a writer therefore I would be very curious to know more about her writings.

Rating: 5 stars

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Broken Lives of a Mad and Furious City

Stations Estate, North London. A summer of unrest when Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf are trying to figure out how to pass their time, in a city which turns to be mad and furious.
London has so many faces and its people are so different. Brought here from all over the world, but still one, part of a oneness which sometimes has no pity against its residents. 
Written in a multitude of voices, In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne is a book about fellowships, broken destinies and people who are condemned to repeat the lives of their parents with no chance in sight.
It is not a sad book. The stories, written at the first person, taking the reader in dialapidates spots and hopeless city corners, are realistically told. This is how life is there. And will always be. Young men in bad futures they are. 
The alternate stories create a special tempo of the story, which you slowly enter. Sometimes, for the non-English speaker, it might be a bit difficult to cope with the idiom, but using this way of talking creates a certain intimacy and genuine originality to the story. 
The book has the merit of revealing worlds and personal stories that you are rarely intimate with. It's cruel, disturbing and unusual, but it has so much authenticity and the power to create stories within the stories. 
It is a recommended book especially if you are interested in radicalism, minority representation and personal stories. The multi-awarded debut novel of Guy Gunaratne promises a unique literary voice that will have a lot to say, especially in 'our mad and furious city'. 

Rating: 4 stars