This story is part of new series Explore the world through books. We asked some of our favorite writers to recommend readings that help you get to know their cities and tips on literary landmarks to check out. We will be traveling the world with them over the next few months, from Madrid to Mexico City to Istanbul and beyond. Subscribe to the Books Newsletter To make sure you don’t miss any stops!
Berlin is not beautiful. You should know this in advance. You don’t come here for the beautiful architecture of an old European city.
Berlin cathedral looks great in size. Across the street is the ridiculous Stadtschloss – a castle that was demolished in 1950, replaced by a rather brutal building and then recently rebuilt from scratch according to a 19th century facade, with a very modern interior. In Potsdamer Platz, the tent-like glass roof serves as a strange time capsule of what people in the early 1990s thought their future would look like. Along the way is the Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical monument that has become a symbol of the new, unified Germany.
The twentieth century has left a profound mark on this city. Not so long ago, Berlin was still divided by a wall. And the history before the wall was even darker: Watch for the little golden rectangles on the sidewalk — Stolpersteine, or tumbled stones — each bearing the name of a Berlin Jewish resident who was murdered by the Nazis, and a constant reminder of the people whose children and grandchildren can live here now. In Berlin, if you know your history, you will find pain around every corner.
But when the weather is nice and you cycle from Neukölln to Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain to Prenzlauer Berg, the architecture recedes and you’ll feel free to zoom in through endless stretches of cafés, restaurants, and people-filled parks. Many different languages.
Much of Berlin’s allure lies in what happens indoors – in cafes, clubs, and inside people’s apartments. The city’s bleak history has led to a quest for joy, at times extreme. There is serious dance and club culture ranging from techno to Afrobeats, in dance schools and on the streets. The availability of many large spaces after the fall of the Wall also led to many great artists owning a studio in Berlin and thus to a thriving contemporary art scene. As for literature, several notable German-speaking writers, including those from Austria and Switzerland, now live in Berlin.
But the best thing about Berlin is that its mantra that everyone is equal still stands in many ways. Berlin is still quite affordable (well, relatively) and you don’t need a lot of money. With style and demeanor, you’ll walk into Berghain or any other exclusive club more than any billionaire. I don’t know when that happened, but Berlin somehow rose above its tragic past and became a wonderful place.
What should I read before I pack my bags?
The big classic is Alfred Doblin.Berlin Alexander Platz.It’s one of the greatest modernist novels of the 20th century, and getting to know Berlin is just one of the many good reasons to read it.
What books or authors should I bring with me?
“Vladimir Nabokov”the gift. It’s the last book he wrote in Russian – a great novel about a man and a woman that fate tries to bring together (for a long time, in vain). It’s also about the huge community of Russians who took refuge in Berlin after the revolution. For obvious reasons, this is a timely topic.
Irmgard Keun’s”artificial silk girl. This is a very original and very elegant novel about Berlin in the early twentieth century. The narrator is a young woman who will not be easily forgotten with her kind and funny voice.
Hans Valada “Every man dies alone. This is the great social novel set in Berlin under Nazi rule, written by someone who lived in it. It will give you nightmares, but it gives you an idea of what I really felt, the way only great novels can.
Let the books take you to your next destination
We asked famous writers from around the world to compile literary guides to cities close to their hearts.
Thomas ProsegThe short ending of Sonnenallee.“One of the most brilliant satirical novels about life in East Berlin, In Shadow of the Wall (literally). A translation by Jonathan Franzen and Jenny Watson, with an introduction by Franzen, will be published in April 2023 by Picador Original.
Sven RegnerBerlin blues. One of the funniest German books ever, the book explores what it was like to live in Berlin after reunification with lots of wine and no money.
And if you’re reading some German, try Jens Bisky’s recently published book so it didn’t translate history,”Berlin. As with the city itself, don’t be discouraged by its sheer size.
If I don’t have time for day trips, what books can help me explore more?
Any of the novels of Theodor Fontane, the great nineteenth century writer. They often occur in the picturesque landscapes of Brandenburg, the area around Berlin.
and Voltaire”Memoirs of the life of Monsieur de Voltaire. Potsdam is only an hour away from Berlin, and it is interesting to explore the friendship of Frederick the Elder and the greatest writer of the eighteenth century, which led to so many highly amusing mutual slanders.
What writer is everyone in town talking about?
At the moment, for obvious reasons, people talk about the great Ukrainian writers – for example Yuri Andrukhovich And Andrei Kurkov – as well as Russian dissident writers who arrived in Germany and could not return to their homeland for political reasons, such as Vladimir Sorokin, Ludmila Ulitskaya and Viktor Erofeev. These are familiar names in Europe, which means that they, like the names of almost all the great writers of the world who do not write in English, are little known in the United States.
Tell me what audiobook can make for good company while I’m on the go.
Listen to Bertolt Brecht’s song “Opera Threepence. There’s even a BBC production with David Bowie. Yes, it’s officially set in London, but it’s the perfect play about 1920s Berlin. Don’t try to make sense of the story: just enjoy the songs.
Which literary icons might I see named on street signs, statues, and public monuments?
While listening to “Threepenny Opera,” you might want to wander the Berliner Ensemble, the theater where “Threepenny Opera” was first performed in 1928 and where Brecht himself directed his plays after returning from his exile in Hollywood. There is also a statue of Brecht but the real monument is of course his theatre.
What is the literary pilgrimage destination that you recommend for me?
This is not a pleasant recommendation, but go to Hohenschönhausen prison, where the East German secret police interrogated opponents, many of whom are writers. At that time, you could not find it on any map: very few people knew that it existed. Now, the ex-prisoners are the tour guides! The former prisoners are so young, relatively, that one understands deeply how lately the dictatorship was still in place. It may spoil your day, but it will help you understand more about the latter half of the 20th century than most books or museums can.
Where’s the place to spend a day off with a book?
From the Berliner Ensemble, walk 10 minutes through Friedrichstrasse train station – at the time of the Wall the east-west train station – to the giant bookstore called Dussmann, on Friedrichstrasse. It has it all, in all languages, and it’s so big that you may never find your way out of it.
Or, if you’re already in the western part of town, go to Bücherbogen at Savignyplatz. It’s smaller than Dussmann, but probably the most beautiful independent bookshop in Berlin.
Then take all the books you’ve bought and, if it’s spring or summer, go to the daring Volkspark Friedrichshain and stay until finally sunset. If it’s winter, don’t try it. Avoid the park.
In fact, if winter is winter, do not come to Berlin at all.
Daniel Kehlmann’s Reading List in Berlin
“Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Alfred Doblin
“the gift,” Vladimir Nabokov
“artificial silk girl“Irmgard Keon”
“Every man dies alone,Hans Valada
“The Short End of the Sonnenallee,Thomas Prossig
“Berlin Blues”, Sven Regener
“Berlin,” Jens Pesci
Theodor Fontane novels
“Memoirs of the Life of Mr. de Voltaire,” Voltaire
“Threepenny Opera”, Bertolt Brecht
Daniel Kellman’s latest novel, “Tyll,” incorporates humor into a story set in conflict-ravaged Europe, and is adapted into a major movie. It is his eighth novel, and it has been or is being translated into more than 20 languages.