Nonfiction from NER 42.3 (2021)
Translated from the Polish by Jakob ZigurasT
he room in which I lived had been empty for a long time. It contained only a few furnishings: a desk for work, a bed, a clothes rack. But the most important thing was space—the possibility of taking a dozen or so steps without fear that I would stumble into furniture, arranged at some point, but not for me.
On the desk, I laid out books; to the walls I pinned postcards, snapshots of paintings, and photos of select places, in which memory avidly wanders. Besides these things, there was nothing, as in the apartment for scholars in Adam Zagajewski’s poem:
[. . .]
a drab teapot that whistles in every idiom.
You try to settle in and even think.
You read Meister Eckhart about distance (Abgeschiedenheit),
the poems of a British Francophile,
an Anglocentric Frenchman’s prose;
and only after several days of struggling
to inhabit these hygienic quarters,
hospice to the cream of cultivated humankind,
you realize with something close to awe
that no one lives here [. . .].
—from “Apartment for Scholars,” translated by Clare Cavanagh
The room changed together with me; it slowly filled. In the evenings, it had about it a Hopperesque sadness; by day it was imbued with the brightness of his sun-drenched paintings. I knew that one day I would abandon it with regret: this section of a factory hall, with its great dusty windows—divided like a block of chocolate into a dozen or so equal segments—was a true room with a view.
There, I read books I’d previously set aside in the hopes of a future closer acquaintance. Within their pages, I found a warning that “the desert of the desk . . . would have to be tilled for a long time before it could sprout its first rhymes.” Or, as Vladimir Nabokov writes: “much cigarette ash would have to fall under the armchair and into its folds before it would become suitable for travelling.”
On the other side of the narrow cobblestone street—from morning onwards noisy and unceasingly overrun by cars—stood two tenements, each faced in a different shade of plaster. Under the roof, regardless of the weather, a pair of cupids chiseled from stone took flight, holding a grapevine aloft in the sky. In the house opposite, lights glowed long into the night; in rooms, people wandered like figures in a shadow theater. The spreading poplars—“judges among the nation of trees”—veiled those black silhouettes, but only for a time. In September, these poplars still have a few joyful leaves among their foliage; later, they will become gray-brown, like the facades of nearby houses. Bashful chameleons trying to merge with their surroundings, they dissolved against the background of a brick wall.
These poplars brought to mind the silhouette of Kant, as sketched by the poet and essayist Bolesław Miciński: the portrait of the philosopher sunk into an armchair, directly opposite a window with a view onto the ruins of the Kaliningrad castle, trees, and a faded sky. Kant—writes Miciński—“shut up within the sphere of concepts, lived by memory and anticipation. The present, if he had not predicted it a priori, was an intrusion; it stood in the doorway of his study like an unexpected guest, like the angel of death, who mocks at time [. . .]. He was troubled by the proliferation of trees beyond the window. Slender trunks, like the huge gnomons of a sundial, threw shadows on the study’s windowpanes, as if to say: the time has come! So, the poplars were cut down, in order to save the philosopher’s wavering sense of reality, based upon many years of habit.”
Not far away, just past the corner of my Berlin apartment building, was a canal with dark, turbid water, low spanning bridges—each with a wrought-iron railing, under which ships squeezed through the gaps—and a shore overgrown with trees, where, on warm days, I sat gazing at my surroundings. This was the canal about which Walter Benjamin once wrote: “the water took its dark, slow course, as though intimate with all the sorrow in the world [. . .]. In vain was each of its many bridges betrothed to death with the ring of a life preserver.” I knew this place from the poems of Brodsky and Venclova, and from the lessons of history, the echoes of which drew forth Venclova’s singular phrasing:
The old canal, where Rosa had been found,
reflected ruins. It is no longer bound
to do so. Railway stations come around.
Has anything at all escaped the flux?
A flame extends the alleyway, or rather,
spouts out of it, like egg-white, toward ether.
The flags of yesteryear’s colossi wither
above the embassies. Pariser Platz.
—from “From Landwehrkanal to Spree,” translated by Constantine Rusanov
However, for me, the canal is identified, above all, with the landscapes painted by Rainer Fetting: the water’s current, the willows with low hanging withies, the sycamores with patchy bark, and, beyond them, the architecture of houses with the strangest shapes—old tenements and modern buildings, massive dark blocks arranged along the shore. Seeking out these sights, I wandered along narrow paths beside the water, comparing them with the paintings I had pored over in Fetting’s exhibition catalogues. Through the paintings, I wandered into the former, still divided, city, in the vicinity of Moritzplatz, where Fetting’s studio once stood, pulsing with life, full of loud music, of joyful meetings or artistic activities and provocations, with the television tower beyond the window looking like a monstrous spike set on some underground Christmas tree. But the Wall remains present in those paintings. It’s like a stone snake with no head, which once wound through
the streets and squares, penetrating tenements, reclining beside lakes.
Fetting accompanied his city into its release from history. He was with it still later, in the years of its reconstruction; he paints the dance of yellow cranes setting up iron constructions, ropes of pipes and catacombs of underground parking lots, passages, depths of dug-out foundations. Berlin was, and is, the theme of his paintings. What strikes me about them is the energy of the city, its readiness for change, for transformation, for taking on a different modern shape.
Today’s Moritzplatz is made up of new houses and wide streets, and only the brick facade of a factory recalls the times of artistic activity beyond the Wall. The spirit of revolt has already taken flight from here and probably inspires elsewhere. It is difficult to imagine, in the midst of the new stage-sets of the now reunited city, its former rebels creating paintings, playing music, and discoursing boldly—as if all of their actions shared a common form, a shout shared among various voices, written down in a range of registers, a longing for political and artistic liberation.
But Berlin is also a city receptive to wanderers conversing with death, loners who find themselves at the end of the road. For the Polish reader, there is no more important description of Berlin, of its mood, people, and places—all of them passed by with equal haste—than the fragments, from 1963, of Witold Gombrowicz’s diary. These pages offer a valuable introduction to the city; reading them carefully sends shivers down the spine. It is necessary to treat them as a standard of free writing and of a literature always on the side of life, though also one that is drawn towards life’s final moments.
It is impossible to forget his metaphor for death, which, lurking, “perches on the arm like a bird.” In these fragments, hands are presented as protagonists of the first order, as if their pantomimes embodied the spirit of the city. The hands of Berliners are always moving: they manufacture, produce, spin—avoiding inaction at all costs. Sometimes, writes Gombrowicz, Berlin is like Lady Macbeth, washing her hands without respite. Concealed in this dance of hands is the energy of the city, the strength of Germany. Today, this is more difficult to discern, as if it has been hidden deep, placed into a pocket out of shame.
Berlin is a city with which Gombrowicz struggles, a place from which he sees himself, from which he peers into the past. He constantly admonishes himself that he cannot, that he should not, write about Berlin, that he should write about himself and not about the city; yet, he confesses: “I don’t know where I end, and Berlin begins.” From the balcony on Bartningallee, he looks through a pair of binoculars at the Victory Column, at the Tiergarten: “Having landed on a city-island, a city-chimera, I sensed my own death in the Polish scents of the Tiergarten. Weakened by this death from the inside, I had to deal with the hidden death of the city, which meted out death and got it.” But, in a certain sense, the whole of Berlin serves as Gombrowicz’s binoculars. It allows him to discern from close up what, at any given moment, is most important—immersed in history, after many years of liberation from the latter’s mighty embrace. It is difficult to follow the principles set down in his diary: “Not to inform oneself. Not to read, neither books nor newspapers. Not to look at the wall. Not to get too interested in anything. To sit in the café and stare at the street [. . .].”
In Berlin, the experiences of other people, other writers who passed by these same places, are more important than my own; hence, I wander, seeking those fugitive shadows. I tread a path, with the idea that, in the end, I will discover the city’s former shape—or at least its outline—and will inscribe within it a few figures close to me, to more vividly capture their presence. But in this city there are too many trails, too many traces; streets change into libraries with admired books. Pages I have read lead to places that today look different; the fingerprints of literature and life don’t overlap. Hence, it is only in imagination that I can form my own Berlin, be the cartographer of imaginary spaces. In those spaces, I sketch in my mind a few places known from literature and lay over them, like tracing paper, images captured while on walks.
In the Tiergarten, besides Gombrowicz, I am accompanied by Russian emigrants—Effi Briest and the protagonists from Robert Walser’s works: “The walkers lose themselves—now one by one, now in graceful, tightly knit clusters and groups—among the trees whose high branches are still breezily bare, and between the low bushes that constitute a breath of young, sweet green. [. . .] The image of the Tiergarten as a whole is like a painted picture, then like a dream, then like a circuitous, agreeable kiss. Everywhere one is lightly, comprehensibly enticed to gaze and linger. [. . .] It’s really the people that comprise it. Without the people, you wouldn’t see, notice, or experience the beauty of the Tiergarten.”
In the park, I am also accompanied by the specter of Pavel Muratov, who is walking here at daybreak, generously sharing his knowledge and exceptional gift for rapture, lifting his readers up with the lightness of a Persian carpet towards remote destinations—taking them to the Tiber and the Arno and, further, towards mythical Sicily. Nina Berberova wrote of him that “he was a person of silence, who understood storms, and a person of inner order, who understood the inner disorder of others. [. . .] He blessed his interlocutor with his thoughts [. . .] he released them like pigeons from a cage, so that any who might wish to grasp them, could do so.”
With Nabokov, I wander further, in the direction of Grunewald, where one of the most important conversations about the struggle between life and literature happened, in the dialogue between Koncheyev and Godunov-Cherdyntsev, which warns of the dangers lying in wait for anyone who struggles through life by writing. Five warnings, five truths, which are worth taking the trouble to understand, to engrave in memory; five exclamation marks embedded, though invisible, in every text that grasps even a small fragment of reality:
First, an excessive trust in words. It sometimes happens that your words, in order to introduce the necessary thought, have to smuggle it in. The sentence may be excellent, but still it is smuggling, and moreover gratuitous smuggling, since the lawful road is open. [. . .] Secondly, there is a certain awkwardness in the re-working of the sources: you seem to be undecided whether to enforce your style upon past speeches and events or to make their own more salient. [. . .] Thirdly, you sometimes bring up parody to such a degree of naturalness that it actually becomes a genuine serious thought [. . .] as if somebody parodying an actor’s slovenly reading of Shakespeare had been carried away, had started to thunder in earnest, but had accidentally garbled a line. Fourthly, one observes in one or two of your transitions something mechanical, if not automatic, which suggests you are pursuing your own advantage, and taking the course you find easier. [. . .] Fifthly and finally, you sometimes say things chiefly calculated to prick your contemporaries, but any woman will tell you that nothing gets lost so easily as a hairpin [. . .].
Nabokov’s The Gift also provides another image—that of a kite stretched out against an azure sky. I hold it in memory, traversing the emptiness of the former Tempelhof airport. I pass cyclists and runners and look upwards to where, on invisible threads, the colorful stretched cloths soar. Before achieving the necessary height, they lift themselves with difficulty from the earth, spin for a time just above my head, as if seeking the appropriate trajectory, and then, at last, catch the wind, rising high up, to remain there, almost motionless, marking the air like vibrant stains. I would like to carry this view away, take it with me from Berlin, inscribe it in the imaginary gallery of remembered landscapes and moments that are truly joyful.
What more would I add? What other paintings would I place nearby? Certainly a few views from the Wannsee, those glimpsed in the house of Max Liebermann and those enclosed in his landscapes, in which all the varieties of green rule, while trees swagger, almost entirely filling up the canvas. But here also, alongside the beauty and silence of nature and the vast surface of the lake, among houses built to enjoy the water and light, it is impossible to rid oneself of death’s shadow. It suffices to walk just a bit further, to continue on a few hundred meters and stand before the gate of the villa where, in January 1942, the decision was made to annihilate an entire people, the place where the detailed plan for the Holocaust was devised. Killing became a technological problem, subordinated to the laws of economy. These two very different houses by the lake are, for me, symbols of Germany: a place of rapture and terror, joy and pain, the memory of beauty and of crime. As if it were impossible to separate this pair; as if only together did they speak the truth of the human lot. And perhaps for this reason the stories collected by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, in his autobiography, persist so strongly in my memory. This book contains the Berlin I am seeking out: parks, streets, theaters filled with hubbub, the multiplicity of human passions and natures. But Reich-Ranicki’s most moving pages are those about hiding in a dugout during the war, about fear, about fragments of former readings, memorized and passed on for a piece of bread. They contain an adoration for German literature, the strength of which can endure the wartime nightmare, transform people, restore their dignity and courage, which they had managed to forget. It allows them to survive. “Every time”—writes Reich-Ranicki—“that I find myself by the Little Wannsee, I think of Bolek, who sent the Germans to the devil, and drank to the health of Prince Friedrich von Homberg. And I bow my head, in spirit, before the Prussian poet, who ended his life here, and before the Warsaw typesetter, who risked his own life, in order to save mine.”
And again, by the shores of the Wannsee—where I am now staying, on the first floor, without a view, but with a balcony in exchange—I gaze out at this world and glimpse things once found in books. I recall Kästner’s novel, read in childhood, about Emil and his Berlin adventures, about the pursuit of the thief on Nollendorfplatz. These were the first images of Berlin that I memorized: the Brandenburg Bridge, the Tiergarten, Prager Platz, the surroundings of Friedrichstrasse, and the Zoo station. Today, I return most eagerly to a few initial pages, to fragments about the nature of the imagination, about life skillfully captured in words, about recollections. But “recollections”—writes Kästner—“are grasped otherwise. Recollections are grasped in instalments. First, one grabs hold, for instance, of their mop of hair. Then a left front leg flies past, then the right, then the backside, then one back leg—and so it goes, piece by piece. And when one thinks that the story is already complete, there traipses in—the Devil take it!—still one more earlobe. And finally, if one is lucky, one knows everything.”
I am unable, after all, to unify these scattered images. I don’t want to. I prefer that they remain apart, submerged in emptiness, like colorful postcards on the white wall of a Berlin room.
Eagerly, I continue my walks around the neighborhood, most often choosing the road beside Max Liebermann’s villa. I pass the stumps of trees, their scabbed branches, all alike, turned upwards like the branches of a menorah. Carefully pruned, surrendered to the rules of geometry, they patiently await the explosion of spring, likely dreaming of forest thickets. I arrive at the garden, dormant at this time of year. I like the simple silhouette of the house beside the water, with a single window in the sloping roof, looking like a widely dilated pupil. The paintings that fill up this house appeal to me. Landscape painting is difficult; it is easy to fall into the obvious, into sentimentalism, to select a “view.” For that matter, it is similar in literature. The best descriptions are frugal with words: a fragment instead of the whole, an outline instead of a painting. As in Tolstoy, in his vision of the Russian winter: “A wooden bridge on a frozen river, and upon it a pair of calf-length boots, which walk onwards by themselves.” And so, in opposition to moods—an objective tone, a dry reportage, without metaphors or excessive hues. Liebermann’s landscapes are almost always spot on, reduced to the most essential details, painted with broad strokes of the brush. I gaze at them greedily.
Liebermann is, for me, a painter of two colors—white and green. His world drowns in green, in its unending variations—from the garish, pulsing with life, to nearly black shades reserved for thickets and dusk. The white of Liebermann is the color of birch bark, of clouds above water, of a bench in a garden, and of the dress of the woman sitting on that bench. Her face is also white; or, properly speaking, she has no face—it is only an oval with a ruddy stain in the place of a mouth. White painted on white, nothingness, beyond which a great deal is concealed, so much—as much as we ourselves are able to add.
In Berlin, just by the Brandenburg Bridge, on Pariser Platz where the Max Liebermann Haus is located, I visited an exhibition dedicated to the person of Harry Kessler, and, above all, to his diaries. I remember upstairs, in display cases, a procession of notebooks in the same binding: open, arranged one after another and, in addition, multiplied in mirrored reflections. They looked like pigeons breaking into flight. This exhibition was, for me, the best proof that it is possible to reveal the thought, the ideas, the stature of a human being—that which is fleeting, having no distinct analogue in the world of things. A few halls served as a portrait of one of the most interesting personalities of the early twentieth century. Auden called him the Saint-Simon of our times; but, in contrast to the penetrating Frenchman, Kessler was not restricted to one country, to one class, to one culture. His openness, panache, ability to find himself in the world, always among the people and matters that were the most important and of the highest quality, inspires admiration and wonder. The power of taste in its pure form. But Kessler also represents a love of beauty, unfettered eros, ease taken to the limit of what is generally accepted. How is it possible that in one figure, in one intellect, there resided the diplomat, the aristocrat, the artist, the adventurer, the dandy, the art dealer, and the publisher? And each time, whatever the form, ready to take a risk, to stake everything on a single card, to stand on the side of that which is new, often evoking scandal, so as to enliven the past, to breathe into it a new spirit. The fullest reflection of Kessler is his diary. It was here that he wrote about everything that interested him in the world; it was in his diary that he noted down his most important projects. It contains everything, treated equally: history, politics, art, music, people—close and distant—love, and, above all, wingéd thought, courageous and free. There is within it, as in Liebermann’s paintings, a life captured in the shutter of a penetrating gaze.
The great stone lion looks at the other shore of the lake, in the direction of the fashionable bathing area. I remember the images of it, in 1930, pulsing with life, captured in Billy Wilder’s silent film Menschen am Sonntag. A multitude of the faces and characters of former Berliners. The most important thing about this film is not the plot, but rather the views of the German capital and its surroundings—and the way these are shot, the multitude of locations, the variety of framings. And everything in only two colors, without words, with only music conveying the scene’s mood. Supposedly pure joy, play, flirting; but, nevertheless, in this film there is something disturbing. Or, am I, unnecessarily, asking questions about the subsequent fates of Wilder’s protagonists? Who did they turn out to be, those boys blithely playing? How many, and which of them, distributed death like a spanking, just for fun? What happened to the girls, if they survived the siege of Berlin, in the spring of 1945? On which side of the wall did they settle? Did someone, at some later date, take them, once again, to the shores of the Wannsee?
I go further, now down beside the Havel River, the wide ribbon connecting successive lakes, threading them like the stones of a necklace. In the morning, there is no one here. I am accompanied only by the sounds of cracking ice, as if something lay below in the depths, vainly struggling to liberate itself. This sound—dull, muffled, recalling whale song—reaches me in waves. At that moment, I have a sensation, as if I found myself within the reach of an invisible radar that tracks each of my movements. I try to mark out in space the outline of the Berlin Wall. Luckily, today it no longer exists, but its traces are still present. Here, among lakes and forests, in the kingdom of nature, only sparsely planted with the outposts of human beings, the existence of this horrendous construction astonishes me even more than in the city. I gaze at it in photos displayed by the river. I read a detailed description, crowded with dates and numbers: kilometers of fortifications, concrete, barbed wire, explosive charges, gun nests, guard towers. And today, among the trees: a plaque that gives rise to dismay and sadness, indicating that someone—bearing a concrete name and surname, with an easy to trace life trajectory, and most often young—died at this spot. Despite everything, I get lost in the Wall’s topography and, for a moment, I don’t know which side of it I am wandering on; or, perhaps, as is more likely, I am traversing the narrow belt of the no-man’s-land. I glance in the direction of Pfaueninsel, and I recall an event connected with it. During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Goebbels gave a reception for foreign officers. On August 15, he organized the famous “Italian night.” There was partying—boisterous and, as expected in Berlin, without inhibitions. Many scenes were, likely, carefully directed. There were fireworks, costumes, and masks, as during the Venetian Carnival. There were boat trips across the lake.
This place always attracted dignitaries, because it exudes the charm of summer adventure and melancholy, especially when fog envelops the forest and lays itself in a thick band on the lake. Here, one can, without difficulty, forget about the metropolis bubbling nearby; one can escape from the motion and noise. On Pfaueninsel, the future Emperor Nicholas I proposed to the Prussian Princess Charlotte. Only once, precisely here, he wrote some poems. After the marriage of his daughter, Charlotte’s father, Frederick Wilhelm III, King of Prussia, built in this area the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, with its characteristic steeple crowned with an onion-shaped Orthodox dome. In preparation for the arrival of the newlyweds from St. Petersburg, he placed beside it a wooden house, modeled on a Russian hut. From below, from beside the river, I can make out only the lacy band of ornamentation near the roof and the dark wooden boards of the first floor.
From here, it is a stone’s throw to the Glienicke Bridge and, consequently, another German–Russian story. In 2009, in the Schöningen villa, white as snow, a smallish museum was opened, documenting the recent history of this place. There, I watch archival films about spy exchanges, look at a scale model of the Wall, winding like a snake among forests and lakes; but, above all, I visit in order to look at a painting by Rainer Fetting: a vast, colorful view of the divided city, standing apart from the other exhibits. During my earlier stay in Berlin, I had attended a meeting with the painter at this same museum. He showed films recorded in Kreuzberg in the 1970s: a manifesto of the freedom of the artist and human being; discussions in abandoned buildings, just near the border; music—a few easily recognizable pieces by David Bowie, so important to this divided city; paintings painted on a wall and those standing in the studio, pushed, in disorder, against the wall; the silhouettes of friends and models, piles of cigarette butts and rows of emptied bottles. All this is like untrammeled joy.
From the bridge, I go back, usually, through Babelsberg. I pass flocks of ducks trustingly swimming up to the shore. Above, on a small hill—the palace. It is not far from here to the headquarters of the German film company UFA. It was there that such masterpieces as Murnau’s Faust and The Last Laugh, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the films starring Marlene Dietrich‚ above all The Blue Angel, and the documentaries of Leni Riefensthal, provoking fear and wonder, were produced. I promise myself that I will visit at some point. But for now, a description of the studio from the autobiography of Volker Schlöndorff must suffice. Its title—Light, Shadow and Movement—seems a bit too technical to me, as if it derived from a cameraman’s handbook. I prefer the subtitle, My Life and My Films. I read this book like a picaresque novel—tinged with a little sadness and dejection—as an unequaled guide to places that I have frequented, but above all as a commentary upon other books, that dozen or so titles that have built my imagination. For Schlöndorff is, certainly, one of the greatest specialists on literature in film. Even in his less successful passages, he interests me—how he read Proust, Musil, Böll, Grass, or Max Frisch, how he transformed their words into cinematic takes, where he placed the accents. Schlöndorff is also my guide to the history of Germany, from the time of the Thirty Years’ War to the present day.
I regret that I could never listen in on his conversation with Andrzej Wajda. I think they had much to tell one another. Both spoke about the histories of their countries, forcing viewers to reflection. I try to stay as close as possible to the water; this promises the best view of the houses that once hosted a great trio of politicians. My path leads now from Stalin’s villa to Truman’s house. But I am unable to find Churchill’s headquarters. Perhaps this particular house lacks an informational plaque, which would state that, during the Potsdam conference, in July and August 1945, the world leaders stopped here for a while. In a moment, the forest begins again, and three lakes emerge, connected like a single organism. At the very end of this watery triad is the Little Wannsee, with the grave of Kleist and Henriette Vogel. Rilke wrote about this place in a letter to Maria von Thurn und Taxis: “As a young person, I always liked to visit his tomb; at that time, it was still surrounded by wilderness, although a railway track passed nearby. On the grave there lay a wreath of fir, but the bars rusted in neglect. Yet, his fame did not have to support itself upon them; it stood free, sovereign [. . .]. Though I knew little about him, I had in mind his death, that strange death; for, at that time, I understood only strangeness. Now, however, I think of his life; since I slowly begin to grasp its beauty and greatness in such a way that his death almost ceases to concern me.” By the Little Wannsee, I sit and read The Prince of Homberg, Kleist’s play about the power of ambition and disobedience to power, about romantic enchantment and the unheroic fear of death. Homberg has in himself the madness of Hamlet, and his scale of emotion. He tends towards death and at the same time fears it. This fearless conqueror of the Swedes would give up everything in order to save life. Death is not, for him, a longed-for end, a portent of coming glory. It is terrifying and much more real than life. “Indeed, they say that there a sun also shines, / And over more colourful fields than here; / I believe this; it’s only a pity that this eye / With which I am to look at all this glory, will rot.”
NOTE: This essay describes two separate periods in Berlin during residencies there in the years 2011 and 2016.