In the afternoon, we slept. We were heavy with jet-lag. When we woke, we found Reini was waiting for us. We set out in his car from Schoeneberg at about half-past four; summer days in Europe are interminable. As the afternoon expanded, it seemed we’d woken up at an untimely hour in the latter half of the day not only to a new time zone, but to the extension of possibility.
Reini drove us to Nollendorfstrasse, where, in a rented room, Isherwood met and became familiar with some of the characters in Goodbye to Berlin, and with the “deep, solemn, massive street” itself. His pressing reason for being in Berlin — his search for working-class boys — is, of course, mentioned in neither of the Berlin novels. Is it this story of unspoken desire, this unsaid, that gives the language of these novels, especially Goodbye to Berlin, its character, its deceptive transparency, its constant, low-key melody; for what’s literary style but a negotiation between the sayable and the unsayable' The unsayable, in the Thirties, was not just a word, or a phrase, but a way of life.
The next day, I’d return here with my wife and daughter, walk down Nollendorfplatze with its shops and restaurants, eat there, and walk back to Nollendorfstrasse. Not far from Isherwood’s abode, a man was arranging things for a jumble sale. Mainly furniture and household objects: which had an exquisiteness that, my wife observed, only European objects once had. We asked him how much a small white porcelain swan, its neck and head bent over the edge of a table as if it were about to drink, would cost us. Its delicacy — the pleated wings, the pale yellow of the beak, its whiteness, which, if it were an illustration in a book, would have made it merge into the page — made it look like something from the Twenties. It would need to be placed always at the edge of something, like a basin in a bathroom, because its head and neck were stooped at such an angle that they must necessarily inhabit empty space. We waited for a vast figure. Four euros, came the reply. We decided to buy it. It was wrapped in a polythene bag for travel.
That brief encounter with bric-a- brac dislocated me. Recounting the experience of walking in the Parisian arcades, Walter Benjamin had said, famously, that some time in the late 19th century Paris had become a great interior; the introduction of gas-lit lamps had, in a sense, removed the sky over the city, turning it into a ceiling; to stroll as flãneur or dandy through the arcades was in a way to roam about in your own room; interior and exterior were confused with one another. In Nollendorfstrasse, buying the swan, hovering over the furniture, I felt something of that confusion, and felt, too, that my being there was charged with significance. It was as if I were in someone’s house, but the house had been made invisible — by history. On Nollendorfstrasse itself, buildings had been razed in the bombing, then swiftly replaced in post-war reconstruction by what Reini called “prefabricated” houses. These were juxtaposed with the buildings that had survived, with their balconies, their drawing rooms with chandeliers.
The swan might have belonged to one of those houses. In my mind, the history of the bombing had set it free. Certainly, the bombing must have once added to the flãneur’s experience of urban rambling, with its interchangeability of inside and outside, a dimension Benjamin couldn’t have imagined. This ambiguous extra dimension informs this sentence, about London after the war, from Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means: “Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one word missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination…” This self-aware aestheticization, with its comedy of absences and its juxtapositions of castles and wallpaper, takes me back to Benjamin’s view of bourgeois Paris. The meandering sentence might not know it, but it is a child of that vision.
That sentence, which I’d read several years ago, prepared me for the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the Kurfurstendamm. The latter is a long avenue of shops, cafes, and restaurants, Berlin’s Champs Elysees, albeit on a smaller scale; the church, built at the end of the 19th century in memory of Wilhelm II, was bombed in the war. The main structure has been largely left as it was; “left as it was” is perhaps a better way of describing it than calling it a “ruin”, with its suggestion of slow, timeless attrition; here, although it looks very like a ruin, the sudden impact of devastation, the bruises wrought by a single moment, are permanently on display. It has been added to later, and its interior is open to tourists; before it, like a futuristic offspring, is a new bell-tower, modernist in conception, a tall hexagon. The contiguity between the two buildings is astonishing and provocative. The old church, perhaps affectionately, is called the “rotten tooth”; it looked to me uncannily like Brueghel’s picture of the Tower of Babel, with its burst centre, except that it, unlike the Tower, overwhelmingly represents silence.
From here, Reini drove us to the Reichstag, which, during the era of the two Berlins, had been disowned by both sides, partly because it stood on the border that separated them; it was now revived as a conference centre and a tourist attraction. We stared at it and walked across the now-impalpable dividing line; there was no wall here; it was at this point that the border most approximated the phrase with which Isherwood so movingly evoked it in his account of a post-war visit: the “shadow line”.
I have never encountered the past as I did when I was in Berlin. It was not only I who saw the ghost; my wife did too. “It’s amazing,” she said. If only one of us had seen it, we could say that the person in question had imagined it; but both of us couldn’t have had the same dream. Every city gives you a past which is, of course, a construct: London, Paris, Delhi. But, here, the construct is curious. You are meant to confront the past everywhere; but are kept from what is surely the universal human instinct toward it — to mourn it; to commemorate it. Instead, you are dislocated by it in a series of encounters.
We crossed the “shadow line” in Reini’s blue car as the sun began to go down; he took us into the former East Berlin and showed us rows of “prefabricated” houses, and old official buildings the government still didn’t know what to do with; like some East Bengali refugees, they are still awaiting rehabilitation in some apocryphal narrative of migration. “Don’t quote me,” said Reini, “but some of the profit-making companies of the East were bought over and discontinued by companies from the West to weed out competition.” From there to checkpoint Charlie, the Wall inscribed with artists’ graffiti, the avenue of resplendent and still-threatening “Stalinist” architecture, the Muscovite buildings looking like a great army without a general.
Can one see a city in a day' Can one absorb it' Certainly, in great Modernist texts — Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway, Under the Volcano — a day is all that is given; and, in that day, a break is made in Benjamin’s “empty, homogeneous time of history”. Benjamin conceived of that break as a “now”: “Jetztzeit”; a revolutionary, but also a mystical, moment in the present. The following is from his eighteenth thesis on the “philosophy of history”: ‘“In relation to the history of organic life on earth,’ writes a modern biologist, ‘the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.’ The present, which… comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgement, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.” This is a bit like the Hindu notion of human history as a blink in the eye of a yuga; it is also a fair definition of the day in a Modernist classic. A day is at once infinitesimal and endless.