“The Undercurrents” of Berlin

British-American art history writer Kirsty Bell relocated from New York to Berlin, where she and her German husband later bought an apartment on the Tempelhofer Ufer along the Landwehr Canal to raise their two sons. The significance of this location is impressive: “The building has stood on the banks of the canal since 1869, its feet in the West but looking East, right into the heart of a metropolis in the making, on a terrain inscribed indelibly with trauma.”

The marriage eventually crumbled, but Bell kept the apartment, for better or worse. As she settles into the pace of life there, she began researching the building’s history and former residents, considering these in the context of a city with a complex, painful, and heavily layered history, which of course is found in individual buildings too. In The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin, she spirals out from the apartment itself to examine the neighborhood’s history, blending this all together using the experiences and lives of authors and historical figures who wrote about or became integral figures in the city’s recent biography, like Rosa Luxemburg, Theodor Fontane, and Gabriele Tergit.

She centers significant locations and architectural pieces, like the remains of the former Anhalter Bahnhof, as points for storytelling and explorations of the city’s past and present and their intermingling. Always with the idea of what lurks under the surface, or what meaning is imbued underneath — the undercurrents that flow through everything there, as old and slow as the city’s river Spree.

I found the memoir portions to be relatively minor: there may be some mild shoehorning as she compares her own current experiences against bigger events and themes, but I understood why she felt connections existed. It can be a little woo at times, as one pivotal event is water leakage in the apartment, which Bell learns is said to indicate a house weeping over past trauma. I appreciate the imagery but only as a story. I can’t get into this being taken seriously as the author seems to.

Still, we know there is something to the presences you feel in certain places: I might have loved this book so much because I feel so strongly about our Berlin apartment. I’ve never felt so at peace in a home. If I think too long about my Berlin home while I’m in New York, I’m quickly in tears. The feelings we develop towards homes, even the ambivalent ones Bell seems to harbor for both the apartment and city, can strongly influence our sense of place and who we are by extension.

And under the sway of this kind of thinking, Bell does something truly remarkable by really capturing some of the oddities of what it feels like to live in Berlin and why this unheimlich feeling is unique there. Like this phenomenon, which struck me so hard the first year I ever lived there: “Every year, as the seasons change and winter slowly bows an exit, a recognized phenomenon occurs: a shared drain on the population’s energy levels that goes by the name of Frühjahrsmüdigkeit.”

I’m so glad to now have a word for this truly bizarre feeling. But there’s more: Bell speculates that in a city built on sand, as Berlin is, “things tend to disappear”. “Does this explain the strange lethargy that sometimes hang across the city? Its shared sense of inertia? I often feel a certain lack of momentum here, and in this I am not alone.” She most certainly is not, I promise you that. I feel myself immediately slowing down as soon as I get there. It’s not always a bad thing, although the swamp connection she explains might make it seem so.

She digs out the Prussian obsession with the filthiness of bodily fluids and with swamps being an accumulation of the absolute worst things, quoting sociologist Klaus Theweleit: “The swamp’s attribute of leaving no traces of its activity, of closing up again after every action, invited the presence of hidden things, things from secret realms and from the domain of the dead. Someone was already lying in every morass or swamp you sank into.” It fits.

The narrative constantly shifts forwards and backwards as Bell applies what she learns to the present, walks the reader through her research (and sometimes simply on a walk), and weaves a captivating if meandering story of place, time, and the ghosts of history. You have to be on board for a non-linear narrative and for just enjoying the journey, and then this is a wonderful work of history, art and architecture, lore, sociology, and an exploration of self amidst place.

And it’s a must-read for anyone who loves Berlin: it taught me more about aspects of city planning than I’d ever known, for example why so many streets in out-of-the-way new developments are named after women, an oddity I’d noticed but couldn’t explain (correcting for the gender gap that existed in previous street naming, although these women are memorialized on streets for new builds in outer-lying districts, or else they’re well off the beaten path, destined to never be well known like the streets named for men in the city center or highly trafficked areas).

Berlin is hard to explain: it can be heavy and gloomy, but Bell captures the essence of it in a way I’ve never encountered elsewhere. This is one of those genre-straddling, multi-hyphen books that reads more like an experience, but it’s one well worth having.

published September 6, 2022 by Other Press. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. Used or new @SecondSale.com


14 thoughts on ““The Undercurrents” of Berlin

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    1. Oh my goodness, thank you so much!! I’m happy I could express something of it – I feel like I struggle more with that when it’s a book I really loved! I think everything we read gets filtered through our own experience but when something resonates strongly it’s really special 😊 I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!

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  1. This sounds really interesting. I have never been to Berlin, but have always wanted to and am hoping I’ll have the chance next year. I read quite a lot about the history of the city when I was learning German but have read little nonfiction about it since I left school.

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    1. I hope you’ll get to go!! It’s such an exciting city to visit – I still remember my first time there so well. It makes quite the impression. This would be something really different to read to prepare you for a visit – it’s not a straight up history but I think it gives a good sense of what the city can feel like.

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  2. Berlin is a fascinating city, yet for me to visit. It is a shame, and I don’t know how I could avoid it. It is high on my list. Sounds like a wonderful book. I also have a taste for old houses and their history, so this is definitely a novel for me. Probably why I love ruins. The crumbled walls talk to me and make my fantasy going. Who lived here? What was their lives like?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You absolutely must visit! Berlin has so much layered history and is still constantly evolving in a way that feels different from other places. It has some impressive architecture and creepy old buildings for you too! This is a great book to get a sense of the place and its peculiarities. Hope you’ll pick it up! Worth noting that it’s not a novel though, it’s all nonfiction, although she does reference some fiction authors and stories and the like 🙂


  3. You review so many NF books I have a hard time getting to read all of them.
    Well, on this cold and gloomy Sunday morning in NL…coffee brewing…I’ve finally found this book about Berlin. I’ve been there once…should really re-visit.
    I want to read this book as see if any of the author’s insights can be felt by me…in a country not very different from Germany. The way Berlin goes…so does The Hague in many cases (entrance NATO by SWE and FIN…entrance UKR to EU….the Dutch and Germans are always on the same page!) Your personal thoughts about Berlin give this review a very special cachet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it might give you some interesting framing for how you think about NL as your home! It definitely gave me a different eye into Berlin even as I felt so similarly to the author on other points. From my experience NL and Germany aren’t so vastly different either. Thanks for your kind words – excited to hear what you think if you get to this one!!


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