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