Berlin: The Definitive Flaneur

Posted on June 8, 2006


by bowleserised

What I Saw by Joseph Roth, as translated by Michael Hofmann, was my birthday present from Chenda this year and it’s superb. Roth was a journalist and flâneur pacing the streets of Berlin between 1920 and 1933, hating what he saw and then describing it all in loving detail. You get the dive bars, the bathhouses, tales from the S-bahn and the tenements, nightclubs, cinemas and book burnings*.

If Beaman hasn’t read it I’ll eat my fancy hat; it’s very tempting to want to do a parallel, 2006 version in a blog (though the Beaman-ster is doing his own thing, and very nicely too). Too much for me to quote here, though I’ll type out a little.

I’m annoyed by the blurb on this edition which brays, “As if anticipating Christopher Isherwood, the book re-creates the tragi-comic world of 1920s Berlin…”, as though Herr Issyvoo was the sole yardstick for anyone writing about Weimar Berlin.

And it’s not a “re-creation”. It’s reportage. Highly subjective reportage, it’s true, but he penned most of it for daily newspapers. It’s contemporaneous. Tsk. Then again, all writing is re-creation, if you’re going to split hairs… Anyway, on with the extract. It’s about Gipsdiele, a spit and sawdust place on Gipstrasse in Mitte:

“I like it very much in the Gipsdiele. It’s a cosy sort of place, small and tight, and the man behind the bar – who looks like a little costume-party beer barrel that somebody’s stuck a head on – occupies a substantial portion of it himself…I have a lot of old friends here. There’s Big Max the plasterer (his day job, anyway); Grete whose real name is Margot; Little Bertha, Else (no surname); and finally Annie – Annie from Silesia, as opposed to Bavarian Annie…
Someone’s set down his cigar box [Berlin thieves kept the tools of their trade in these] and orders a couple of kümmels. The order and the setting down of the box have made a big hole in the general conversation: there’s silence for a moment. A man wearing a hotel porter’s visored cap is racking his brain: now, what’s he in for?
Max says to the man in the cap: “I need a woman and a claw-jimmy.” The claw-jimmy won’t be a problem. As early as tomorrow. But a woman – apparently that’s not so easy.
In case of any misunderstanding, Erna screeches: “I’m spoken for!” Erna loves Franz. Erna got a gold filling a week ago, and she hasn’t stopped laughing since. She can’t just let her mouth hang open like a hungry crocodile’s! Oh no! So if the world is to see her gold filling, Erna will just have to laugh. Erna laughs at the saddest things.
Franz is big and wide and has just walked in. For a moment or two, he completely fills the little bar with his personality. He radiates authority. All the pimps shrivel up and dwindle away like rubber balloons.
Erna gets a poke in the ribs that sends her sprawling along the bench. But Erna laughs…
Neue Berliner Zeitung – 12-Uhr-Blatt, February 23/28, 1921

(this translation copyright 2003 W W Norton and Co., quoted for purpose of review)

* incidently, apropos of Magnus Hirschfeld, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. The most famous “Nazi book burning” photos depict the destruction of his sexological collection of porn pamphlets, sex toys and Prussian army underwear, rather than works by writers of Jewish descent. Not that they didn’t get burned too, just pointing out an amusing side to a nasty episode. They were burning cheap smut, people! Cheap smut and sex dolls! And that’s the picture in use in your school history textbooks.