Friday, 29 October 2010

Jenny Erpenbeck at Soho House

I'd been looking forward to Dialogue Berlin's event to launch Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck's latest novel translated by Susan Bernofsky. In fact last night's event was held kind of in conjunction with the British publishers Portobello Books, only I've had to link to the US publishers New Directions above, because I can't actually find the book on the Portobello site.

And it was a great event. Jenny Erpenbeck read a little of the German original, followed by a reading from the fantastic and wonderful translation, which I really savoured. You know when words jump out at you for their sheer beauty? Last night that word was "plashing". Followed by Q&As proving how good Erpenbeck's English is. And all expertly moderated by Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Berlin, with a warm and friendly audience.

The book tells the stories of various people who lived in a summer house outside Berlin, taking in a vista of twentieth-century German history along the way. An opportunist architect, a wealthy Jewish family, East German writers, etc. Each chapter has its own voice, but all of them are simply stunningly written. Read my interview with Susan Bernofsky for far deeper insights into the novel itself and the translation process.

So having got all the positive stuff out of the way, here comes the complaining. Because although everything was right with the reading, a good few things were wrong with the venue - in more ways than one.

Soho House is a private members' club in Berlin-Mitte, but graciously opened its doors to us mere literature-lovers last night. I was sceptical from the very beginning, seeing as this kind of exclusive rich-people-only culture is one of the reasons I'm very glad I don't live in London. The place operates a hotel, a fitness club and various bars and stuff. Basic membership costs €900 a year and you have to be recommended by an existing member. So it's not just out of the financial reach of the neighbours in the tower blocks all round it - they wouldn't let them in anyway either.

The people behind it have invested a huge amount of money to do up the place in a 1930s aesthetic. In fact the building dates back to 1928, when it was a department store (Kaufhaus Jonaß) where the area's poor population bought on credit. The Jewish owners went into exile, selling the building to the NSDAP in 1942. From then on, it was the headquarters of the Nazi Reich Youth Leadership, who ran the Hitler Youth. Nice, huh? From 1946 to 1959 the building housed the Socialist Unity Party headquarters, followed by the party's Institute of Marxist-Leninism. It had been empty since 1995.

Quoting German Wikipedia (see that link above):

The memorial tablets (of Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl) have been removed. As of summer 2010, a glass stele unveiled by Rainer Eppelmann on 5 June 2008 is no longer in place. This was part of a senate project making sites of Berlin history visible. It contained photos and text in four languages about the history of the former Kaufhaus Jonaß.

Strangely then, the building the event was held in reflects just as much German history as the house in Visitation - not that you'd notice. The Soho House website tells us you can in fact hire out Wilhelm Pieck's former office (including a recreation of the original wall-panelling), but there's no mention of Nazi war criminal Artur Axmann having come up with the idea there of sending 17-year-old Hitler Youth volunteers to war in their very own SS division. The phrasing on the website merely claims the building was "seized by the wartime government". So now, media people plash in the rooftop pool (tastefully lit in green) where the Hitler Youth leader may well have surveyed the ruins of Berlin.

The event itself was in the basement library, which the website says is "filled with an assortment of art and design books". I know one can't artfully drape books, but this is the closest I've ever seen. It certainly didn't look like anybody's ever read any of them, and many of them seemed to be duplicate copies. Lovely shelves, I must say, though if I were a shelf I would long for something more substantial to contain. The room is all brown leather sofas and crushed velvet seat covers, a warm and cosy place to partake of drinks if not to actually peruse the reading material. Unfortunately, the PA system gave off a faint scraping sound all through the event, which made me think someone was sharpening pencils just to the left of my head.

The staff also failed to meet the standards one might expect. Not that I've ever been to a private members' club in London, but I would expect a level of friendliness verging on the obsequious. Nothing doing in Berlin - the woman on reception failed to recognise my name when pronounced correctly and then ordered me to wait in a tone that brooked no argument, the bar staff practically threw us out at the end of the event, and there were difficulties over a table afterwards. OK, obsequiousness is an alien concept to Berliners, but if you're going to land a spaceship full of Anglo-American culture right in the middle of the city, you might as well go whole hog.

And speaking of hogs, the bar upstairs smelt pungently of bacon and was full of people I didn't like. I chose not to go on to a nearby event about gentrification, having been convinced in the flesh that it exists.

All in all, then, a strange evening. A great event, well planned and well executed. But in a location not really in keeping with the novel, I felt. And certainly not in keeping with its surroundings.

1 comment:

Jan Groh said...

Thanks for the open words, Katy!