Berlin, a Literary Capital
On Tuesday the 4th of September, at precisely 5pm, Berlin was alive with the sound of literature. Over 150 people signed up to read from their favourite texts in a public space of their choosing; from Robinson Crusoe at Potsdamer Platz to vampire fiction outside an abandoned hospital in Hohen Neuendorf, Dostojevski outside the Russian Embassy to Astrid Lindgren on a street in Prenzlauer Berg.
The event, “Berlin liest”, marked the beginning of the twelfth annual International Literature Festival in Berlin (ilb). On Sunday, after almost two action-packed weeks of events, featuring both emerging talent and household names, the festival came to an end. This week, I caught up with the ilb director and co-founder, Ulrich Schreiber, to find out how it all went and what other literary delights the city has to offer for the remaining 353 days of the year.
The last time we spoke was at the Literary Apéritif at Hotel Concorde, the inofficial prelude to the ilb. Now, three weeks later, as I sit opposite him in the Café Aedes on the Bleibtreustraße, just around the corner from Concorde, he seems calm and well-rested; to look at him, you would hardly know he had recently overseen the organisation of a major literary event. “Well,” he explains jokingly “I don’t attend quite as many wild parties as I once did. Just one or two this year…” Ulrich tells me that the festival is often nicknamed “the discovery festival”, because of its knack for showcasing emerging authors just before they achieve more mainstream popularity. I ask him what discoveries he personally made this year; did anybody surprise him or surpass his expectations?
“Teju Cole is somebody I had heard a lot about, but I was unfamiliar with his work before the festival. He really impressed me. Emmanuel Carrère and Rebecca Martin were also new discoveries for me” Because he is ultimately responsible for the smooth running of the festival, Ulrich doesn’t get to go along to see every reading in full, but, he says, it’s important for him to pop his head around the door and get a sense of the atmosphere inside. “The success of the event doesn’t just depend on the author; the importance of the presenter and the actor performing the German translation for foreign works cannot be stressed enough. Franziska Herrmann, for example, really caught my attention this year. She performs on the level of the great readers, despite her relative youth.” I can see why talented young actors like Franziska – whose clear voice and commanding presence I remember from the Literary Apéritif at Concorde – are so important to the festival; over 56 different countries are represented here, around 80% of the programme is dedicated to non-German literature. As Ulrich puts it: “This is the most international of all international literature festivals.” In order to select exciting talent from all four corners of the globe, Ulrich has to do a lot of travelling to other literary festivals, from New York to Sri Lanka.
In comparison to many of the other literary festivals he has seen or been involved with, Ulrich says the programme of the ilb features a much higher percentage of public readings. This is largely due to Germany’s strong tradition of vorlesen, of reading to and for others. Alongside the international aspect of the festival, the political aspect is a guiding principle for the ilb team. This year, for example, a large chunk of the programme was dedicated to creating an “emergency literary parachute for Germany”. Later this year they will also be taking part in the worldwide reading for Pussy Riot.
Ulrich is full of praise for Berlin and its lively and, above all, diverse literary scene. He talks of the city’s literary institutions – an impressive five in total – and the numerous other galleries, theatres or houses who round off the city’s offerings. He talks of the numerous authors, past and present, who have been inspired by Berlin, who have provided the city with a rich literary heritage; Christopher Isherwood, Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan… I try to get Ulrich to reveal his favourite bookshop, his favourite place to catch a reading, but he’s not having any of it: “I couldn’t possibly pick favourites, I’m friends with too many people involved in Berlin’s literary scene.”
Luckily for you dear reader, I am not, so here are a few of my favourite things to do and read:
– Bilderbuch Café, Akazienstrasse 28, Schöneberg. Small from the outside, cavernous and lined with books on the inside. A friendly cafe with live readings and piano performances etc.
– Bücher-Tausch-Baum (book-swap-trees) at various locations across Berlin’s streets.
– Literaturhaus Berlin, Fasanenstraße 23, Schöneberg. Great readings amongst other literature lovers.
– Mascha Kaleko’s melancholy musings on the big city
– Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ “The History of History” – one of my favourite books. A story of personal tragedy set in, and starring, Berlin.