The Literary Colloquium Berlin celebrated its 50th anniversary in New York on September 28 and 29, 2013. The panel event Shining Island, hosted by the Goethe Institut New York, brought esteemed German authors such as Marcel Beyer, Durs Grünbein, Felicitas Hoppe, and Uljana Wolf to New York. “How American is It?” asked the first panel but translator Susan Bernofksy, Beyer, and Grünbein shifted the topic towards the question how American literature and culture influenced German authors in general (a great deal) and which German authors are more celebrated abroad than at home (W.G. Sebald, Rainer Maria Rilke). While the event was off to a good start, the panel did not specifically discuss Berlin as one might expect in a panel on the “Past, Present, and Future Berlin.”
The reason might be quite simple: Beyer has never lived in Berlin, nor has he written about the city at all (Beyer moved from Cologne to Dresden about a decade ago) and Grünbein, originally from Dresden, left Berlin a while ago to live and work in Rome. Not surprisingly, Beyer looked baffled at times, wondering what he could add to a conversation on Berlin. In a later panel, Beyer made his Berlin remark when he called his move to Dresden a decision against Berlin as well because he felt safer in Dresden from the impending westernization.
Following a discussion on new perspectives on translation with Bernofsky (who translated Robert Walser and Berlin author Jenny Erpenbeck to much acclaim), authors and poets Aris Fioretos, Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf engaged in a wonderful and exciting conversation about “Parallel Worlds” and the “Literary Affinity of New York and Berlin.” Fioretos made clear that drawing parallels between New York and Berlin is difficult because the cities are entirely different. In addition to being much less homogenous than Berlin in regards to its citizens, New York and its streets are extremely more demanding: “One feels constantly under siege here whereas Berlin leaves you alone. At the same time, Berlin has a lot to offer which makes Berlin a true ‘writer’s haven’.” Moreover, as Uljana Wolf added, writers do not have to work three jobs to make a living. Christian Hawkey pointed out, the idea that “If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere” contrasts greatly with the Berlin attitude that you could still live quite well even if you produce very little. In fact, to not produce could also be considered a productive space that allows something new to emerge. But there are some parallels: Gentrification has a major impact on both cities (and on many other major cities in times of globalization). New York is similarly regarded as an ever-changing and always unfinished city recalling Karl Scheffler’s 1910 quote on Berlin as a city “condemned forever to becoming and never to being.”
Returning to the panel’s topic of literary affinities, all panelists discussed the fact that W.G. Sebald, who produced some of the best writings in German literature on the atrocities during the 20th century, is not as widely read in Germany as he is in the US. Hawkey wondered if Germans currently experience a sense of longing for a “pre-political era” and Beyer concluded that one might indeed detect a tendency apart in Germany’s approach to its national history to go back to a time before everything fell apart.
Guest writer Bastian Heinsohn is Assistant Professor of German at Bucknell University and specializes in Berlin literature, Berlin films and the meaning of graffiti. He also teaches courses in Film/Media Studies at Bucknell.