David Wagner is a writer of, as I’ve just established, seven books – novels, poetry, collections of articles and essays. His most recent, Leben, won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair for fiction. He lives in Berlin and doesn’t like cycling in the city, so he does a lot of walking. Also he’s had a liver transplant, so it felt a little tactless to invite him out drinking. Instead, I suggested we go for a walk together.
Berlin-Mitte, from Rosenthaler Platz to Karl-Marx-Allee to Klosterstraße to Weinmeisterstraße.
Fritz Zitrone, Bionade
What did we talk about?
We start off, I think, talking about the book David’s working on right now. It’s a re-release of his 2001 collection In Berlin, which I have on my shelves and read some years ago. He’s revisiting many of the places he described back then and adding updates, if you like, about how they’ve changed. Is there a basic pattern, I ask, to the way places have developed? Most of them have got posher, is the answer in a nutshell. But there have been a few surprises, like the tenacity of the trailer-dwellers in the Lohmühlen-Wagenburg. I talk about a photo project I did to accompany a translation, of Inka Parei’s Die Schattenboxerin, where I visited several of the settings and took photos of what they look like now. The contrasts were sometimes startling – what was once an abandoned railway shed is now a plush café – but some places have hardly changed at all, like Schöneweide. What has he got left to visit? Kino International – actually, why don’t we just walk there now? So we do.
On the way we chat about banalities – David is afraid he’ll have to pay tax now, having written an award-winning book that people are actually buying, but he’s still well behind with his tax returns even though his life is in rather good working order at the moment. And I ask him what I’ve been really wanting to know: does he drink? He only drinks with his doctor, he tells me. I think that might not be strictly true. Is it difficult, I ask, remembering how boring I used to find drunk people when I didn’t drink for two years. Not really, not now. It was tougher when he was younger but now it’s not such a big deal. Julya Rabinowich told me not drinking made it very hard to meet men, but I suggest David doesn’t have a problem in that department. No, he says, he’s never found it hard to meet men. I laugh.
We approach the cinema building from behind, around the corner of Rathaus Mitte (concrete and blue bricks). I talk about the last time I was here, at a club night “for girls and their friends” where my friend and I felt a little out of place, not least because we were about a decade older than all the other women. The cinema is a great dancing location actually; it felt like the foyer and first floor were made for precisely that purpose. In daylight, and sober, it’s even more impressive, from the heteronormative exterior relief (his words) complete with baby elephant to the golden ceiling on the ground floor. David points out the real light-bulbs mounted in the centres of the square metallic plates. They’re not the energy-saving kind, which would look ridiculous; they must have been hoarding them for years. I wonder, now, whether there’s some kind of secret former-GDR light-bulb store equivalent to the EU butter mountain.
We walk upstairs to the bar, which now has mirror balls mounted from the ceiling between the original chandeliers. Very minor changes have been made to the place’s East-Berlin charm, and now everything appears slightly camp and yet very tasteful, including the friendly man who sells us our drinks. We sit down facing the glass front. At this point it finally occurs to David that I’m planning to write about the afternoon; perhaps I hadn’t made it quite clear enough. I’m pleased he managed to fit me in though, because he’s a very busy man. I have a moment of dizziness when he says he’s going to write about the afternoon too, for his book, and I worry we’ll both get trapped in a spiral of writing about each other writing about each other, like when a magazine shows a woman reading the same magazine on its cover and I fear I might fall in and get stuck inside one of those miniature pictures. Then I have a little fantasy about translating a piece by David about me writing about David and David writing about me, but I keep it to myself.
So we talk about books for a while. Does he feel under pressure to read his contemporaries? Not so much – he likes to read writers from elsewhere too, and classics. He wrote a regular column on literature for the magazine Merkur for a while, which meant he noticed certain tendencies – writers of certain ages often write about certain things, like the twenty-somethings with their anti-parent novels, which he enjoys; he mentions Antonia Baum, whose book he found good and angry. I counter with middle-aged men writing about affairs with younger women, something I can’t be bothered to read about; David comes right back at me with women centering short novels around oddball males. I feel slightly offended and tell a story about my personal oddball male, the gardener along the River Spree between Friedrichstraße and Monbijoupark, who knits and fishes and knows all about ornithology – but then again, I’m not planning to write a book about him.