Once Upon a Time in Berlin
Rob Spillman and Darryl Pinckney Talk Ex-Pats, Fiction, and Late-Century Bohemia
Rob Spillman’s memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties (Grove, April 5th), is, among other things, a compelling look back at a newly reunified Berlin, as anarchists fought fascists in running street battles while spontaneous entrepreneurs improvised wine bars in burnt-out warehouses. Darryl Pinckney’s latest novel, Black Deutschland (out now from FSG), is set largely in 1980s West Berlin, among ex-pats, artists and assorted misfits trying to figure it all out. Spillman and Pinckney spoke last month at the Brooklyn Public Library. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Rob Spillman: What draws you to go there [1980s Berlin] in fiction with this book?
Darryl Pinckney: I think it’s the kind of thing you write when your parents aren’t here to read it, to be honest. In the first book I wrote, High Cotton, it’s very much about my grandparents’ generation and their text. It’s sort of meant to be one of those books that say, you had to make up stories about black life or find them because people didn’t necessarily hand them on. It was very much the case that people tried to protect you from what they’ve been through, so that you wouldn’t have to go through the same thing. Not knowing about things wasn’t the same as not going through them, but the narrator was nameless and he had no personal life. He was just kind of an observer. And I think that’s what I remembered from Isherwood too, where he always found a way for the women in the story to turn him down as unsuitable as boyfriend material. So he didn’t have to be fake or anything like that, he was just off the book, free to be an observer. And I wanted to do something of the same thing, so I just left that aspect of his life out.
Certainly that’s one of the siren calls of Berlin, this personal liberation, so it seemed impossible to leave it out. But I certainly didn’t want to write about that kind of thing when my parents were alive. Not because they would have disapproved, because they were very much the sort of activists who were in favor of equality across the board, but just because they were my parents and they never knew I went into a rehab or anything like that, I kept everything from them that I could. So, this waited until I didn’t have to explain anything to them.
RS: Right, just to sort of contextualize, Berlin post war, 1960s, 70s, 80s, was an amazing–
DP: –it was a subsidized city: an artificial place in the middle of this Communist territory. So western governments were very invested in what it was as a symbol, a place of freedom and western liberal custom, the real estate had no value, rather like the Lower East Side at the time. So it was full of artists, there were no businessmen and no politicians. So you had the feeling that liberal consensus ran the town. It probably wasn’t true but it’s the way people felt.
RS: Yeah, and also because of the post-war treaty, if you were a citizen of Berlin you didn’t have to serve your mandatory two-year compulsory service.
DP: Yeah, kids and old people cause they didn’t have to pay taxes…
RS: Yeah. So it was just this liberal magnet, 200 miles within Communist territory. Lets step back to Isherwood, he famously says in the first page of The Berlin Stories, “I am a camera with the shutter open,” but the rest of that sentence is “quite passive, recording not thinking.” I think what is amazing about this is that Jed, your protagonist, is always thinking.
DP: Well, so is Isherwood, he’s claiming a passivity that’s not true because he, the narrator, is selecting and arranging and judging throughout. I think Jed is meant to be more of a participant in his story than Isherwood was in his. And in some ways to have more at stake than Isherwood. But of course he fails.
RS: Besides being in conversation with Isherwood, I think the book is also in conversation with Sontag, who makes a cameo in there and reappears at the end.
DP: Well, she was a great presence in Berlin in the 1980s and before, through the music festival and the film festival, and then she came for long periods to write fiction herself. She was a friend, and I miss her voice. She has a cameo appearance in order to set up the last line of the book, and it is something she actually told me and I remember, and I didn’t want to take it from her but I just couldn’t have her appear at the end as this line, so I somehow had to prepare for it early on. The book is structured so that things echo, come back, everything comes twice, you’re just not supposed to notice. So she’s there as a kind of spirit as the ex-patriot community that he wanted to be a part of, and that is a compensation for a while. The problem with ex-patriotism is that you think time stands still, and that you’re still a kid, but then you’re not. And that’s sort of what the narrator discovers, that he’s actually been sitting around and waiting, and life has passed him by.
RS: Since you’ve touched on the structure of it, did you have the structure in mind, did you have the dual idea…
DP: I knew I wanted it to end with the coming down of the Wall, because an entire era closed with that. This kind of post-war holiday that Berlin had represented and this nostalgia for sex liberation and issues like that that were sort of coming around again, because this novel is also set in the time of AIDS, and the United States was full of the rhetoric that this was a punishment for the way gay guys lived, so there was a kind of escape from that in his going to Berlin.
Yes, I knew where I wanted it to go, I had an idea of how to get there. I discovered the other day boxes of notes and books that I had forgotten about that I didn’t use and I thought, oh, thank god, because that would have been more of a problem. But actually the story told itself to me every morning. I woke up, and went to my writing desk with such pleasure and interest in what I was doing. And it’s been so long since I felt that way, writing, that I just wrote in a sort of grateful trance of concentration and then whatever is there at the end was what there had to be.
RS: The novel bounces back and force between Berlin and Chicago. Was Chicago always there from the start?
DP: I knew it couldn’t be Indianapolis again. I have these cousins in Chicago and cousins’ cousins who are perfect. Yes, they’re perfect. So it was their world I was thinking of. But I don’t know Chicago at all. It was very made up, and I hope I get away with it. But I needed a foil or somewhere to contrast Berlin. The book is sort of meant as a tribute to that feeling: I can’t tell if I miss Berlin or if I miss being young.
RS: Jed’s cousin Cello, who seems the embodiment of achievement at first, and she also lives in Berlin—was she there from the start too?
DP: Someone like that yes, very much so. So that the narrator is looking at someone else, not talking about himself. And somehow, that’s easier to do. This marvelous book by Margo Jefferson that’s out now called Negroland. People say, oh, it’s a portrait of the black upperclass and I don’t want to say it’s more than that, but it is more. And in the course of that she says one of the things that black women never had is the freedom to have a breakdown, to yield to depression, and freak out; that they always had to be on guard, on the point, and so Cello represents someone who, in a way, pays the cost for the ideology for achievement and perfection.
RS: Tracy K. Smith, I interviewed her here last year, she touches on this as well…
DP: She is perfect.
RS: Yes, but the pressure when she got to college, that failure was not an option, because she was holding up …
DP: Yes, but I discovered in college you can break through the success Wall and fail.
RS: Right. How so? I mean, you came back.
DP: Yeah, I came back.
RS: With Cello and Jed… You touched on not being able to write this as your parents were here—was it also as a public intellectual? I imagine it might have been fun to write about a character who takes the Bartleby approach of, I would prefer not to.
DP: Yes, Cello is a character in the book who is meant to be a classical pianist but she has terrible stage fright, but she is integrated into German society to the extent that she’s married and has children. I was always fascinated by Baldwin’s career. You think in his essays, he’s telling you a lot but actually he doesn’t. They sound very intimate and personal—and they are in the way he feels and what he’s trying to describe, but he doesn’t tell you a great deal about himself, not really. But in his fiction, we know from his biographies that he’s working out a lot of the things that were very much on his mind in his life, and everything Baldwin thought about sex is in his novels, not in his essays. And so I thought well, why not look at fiction as this place of freedom, where even your own voice can be a surprise to you. And see what’s there. So yes, I meant to choose people who are not dropouts, they just don’t fit. And Berlin was the place where people who didn’t fit gathered. And so they made sense as an aggregate.
RS: You have several wonderful phrases, the city of mongrels, and the place where you go to figure out why you’re there. So when your first novel came out, High Cotton, in 1992, Edmund White, when he reviewed it for the NY Times, said, “it was not a lucky hit for a talented beginner, but rather a considered achievement of a seasoned mind.” So, as a seasoned mind, what have you learned in the last 20 years for fiction?
DP: Oh c’mon, for fiction… That one shouldn’t be so scared. You can talk yourself out of a lot of things, and the only thing you’ll accomplish is not doing them. But actually, your creative life is only so long and you have to embrace your failures and if things don’t work they don’t work. But it’s the odd thing of writing, you don’t learn anything from an unfinished work, you only learn if its finished. Even if nothing happens with it, or everyone turns it down, when you start something else, you’ve absorbed the lessons of that work without even knowing it. Whereas if its unfinished, it’s this burden, it’s this shell on your back, it’s this alibi excuse that you’re always kind of living with. So I think that what I’ve learned in the last 20 years with fiction is that I wish I’d written more of it. All forms of writing can be imaginative prose, but in nonfiction you make a contract with the reader that this is true. And fiction is a different contract with the reader. And I wish I’d had more confidence to explore that side of things, because I get such pleasure from reading fiction, and at least from writing this one. But to read fiction can be as intense for me as reading history. If it’s really good.
RS: How long did it take you to write Black Deutschland?
DP: Just one summer. My partner said, oh, don’t worry, just do it. Just do it.
RS: One summer?
DP: And he stood by me, and I wrote it over one summer.
RS: That’s incredible.
RS: Yeah, I thought so too, because I’ve never handed anything in on time in my life. Everything has just been one big term paper after another. And you know when it’s overdue, you feel it has to be better than anything else too, to excuse its being so late. Just get things in on time. It makes a big difference.
RS: I’m stunned.
RS: I thought it was really long, but the type I was using was really big. And when I finally printed it out, there were like two words a page, so I actually thought I had written a 500-page novel, but it really sort of shrunk, and I thought oh well, that’s fine. I had a teacher Elizabeth Hardwick, whose writing class really changed my life. She cursed forever her economy style and compression. She didn’t want it, but it was one of her great gifts, I thought. And she told me once that she would take exams in high school in the blue book and finish. And she was looking around at everyone else writing away, writing away, writing away, but she couldn’t bear to repeat to the teacher what she knew he already knew, so she couldn’t answer the questions properly. She couldn’t think of anything else to say, she just would leave it blank and sort of failed. So I don’t believe in padding is what I’m trying to say.
RS: How do you approach time in the book? I found that really interesting, the way you move fluidly through time. Was the structure—does it all just come together? Or did you…
DP: I think something like that. There was trying to think of a way to evoke or indicate the haphazard, random, everything-can-happen-in-a-day quality of Berlin, especially in the summer months, because the night just went on and on and on, or never arrived. We didn’t have white nights like St. Petersburg, but it was pretty blue at ten o’clock in the summers, and things like that. So it was time that felt unreal in Berlin, this walled off place. So, I think the structure—maybe I tried to evoke that, but always keep the story moving forward, in some ways.
RS: The complexity that Jed has, and acknowledges that he actually has a choice of being, versus one of his African immigrant friends who has had that incredibly arduous journey to get out of Cameroon, and makes his way there, and also the Polish refugees that are coming in through dumping their stuff. And that flood just kept coming in, but that Baldwin-esque struggle, that this is a voluntary exile
DP: Yes, and I think that’s true to experience. In all the neo-Nazi backlash after unification, as a black in Berlin, I never felt in danger. They just didn’t have the nerve to threaten American-looking blacks. Africans or Vietnamese or anyone they thought poor or who didn’t have representation, that was a different story. But I always was aware that I was there playing, and this guy from Ghana or this guy from Pakistan was an entirely different story. I left out completely the Iranian boys who had been there and been there because they were avoiding the 1980 war. But it was such a complicated subject that I didn’t put them in.
RS: Yeah, you could go on and on. When I was there in 1990, there were all these ex-Communist students from Africa who were in Cuba, who were just in limbo, because they didn’t have money to go home, and the university had been defunded, and they just were floating around, you know.
DP: It’s partly what made Berlin feel like a cosmopolitan place. These unexplained faces that turned up in the same places where you were.
RS: We’re making this book sound very serious. There is also incredible humor in here. It’s really funny. I love the way that you also play with this German, earnest collective guilt.
DP: That’s also true to historical experience. They did have that, and I had friends who, when they traveled, would say they were Danish, because they were reluctant to say they were German. That’s changed, I think, over time, and a different generation has a new feeling. But for that generation that grew up not hearing much in school about what happened, it was a very complicated relationship to the rest of the world, and to their own families.
RS: Yeah, which continues to this day. We were talking earlier about the embrace of Syrian refugees, taking in 600,000, and that collective role. But I remember even as a kid, in Berlin, my friends would feel compelled to tell me about their family trips to concentration camps. You know, school outings too, and I’d be like, why are you telling me this?
DP: To get over it, or to..
RS: They were compelled to unburden too, to the closest American.
DP: The way people used to say “I was very close to my maid.” That’s nice.
RS: You also really wonderfully capture the duality of the very serious earnest law-abiding German characteristic, but also the neon playground that was Berlin. That they were able to hold these two things at once.
DP: Yes, that was the town, it was full of culture that was serious, not a fraud. There were really important and interesting people working there. And then there was a lot of everything else going on. Lot of hanging out, an awful lot of hanging out. Much more innocent in a way than New York at the same time. I found that even the drugginess of Berlin was nothing compared to what was going on in New York. I always thought from reading Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, even though the Columbia New York parts are really telescoped and carefully plotted, that still something came through of his reaction to NYC in the early 90s, or the 80s, which was to say, “I can’t do this, this is too crazy.” He got out. It was a really crazy time.
RS: Yeah, I think there was a much harder edge here. When I was a kid in Berlin, we didn’t have a lock for our door. Even when I was a little kid I would go out on my bike…
DP: There was never any threat in Berlin. If you heard footsteps at four in the morning it was someone like you, and that was that. There was never any sense of threat in Berlin. It was all just a kind of sound stage. I hate to be so… I don’t want to sound frivolous or something like that, but when the Wall came down, a lot of people understood that their freedom had depended on the un-freedom of a lot of others. And I knew some East Germans, privileged ones, artists who could travel and so didn’t suffer the restrictions of the ordinary citizen, and they were very conflicted when the Wall went down. And I was a bit taken aback by their ambivalence. It’s partly that a lot of us believed that the anti-facist Germany was over there, on layaway, the contents of Germany was over there. And that meant that a lot of people were slow to admit what the East German regime had been like. And the way that some people still find it hard to admit that was not the good revolution. We were so attached to it, but it was quite a revelation.
RS: Yeah, I had a friend who was a physicist, who, because he was a member of the new form and restricted, he wasn’t allowed to travel. And when the Wall came down he was disappointed. He said, I want the socialist experiment to continue, for it to be an actual democracy.
DP: There was a lot of that thinking immediately after the Wall, that somehow East Germany could continue. It was impossible.
RS: Yeah, as soon as the Wall came down there was this tidal wave.
DP: But no one knew the whole Eastern Bloc was broke. All that money from the CIA and they didn’t know that Soviet Union was broken.
RS: My indelible image of the German character is, after the Wall came down, when I was there, I went to a rave which—I have no idea what a rave was—but these young German kids dragged me to a rave, which was in the sub-basement of a warehouse. You would go through the abandoned warehouse into a flooded basement with planks. You’d go across it, through a hole punched in the Wall, and into an abandoned subway station that was literally under the Wall. We were there all night dancing, got out at like five in the morning, came out, and at that time, these German streets around there were just completely rubble strewn.
DP: Destroyed New Buildings, that’s what the club was called.
RS: Yeah, so we were in there, came out, five in the morning, rubble in the streets—you couldn’t have driven a tank down it. But the streetlights were still working. We were walking with a bunch of Germans, and we walked across the street, and the Germans all stopped at the streetlight. They just couldn’t override their cross against the light. We’ve been in this illegal club all night, but we can’t drive down this street. That’s why I loved it so much.
DP: Again, that’s part of the innocence of the city. This guilt. And German politics are very boring, which makes it seem very grown up. And I think Merkel is to be commended for wanting to take in this Syrian population. It’s not that she is remembering the Nuremburg laws, as we were talking about the Jews, she’s remembering the Turkish guest workers of the 60s. But these aren’t factory workers, these are middle class people with a lot to offer, who want to get away from the very same things we would want to get away from in their place. So everything that has happened since, the bombings, its really to make this as hard as possible for Arabs to be integrated into these European societies. The political right in Europe has been waiting for this, and it’s very distressing. Its really too bad.
RS: Well hopefully the sheer tide, you’re not going to send 800,000 people back. I think that train has left the station.
DP: Yeah, same here.
RS: Couple more questions about the book itself. Did you have an audience in mind?
DP: I think that everyone writes for an ideal reader. Mine are friends in my heads, some of whom are no longer with me, with us. But I think that the ideal reader is always in the future. And that even if it’s fiction, you want it to have the truth of the moment, or the truth of the experience, or the truth according to its own story. Because it’s the only way its going to last. And the best fiction, again, for me, turns into something like a work of history. Because it sort of tells us something about the world, and the past, and paints it for us.
RS: Do you ever imagine a form of yourself reading it, or writing to a former self?
DP: No. I’ve paid to have those guys killed.
RS: (laughs) When I was writing my book, I was thinking at the back of my head, as messed up as I was when I was 16, I wish someone had told me a few things, I wish I had heard a few things,
DP: Yeah, I understand that, but this narrator I don’t think is me. No. We have some experiences in common but our approach to things is very different. I would hope. Yes, some friends might say otherwise but I’d pay them to not say that.
RS: Do you read your work out loud?
DP: I’m afraid I do. You have to. If you can’t breathe it, then something’s wrong.
RS: I force my students to do that. You just have this internal BS detector, that your body just goes mute.
DP: You just have to. And also when you’re reading something over and just reading to yourself, you’re humming along so you don’t see the mistakes anymore. You have to hear what you say. I live with a poet, so I can remember sometimes watching him walk around, and I could tell when he was writing in the meter of a poem and when he was just thinking out prose in the argument. I could tell when it was poetry.