I had the pleasure of spending a few days trooping around Berlin, getting to know the city a little bit. A lot more than the glimpse of it I got fifteen years ago, which was hardly any help at all. Berlin has changed so much, and so quickly; been destroyed and rebuilt in cycles. It is still rebuilding and shifting, perhaps not as rapidly as in the 1990s, although there are still construction cranes all over.
Many years ago I was in a book club that read Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895). Several readers noted that they had difficulties with the place names and settings (in Berlin and a Baltic coast town). They had few referents for Berlin, almost none compared to Paris or London, cities we visit in literature so often that their landmarks take on meaning regardless of whether we have been there ourselves. We create our own geography out of books, films, and news, much of it wrong but imaginatively functional. For English-language readers, Berlin is more nebulous.
And then they keep changing it! Literary Vienna may be unfamiliar, too, but the Vienna of Schnitzler still exists in some way. Fontane’s Berlin is harder to find.
Commercial Councillor van der Straaten, of 4 Grosse Petristrasse, was incontestably one of the most substantial financiers in the capital, a fact scarcely affected by the circumstance that his solid reputation rested more on his business than on his personality.
L’Adultera / The Woman Taken in Adultery (1882), one of Fontane’s earliest novellas. Title first (and for English readers that title needs a footnote), then surname, then address, as if I might send him a postcard. The street has changed its name along with its character. Their apartment has been replaced with either a parking lot or a Novotel. But he is right in the center of the city, on the Museum Island, in the middle of things, where a man of his stature ought to be. Or so I understand now that I have looked into it.
The Penguin Classics edition, translated by Gabrielle Annan, that includes L’Adultera pairs it with the later, more exquisite, nearly plotless The Poggenpuhl Family (1896), about an aristocratic family in decline. The address is delayed to the second sentence this time – “Since they had moved to Berlin from Pommersch-Stargard seven years ago they had lived in a corner house in the Grossgröschenstrasse, a new building only just completed and still damp in the walls when they arrived.” I was not quite in the vicinity, but close enough to suspect that their apartment, if it survived the war, is now the home of a Turkish or Bosnian family. Grossgröschenstrasse is definitely not in the center of things.
My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Pommersch-Stargard is now in Poland.
All of this would have been easy shorthand for Fontane’s readers. Some of it is easy for current German readers. But I have to, or at least should, look up every street and park. Eh, once upon a time I did not know where Kew Gardens or the Bois de Boulogne were, either, or what it might mean if a character set foot in them, but that’s old stuff now.