Max Hofstetter's The Berlin Book of Lists: An Insider's Guide to Europe's Coolest City is an unconventional exploration of Berlin, consisting of 40 chapters of five-item essays, ranging from the Top Five German Animal Celebrities to... well, to the Top Five Novels Set In Berlin to Read While You're in Town, excerpted here:
Herr Lehmann by Sven Regener (or Berlin Blues in its English translation)
Sven, also front man for the band Element of Crime, has a droll wit and a great eye for detail. He also happens to have done his time in the funky West Berlin district of Kreuzberg back in its halcyon days before the Fall of the Wall, which he captures here in a style that people either love or -- don't get. It helps to grasp how central the art of doing nothing much of anything has long been in West Berlin, well before the term "slacker" started being used in the U.S. and was worn into cliché in nothing flat. The X in Kreuzberg (the cool German kids call it Xberg) might as well stand for having Xed out of such bourgeois and tiresome afflictions as ambition and initiative. If you have any German, Herr Lehmann can offer an unchallenging way into the language, charming but never formidable. I won't give too much away here for the main reason that there isn't much to give away: Dude works a bartending job, wonders if his best friend is going insane, worries vaguely about turning 30 and about the general pointlessness of his existence, meets a comely cook named Kathrin whom he woos with contentious banter about roast pork loin, might or might not be losing her to a random other guy, and so on.
King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov
Count this Berlin-based American in the camp of those who consider Lolita about the most dazzling novel ever written in English, not counting Shakespeare's plays, which, of course, were not novels, and not counting David Foster Wallace, since I've been in the middle of Infinite Jest for about 12 years now and some year I'm going to work my way through to the end and just might have to put Wallace in my top spot. Fans of Nabokov's fireworks display of fun with language in Lolita with its bravura command, its pitch-perfect flights of fancy -- all from a guy who grew up in Russia -- might assume that anyone who could swallow English whole the way Nabokov did and make it his own would also, during his 15 years living in Berlin, have delved deep into the sibilant multisyllabic cymbal-crashing of German. In fact, he did no such thing. He avoided learning the language that had inspired so many great writers. He avoided speaking with other people in their own language. This was despite living here for a decade and a half. As for his English, just so you don't feel discouraged about your own, gentle reader, it's not like he picked it up late in life after immigrating to the United States; he was from a family in St. Petersburg that could be colloquially referred to as "mad rich" and grew up trilingual in a household that spoke Russian, English and French. By some accounts, he read and spoke English more than he did Russian. If I can be allowed to pass on a quote second-hand via the surprisingly good Wiki-bio of Nabokov, someone named Dieter Zimmer (who would argue with a Dieter?) apparently wrote of him:
He never became fond of Berlin, and at the end intensely disliked it. He lived within the lively Russian community of Berlin that was more or less self-sufficient, staying on after it had disintegrated because he had nowhere else to go to. He knew little German. He knew few Germans except for landladies, shopkeepers, and the petty immigration officials at the police headquarters.
The result is a strange pinched poverty of imagination in Nabokov's Berlin novels, at least compared to his later work, and King, Queen, Knave feels like a stroll through a park with no willingness ever to venture off a path. We do find comic fun in the portrait of a younger man, an older man and the woman they end up sharing. No one comes across very well, not even Nabokov, but if you have enough time in Berlin to give yourself an afternoon of reading, take the book to the house where Nabokov lived from 1932 to 1937 in the quiet, bürgerlich district of Wilmersdorf at Nestorstraße 22.
Mein Jahrhundert by Günter Grass (or My Century in its English translation)
Look, I'm no huge fan of Grass. The Tin Drum puts me to sleep. Really, I've tried at least a few times to get into the novel, in which German guilt over the crimes of the Second World War is summed up by a main character, Oskar, who can never grow up. The book always gets left spine up in some out-of-the-way place. Yawn! Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the same year he published a book he called Mein Jahrhundert, a series of fictional vignettes with one for each year of the century. Grass had challenged some fellow writers to do their own versions of the century, year by year, as he had, which would have been a fascinating exercise, but no one else did. The resulting book is no masterpiece, but along with its various other glimpses into various corners of Germany, it does offer an evocative and rich introduction to a German sensibility not often understood by outsiders. "The dry Berlin wit sparing no one," he writes, and count that as a pop quiz: If you know, you know. If you've been on the other end of that dry Berlin wit sparing no one, you won't forget it.
Russendisko by Wladimir Kaminer
If you're looking for great literature, the type of thing touted by husband-and-wife teams both chosen for The New Yorker's annual anointing-young-writers issue, you may find Kaminer wanting. He's just an easy-going guy who likes to have a good time. Born in Moscow, he was part of the huge wave of Russian Jews who came to Berlin in the first years after the Fall of the Wall and has made himself a permanent fixture of Berlin's post-unification literati. There was a time in the rawer, less discovered Berlin of the late 1990s and early 2000s when his Russendisko (Russian disco) nights at the amiably retro Kaffee Burger were one of the surest bets around, at least for laughs and sweaty dancing and a hangover you didn't mind all too much the next day. Kaminer's books are as easy to read as the columns he writes here and there, but he has an engaging style and a knack for making Berlin sound like a great place to live.