Women Writers and Gender

Women Writers and Gender



Women Writers and Gender

9. Women Writers and Gender

Lyn Marven

From Berolina to Germania, to ‘Goldene Else’, or Viktoria riding the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate, from Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles through Wolf Biermann’s ‘deutsch deutsche Frau’ (‘German German woman’) to Tom Tykwer’s Lola, Berlin’s image at home and abroad has frequently been embodied in feminine form. In contrast to this visibility of (notably male-authored or -designed) female figures in the contexts of architecture, culture, mythology and literature, women writers are frequently underrepresented in accounts of Berlin writers and Berlin writing. The current chapter intends to counter this relative literary-historical invisibility by analysing some of the most prominent Berlin texts by women. Although the focus here is exclusively on women, the chapter does not endorse views of women’s writing as an aesthetically distinct form, much as some writers featured here do attempt to define or create a feminine subjectivity or aesthetic through their representation of women’s experiences of the city.
Berlin has been a significant location for women writers since at least the late nineteenth century, as Petra Budke and Jutta Schulze explain in the introduction to their ground-breaking directory Schriftstellerinnen in Berlin 1871–1945 (Women Writers in Berlin 1871–1945 (1995)). Despite the increasing productivity and visibility of women writers in the city through the last century, female authors have tended to be featured only infrequently in anthologies and literary guides focusing on Berlin writing in or before the early twentieth century, notwithstanding the fact that many bestsellers of their day were written by women, such as Margarete Böhme or Mascha Kaléko. Berlin women are more often represented as the object of male writing: in Hier schreibt Berlin (This is Berlin Writing(1929)), one of the earliest anthologies of writing from and about the city, a female presence is found only in an affectionately satirical paeon to ‘Die Berlinerin’ (the female Berliner) by Carl Zuckmayer.
Accounts of authors living and working in Berlin offer an alternative way to gauge women’s involvement in literary production. Although these volumes take a biographical approach to Berlin literature, there is substantial overlap between authors living in the city and thematizing it in their work. Budke and Schulze list some 200 authors for the period 18711945, whilst also asserting that some 1,000 women were active as writers in Berlin during those years, noting with considerable understatement that few of these are known today. Fred Oberhauser’s and Nicole Henneberg’s Literarischer Führer Berlin (Literary Guidebook to Berlin (2003)) by contrast lists a total of just eighteen women – compared with ten times as many men – for a similar time period. As these divergent figures suggest, the lack of representation of women as Berlin authors or as writers of Berlin literature indicates at best their low profile amongst literary-critical or editorial compilers, and at worst, a selection process that excludes women, whether intentionally or not.
This chapter
focuses particularly on the depiction of women in two key periods of redefinition for Berlin:
the Weimar period, and the era after the Wende, or ‘turn’ of unification in 1990. I analyse in
detail three novels which highlight the relationship between gendered self and the city: Irmgard
Keun’s late-Weimar novel Das kunstseidene Mädchen (The Artificial Silk Girl (1932)), and two
contemporary texts, Inka Parei’s Die Schattenboxerin (The Shadow-Boxing Woman (1999)) and
Annett Gröschner’s Walpurgistag (Walpurgis Day (2011)). Keun and Parei foreground their
gendered perspective by referencing their female protagonists in the titles of their novels;
Gröschner’s text takes its title from German abbess Saint Walpurga, and evokes the witches
associated with Walpurgis Night. All three interrogate the literary forms open to women
writers and female protagonists engaging with the city.

Irmgard Keun, Das kunstseidene Mädchen: a Weimar Woman 

The significance of the Weimar era for women writers was and is two-fold: first, it saw substantial numbers of women writing in public forms – whether newspapers or literary bestsellers – and second, the image of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s remains a touchstone for female characters through the literature of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Indeed, the late twentieth century has if anything seen increased interest in Berlin novels by women from the Weimar period: journalist Gabriele Tergit’s Weimar novel Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier Conquers the Kurfürstendamm (1931))was republished in a new version in 1976; Berlin-based AvivA Verlag, founded in 1997, has championed women writers from the Weimar period; and novels from Dinah Nelken’s Das angstvolle Heldenleben einer gewissen Fleur Lafontaine (The Fearful Heroic Life of a Certain Fleur Lafontaine (1971)) through to Pola (2014), Daniela Dröscher’s fictionalized account of  screen actress Pola Negri in the 1920s and 1930s,are also concerned with Weimar femininity and the experience of the city.
Irmgard Keun’s Das kunstseidene Mädchen is a portrait of the late-Weimar city through the eyes of a young girl who runs off to Berlin from Cologne. It not only explores the boundaries of the opportunities offered by the city and the reality behind its image, but also interrogates the availability of gendered metropolitan figures as frames of reference to a young woman of the time. A bestseller on its release in 1932, Das kunstseidene Mädchen was banned by the Nazis in 1933. Doris, the sassy first-person narrator, is attracted to the image of glittering Berlin, picturing herself as a filmstar in her stolen fur coat, but the reality proves very different. Her initial impressions of Berlin are external views of the streets and the transport systems, the cafés and shops, and particularly the people; as her fortunes wane she withdraws from the city into domestic space, and takes to the street only to be mistaken for – or act as – a prostitute.
Alongside the views of contemporary Berlin, the novel is notable for the informal, colloquial style in which Doris narrates her adventures: her guileless stream-of-consciousness prose reflects the overwhelming nature of the metropolis in the cinematic style espoused by Döblin. Keun’s relaying of Doris’s casual style also relates to the anecdotal prose of the lifestyle-oriented, often city-focused feuilleton sections popular in the local Berlin press, such as in Mascha Kaléko’s Das lyrische Stenogrammheft (The Book of Lyrical Shorthand (1933)). This collection, touted on its back cover as the most successful German book of poetry of the twentieth century, contains vignettes of city life, setting relationships and encounters against a backdrop of urban noise, transport and office life. Kaléko writes in the first person from a female perspective, universalized as the experience of the metropolis. By contrast, Keun’s protagonist remains constrained by her gender: as a woman she is unable to take the role of the flâneur as detached observer available to male characters within the city.
The attraction of Berlin to Doris is escape, not just from poverty, but fleeing her crime of stealing a fur coat; the city offers anonymity and the means of making a living unofficially: ‘da taucht man unter’ (kM 58) (‘you can go underground there’ (ASG 49)). Although this is perfectly unremarkable colloquial phrasing in German, the ostensibly neutral ‘man’ conceals gender distinctions in experience of the city. Berlin is frequently portrayed in literature as a location for (internal or international) migration or social improvement; the success protagonists have is refracted through expectations of masculinity and femininity, and the historical forms of employment available to either sex. In Clara Viebig’s Das tägliche Brot (Our Daily Bread (1900)), for example,two young girls from the provinces come to Berlin at the turn of the twentieth century to work as servants, one of the few positions open to women; their individual and collective fates are decided by the extent to which they conform to expectations of feminine behaviour. By the Weimar period more and new jobs are open to women – chiefly white collar secretarial work – but with no papers and few employable skills, Doris is unable to make her way in the city through formal employment; rather she is reliant on men and the custom of ‘treating’ (exchanging sex or attention for favours and material goods). She does in fact go underground by leaving the public space of the streets, where she is frequently propositioned – although this is occasionally her intention, even if she denies it – for internal, domestic spaces and the life of a housewife looking after Grüner Moos (‘Green Moss’, her nickname for one of the men who take her in).
On arriving in the city, Doris confirms the staple Weimar images of Berlin’s modernity and consumerism, noting the city’s lights and adverts, the underground system and omnibuses (kM 689), but her observations quickly turn to gender: she sees ‘schicke Männer wie Mädchenhändler, ohne daß sie gerade mit Mädchen handeln’ (kM 67) (‘elegant men like white-slave traders without exactly trafficking in women at the moment’ (ASG 55)), and remarks, ‘Auf dem Kurfürstendamm sind viele Frauen. Die gehen nur. Sie haben gleiche Gesichter und viel Maulwurfpelze – also nicht ganz erste Klasse – aber doch schick – so mit hochmütigen Beinen und viel Hauch um sich’ (kM 67) (‘There are many women on the Kurfürstendamm. They simply walk. They have the same faces and a lot of moleskin fur – not exactly first class, in other words, but still chic – with arrogant legs and a great waft of perfume about them’ (ASG 56)). Unable to see beyond surface appearances at this stage, Doris does not recognize them as prostitutes.
When she later describes the city for blind war veteran Brenner, her vision of the Kurfürstendamm is a more acute and less romanticized one, born of her subsequent experiences of the city; she mentions the colourful adverts but notes that no-one is looking at them, and precisely renders the poverty of beggars and street-sellers underneath the bright lights. Although she brings him ‘Berlin, das in meinem Schoß liegt’ (kM 100) (‘Berlin, which is resting in my lap’ (ASG 87)) – a sexually suggestive phrase for Berlin as she sees it – she is conversely enabled to act as detached flâneur because she is appropriating a male view here. She later accompanies Brenner on a night out when the city appears dark and unwelcoming despite her attempts to convince him of its attractions: ‘Jetzt wird alles dunkel – wo ist denn mein helles Berlin?’ (kM 116) (‘Now it’s all getting dark. Where is my shiny Berlin?’ (ASG 101)). Brenner’s negative impression of the city supersedes her own, and proves more realistic as the narrative goes on:
‘“Die Stadt ist nicht gut, und die Stadt ist nicht froh, und die Stadt ist krank”, sagt er – “du bist aber gut, und ich danke dir.”
Er soll mir nicht danken – er soll nur mein Berlin schön finden. Und jetzt sieht mir alles ganz anders aus’ (kM 118).
(‘“The city isn’t good and the city isn’t happy and the city is sick,” he says – “but you are good and I thank you for that.”
I don’t want him to thank me. I just want him to like my Berlin. And now everything looks so different to me’ (ASG 103)).
Compared with her home city of Cologne, Doris experiences Berlin as mass of streets with no connection: ‘Zu Hause waren auch viele Straßen, aber die waren wie verwandt zusammen. Hier sind noch viel mehr Straßen und so viele, daß sie sich gegenseitig nicht kennen. Es ist eine fabelhafte Stadt’ (kM 68) (‘At home, we had lots of streets too, but they were more familiar with each other. Here, there are so many more streets that they can’t possibly all know each other. It’s a fabulous city’ (ASG 567)). The anonymity of the metropolis appears positive here, but the lack of connections extends to Doris herself. She wants to belong to the city – or more prosaically, given her theft of the fur coat, to disappear amongst the crowd, and appears to do so on arrival: ‘Das war mein Ankommen in Berlin. Und ich gehörte gleich zu den Berlinern so mitten rein’ (kM 72) (‘That was my arrival in Berlin. And so I was immediately one of the Berliners, being right in the middle of it – that pleased me enormously’ (ASG 61, translation modified)). But later she admits her exclusion: ‘Und Berlin ist sehr großartig, aber es bietet einem keine Heimatlichkeit, weil es verschlossen ist’ (kM 88) (‘And Berlin is fabulous but it doesn’t feel like home because it closes itself off’ (ASG 75, translation modified)). To her own cost, she remains invested in the city – ‘Mein Leben ist Berlin und ich bin Berlin’ (kM 92) (‘My life is Berlin and I’m Berlin’ (ASG 78)). The text does not overtly allegorize the city through Doris, but from the undertones of right-wing politics and anti-Semitism visible through her ventriloquism of some of the men she meets it is clear that the city in 1931 is as much on its uppers as she is.
After her initial impressions, it is striking that Doris refers to relatively few streets and places within the city by name: it is the idea of Berlin, rather than the reality of any particular locality, which attracts her. Her streets are generic locations which she treats as cinematic backdrops: ‘Ich gehe und gehe durch Friedrichstraßen und gehe und sehe und glänzende Autos und Menschen, und mein Herz blüht schwer’ (kM 93) (‘I walk and walk through Friedrichstrasse and walk and look and shiny cars and people, and my heart is a heavy blossom’ (ASG 80, translation modified)). The internal rhyme of ‘gehe und sehe’ (walk and look) stresses the connection between walking and viewing, the perspective of the flâneur. However her presence on the street, that archetypal city location, does not constitute the detached, disinterested role of the male flâneur: as a woman, she remains the object rather than the subject of observation. On one of the few journeys she makes alone in the city, treating herself to a taxi ride, she does so in order not to view the city but to be seen like the filmstar she dreams of becoming. Women walking alone are taken to be streetwalkers, not just the object of the male gaze but entirely objectified as part of the male-oriented cityscape. After the end of yet another affair, homeless and wandering the streets, Doris copies (consciously or not) the distinctive gait of the prostitutes:
‘überall abends stehen Huren – am Alex so viele, so viele – auf dem Kurfürstendamm und Joachimstaler und am Friedrichbahnhof und überall. Und sehn gar nicht aus wie welche, sie machen so einen unentschlossenen Gang – das ist gar nicht immer das Gesicht, was eine Hure so ausmacht – ich sehe in meinen Spiegel – das ist eine Art von Gehen, wie wenn einem das Herz eingeschlafen ist.
Ging ich langsam an der Gedächtniskirche vorbei, Tauentzien runter, immer so weiter und mit Gleichgültigkeit in meinen Kniekehlen, und da war somit mein Gehen ein Stehenbleiben zwischen einem Weitergehnwollen und einem Zurückgehnwollen, indem ich zu keinem von beiden Lust hatte. Und dann machte an Ecken mein Körper einen Aufenthalt, denn Ecken machen dem Rücken so eine Sehnsucht nach einer Anlehnung’ (kM 1445)
(‘But there are whores standing around everywhere at night – so many of then around the Alex, so many, along the Kurfürstendamm and Joachimstaler Strasse and at the Friedrichstrasse Station and everywhere. And they don’t always look the part at all either, they walk in such a hesitant way. It’s not always the face that makes a whore – I am looking in my mirror – it’s the way they walk, as if their heart had gone to sleep.
So I was slowly walking past the Memorial Church, down the Tauentzien, walking farther and farther with an attitude of indifference in the backs of my knees and thus my walking was a kind of staying in place between wanting to walk further and a desire to walk back again, in that I really didn’t want to do either. And then my body came to a stop at the corner, because corners create in one’s back such a longing for contact’ (ASG 125)).
Doris’s intimate relationship with Berlin, her knowledge of the streets and the material form of city (street corners, streetlamps), all appear to conspire with her body to cast her as prostitute. Rather than the casual wandering of the detached flâneur, a slow walk signalling indifference has different connotations for a woman. Here the internal rhyme of Gehen and Stehen (walking and standing) emphasizes the gendered nature of bodily presence on the streets of the metropolis. And this is a recurring motif in women’s texts set in Berlin: Keun’s contemporary Vicki Baum also portrays women as part of the Berlin cityscape, attributing this clearly to a male view. In Menschen im Hotel (People in the Hotel [Grand Hotel] (1929))provincial incomer Kringelein eyes up women’s legs, while Zinnowitz signals that he is off-duty in the same fashion, in that he ‘Seidenstrümpfen nachblinzelte’ (78) (‘squinted after silk stockings’). And decades later, when the protagonist of Herta Müller’s Reisende auf einem Bein (Traveling on One Leg (1989)) arrives in West Berlin from an unnamed country (clearly Müller’s native Romania) in the summer preceding the fall of the Wall, she experiences the city as an extension of her body through a sexualized, traumatic lack of boundaries. Her views of women walking the Berlin streets recall Keun and Baum through striking synecdoche, reducing women to their legs and stockings: ‘Mit leicht verrutschten Nähten gingen Frauenstrümpfe den Rinnstein entlang, auf Straßenenden zu, als hätten die Frauen nur Beine. Beine für Männer. Beine mit Schlingen. Sie fingen Blicke ein’ (‘Women’s stockings with seams slightly out of place walked along the gutter toward the ends of streets as if women were legs only. Legs for men. Legs with snares. They would catch eyes’).
Beyond these recurring motifs, indicating the broader sexualisation and objectification of women, Keun’s novel is one of a number of Berlin-based texts which touch on the subject of prostitution, from Margarete Böhme’s controversial bestseller set in imperial Berlin, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl, 1905), through to Ulrike Draesner’s internet-age sperm-collector in the story ‘Gina Regina’, from Hot Dogs (2004), or Sonia Rossi’s notorious autobiographical novel with the self-explanatory title Fucking Berlin (2008). Like Keun’s Doris, both Böhme’s and Rossi’s protagonists also arrive in Berlin as outsiders and seek to exploit the anonymity of the metropolis. Tracing the representation of this theme raises issues of gendered agency and power through history, as well as creating alternative topographies of the city, through the particular spatial practices of prostitution.

Inka Parei, Die Schattenboxerin: a Wende Woman 

Women writers are increasingly prominent in contemporary Berlin literature. Judith Hermann, whose text ‘Sommerhaus, später’ (Summerhouse, later (1997)), in the collection of the same name, captures early 1990s Berlin, spear-headed the burgeoning of German-language writing and particularly the growth of short story writing which have accompanied the Wende and the return of the reunified Berlin as literary capital of Germany. Nonetheless, the early 1990s search for the new Berlin novel or Wenderoman (novel of reunification; often synonymous with Berlin for obvious reasons) initially revolved around the ‘norm’ of male protagonists, typically from the former GDR, in male-authored novels. Thomas Brussig’s Berlin-based Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us, 1995) was the first to be acclaimed, satirically associating masculinity with the opening of the border. Less attention has been given to Berlin Wende novels by established women writers such as Monika Maron’s Stille Zeile Sechs (Silent Close No. 6 (1991)) or Animal triste (1996), Brigitte Burmeister’s Unter dem Namen Norma (Under the Name of Norma (1994)),or Helga Königsdorf’s Im Schatten der Regenbogen (In the Shadow of the Rainbow (1993)). However, increasing distance from the historical caesura has led to increased openness to other stories told by women, as also by migrants and foreigners, or those from the former West.
Inka Parei’s debut novel Die Schattenboxerin presents a female perspective on the city that spans the Wende and reunification, linking the protagonist to Berlin in a way that counters the easy, stereotypical equating of East to female, West to male and Wende to rape that underpinned much of the popular characterisation of the two states at the time. Protagonist and first-person narrator Hell moves from West Berlin to the (now former) East shortly after the fall of the Wall, traumatized by an attack (presumably rape, though not depicted in detail) during the May Day riots around Görlitzer Bahnhof and Lausitzer Platz, which she had intended to watch, but not participate in. She takes refuge in learning Chinese shadow-boxing as self-defence, and like Keun’s Das kunstseidene Mädchen, the novel revolves in part around Hell’s perceptions of the changing, unfamiliar city as she re-learns how to ‘see’ after her ordeal. Her (female) gaze becomes the subject of seeing rather than an object of the (male) gaze, through the transformation of her traumatized, heightened perception into the martial awareness of the ‘shadow boxer’. The unusual feminization of the title suggests that, like Doris’s attempts to act as flâneur, the protagonist’s adoption of masculine traits does not sit entirely easily, and her relationship to the city and its history remains mediated by her gender. As well as writing a Berlin-based Wenderoman that does not focus on a male, eastern protagonist, Parei also constructs a Krimi (detective story) from a dual female perspective, with Hell (her name means ‘light’) as both victim and detective trying to find her missing neighbour and double, Dunkel (or ‘dark’).
Parei contends that her novel is about the effects of violence, rather than the city of Berlin, but the rape is nonetheless intrinsic to Hell’s relationship with Berlin. The lack of representation of the rape itself, plus the details of its location and timing – it takes place in West Berlin on 1 May 1989, months before the Wall falls – means it does not function as an easy metaphor for the Wende. However the attack is anchored in the topography of the city: Hell’s flashback leading up to the elided rape depicts the approaches to Görlitzer Bahnhof with cartographical accuracy. This is later translated into a visual metaphor that further associates the rape with the city, when Hell describes a map (a distinctive Falkplan) of Berlin as if she is within it:
‘Ich selbst befinde mich im Zentrum, ungefähr zwischen N12 und T7, und diese Zentrum löst sich langsam auf. Am Tiergarten, abgegriffen vom vielen Blättern, kleben Krümel einstigen Grüns. Siegessäule und Brandenburger Tor sind völlig in Knickfurchen verschwunden.
Am schlimmsten aber ist es um die Gegend rund um das nördliche Neukölln bestellt, denn dort ist ein Loch.
Ich weiß, daß ich auf das Loch zurutsche, es jeden Augenblick mit einem durch mein Gewicht verursachten Riß vergrößern und in die dahinterliegende Dunkelheit stürzen werde’ (S 10910).
(‘I’m in the centre, somewhere between N12 and T7, and this centre is gradually disintegrating. Crumbs of former green are stuck to the Tiergarten, shabby with use. The Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate have disappeared entirely into the creases.
But the worst is the area around the north of Neukölln – all that’s there is a hole.
I know I’m slipping towards the hole, about to enlarge it with a rip caused by my weight at any moment, only to tumble into the darkness behind it’ (SW 1023).
The map thus reflects the traumatic gap surrounding the rape, though in contrast to the heightened details of Hell’s flashbacks, which are symptomatic of traumatic effect, here the area is only described elliptically, as ‘the area around north Neukölln’, so relying on the reader’s knowledge of the city to make the connection with the attack.
After the influx of GDR citizens into the West in November 1989, Hell flees into the East where she squats in a tenement house in Lehninerstrasse: this invented street is described in such detail that it can be identified as the real Zehdenickerstrasse, but, as a fictional location, it too remains a gap on the map of Berlin. The tenement house is nearly empty, as the building is readied for redevelopment: Mitte is one of several previously working-class districts in the former East to have undergone gentrification since reunification. Hell’s neighbour, the last official resident of the house, is a woman called Dunkel who has apparently disappeared without anyone noticing; Hell comments, ‘Vielleicht liegt es daran, daß es Frauen wie sie und mich haufenweise gibt in dieser Stadt’ (S 12) (‘Perhaps it’s because women like her and me are ten a penny in this city’ (SW 8)). This statement both relates the women to each other and suggests a link between the city and the anonymity of the women who disappear or live invisibly (by squatting). As their paired names suggest, the two women are Doppelgänger, living in opposing flats which are mirror images of each other; they even look interchangeable. As Gilson notes, female Doppelgänger are unusual in literature, and their symbolic and narrative doubling suggests an allegorical representation of Berlin’s two halves, recalling also the many instances of split or paired female characters in Irmtraud Morgner’s novels set in divided Berlin. However Parei’s characters do not map directly onto East and West respectively: both women have in fact moved from the West (Germany and Berlin) to East Berlin. Hell sets out to find Dunkel, with the result that their two stories are narratively intertwined, converging upon each other when the two women are reunited in what Katharina Gerstenberger reads as an allegorical reunification. If this does represent the reunited city – and I would contend that the detail of the texts disrupts, though does not completely undermine, this allegorical possibility – then it is notable that reunification takes place within the East which has become the centre of gravity for the city since the Wende
The rape changes Hell’s perception of Berlin, making it incomprehensible to her; Hell’s diminished ability to process and interpret visual information leads her to experience the arrival of GDR citizens in the West as a form of zombie attack, symptomatic of her skewed perception as well as the novel’s cinematic touches. Thus, she describes wandering through Friedrichstraße station, as an experience of dislocation:
‘An manchen Tagen laufe ich durch die Stadt, in der ich geboren bin, wie eine Fremde, zum Beispiel neulich, da gerate ich in den Bahnhof Friedrichstraße. [...] Ich bin gefangen in einem Dschungel aus Symbolen und Beschriftungen, deren Botschaften verfrüht oder veraltet sind’ (S 778)
(‘Some days I walk through the city where I was born like a stranger in town; I ended up in Friedrichstrasse station recently. [...] I was caught in a jungle of symbols and labels, all their meanings premature or outdated’ (SW 71)).
She has lost her ability to read the city as a result of trauma, but here her confusion is specifically due to the transitional state of the station, a key border crossing during the time of division. In the early 1990s – the narrative present – signs point to GDR-era parts of the building, such as the Intershop, which have disappeared, and to renovations and additions that have not yet been completed. It is the eponymous shadow-boxing training, which Hell takes up after moving to the East, which finally allows her to interpret the city around her; she turns her heightened perception into a state of ever-ready martial awareness: ‘Mit dem Sehen und Hören muß ich ganz von vorn anfangen. Ich muß es neu lernen’ (S 117) (‘I have to start over from the beginning with seeing and hearing. I have to learn it all over again’ (SW 110)). The descriptions of the city narrated from Hell’s perspective teeter between careful observation and overwhelming information, signalling either hyper-awareness or trauma, rather than mere realist detail.
In addition to changing her view of the city, Hell also adopts male attributes as she reconstructs her life. In particular, she takes on the traditionally masculine attribute of smoking a pipe: Dunkel’s old childhood friend März, who is also looking for her, recognizes Hell as ‘die Frau mit der Pfeife’ (S 28) (‘the woman with the pipe’ (SW 24)). Hell steals the pipes and a tobacco pouch from her rapist (S 64), thereby transforming herself in some manner from victim into attacker. Aside from the obvious phallic symbolism, the pipe is also a gender-crossing nod to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. The pipes are associated with Hell facing the outside world – that is, the city – again after her attack, as she takes up smoking on her balcony, as well as giving her a kind of physical meditation that precedes her kung fu training. More significant, and more unsettling within the text, is the gendered reversal which sees violence adopted by the victim, as Hell becomes a perpetrator, albeit defensively. This counters her experience of male space within the city at the demonstration: the 1989 May Day riots were later condemned in accounts of the events as simply ‘Männergewalt’ (‘male violence’). On her way through the streets before she is raped, Hell notices a poster that depicts ‘Ein kleines Mädchen mit geschwärtzen Vorderzähnen’ (S 14) (‘A little girl with blackened front teeth’ (SW 11)), in a paramilitary pose, an image that to an extent Hell replicates through her subsequent kung fu training.
In Writing New Berlin, Katharina Gerstenberger suggests that ‘sexual identity is connected to the emergence of New Berlin’ in three texts by women writers: Tanja Dückers’ Spielzone (Play Zone (1999)), Christa Schmidt’s Eselsfest (Donkey’s Feast (1999)) and Die Schattenboxerin. However, only the last of these focuses on a single female protagonist (as opposed to multiple protagonists and a male perspective respectively), and it is markedly less upbeat about the sexual opportunities in the post-Wende city. More positive depictions of contemporary metropolitan female sexuality (up to a point, at least) can be found in the depiction of Berlin’s nightlife in Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill (2010) and Anna Blumbach’s Kurze Nächte (Short Nights (2009)), which ‘does for Kaffee Burger what Axolotl Roadkill does for Berghain’, or Olga Grjasnowa’s structurally complex Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe (The Legal Haziness of a Marriage (2014)) about equally complex sexualities in Berlin and Baku. And Annett Gröschner’s Walpurgistag, which I analyse below, is frank about female sexuality, showing women as well as men seeking out no-strings sex in the anonymity of the city.
Gerstenberger posits that in Parei’s text, ‘the city is no longer viewed as a female body that simultaneously allures and threatens the male subject. Instead, the female body is the surface on which the contradictions and tensions of the New Berlin become visible’. As I have suggested, the detail (or lack of) within the text resists straightforward allegorization of Berlin and its recent history through the female body. However, the shift of agency and subjectivity that Gerstenberger identifies is also apparent in the choice of a female narrator and protagonist in what is not only a Berlin novel and Wenderoman but also an urban detective story. Parei’s text is one of a number of post-1989 publications using tropes of the crime or detective novel, from Pieke Biermann’s feminist Krimis to Gröschner’s Moskauer Eis (Moscow Ice-cream (2000)), where Annja Kobe attempts to figure out the apparent suicide of her father by freezing himself. These writers and texts offer an experience of the city that shifts women’s agency away from victim status towards perpetrator or investigator, in coopting a genre that is often highly masculine-coded.

Annett Gröschner, Walpurgistag: Berlin in the Foreground

Beth Linklater’s 2004 article about Germany as background in post-Wende women’s writing focuses on the contrast between global settings and Berlin in texts by Hermann, Dückers, Jenny Erpenbeck, Katrin Dorn and Julia Franck. This relegation of the city to a mere backdrop is certainly the case with many texts (not only by women), with the city simply acting as realist(ic) setting for short stories and novels that otherwise have little to say about the contemporary or historical metropolis. Texts such as Keun’s or Parei’s employ the city as a more meaningful location, with the historic or symbolic significance of Berlin playing a crucial role in the lives of the characters who nonetheless are the main focus of the texts. A number of contemporary (women) writers go even further: their texts not only foreground the city, but their œuvres demonstrate a substantial engagement with Berlin through a range of literary and artistic forms. The work of Monika Maron, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Katja Lange-Müller, and particularly Irina Liebmann, repeatedly features the city and reflects upon it. These authors share a commitment to history and locality, and integrate women fully into the fabric of Berlin’s narratives. While prominence is given to female characters in their texts, this is deliberately unremarkable; they form part of a spectrum of characters ranging in age, class and/or background amongst other positionalities.
Perhaps the most prolific Berlin author across a range of genres, Annett Gröschner, engages with the city through a range of literary forms, with a particular focus on the area of Prenzlauer Berg – like Parei’s and Irina Liebmann’s Mitte, a district that has undergone substantial regeneration and gentrification since reunification. Her fictional publications – the two novels, Moskauer Eis and Walpurgistag, along with a number of short stories – are outnumbered by reportage texts, such as Jeder hat sein Stück Berlin gekriegt (Everyone Got Their Piece of Berlin (1998)), essays and opinion pieces, such as Parzelle Paradies (A Parcel of Paradise (2008))and Heimatkunde Berlin (Berlin Local History (2010)). And she also has (co-)edited several Berlin documentary or historical texts committed to preserving the disappearing history of the city. Gröschner’s writing is deeply embedded in Berlin’s landscape: she has undertaken frequent writer-in-residence projects around Berlin, most recently in July 2014 when she spent a month in a former border watch tower in Treptow. Describing this residency, Gröschner states, ‘Mein Beobachten ist reine Schreibübung. Flanieren auf Papier’ (‘My observation is purely an exercise in writing. I’m a flâneur on paper’). Her style, in both factual and fictional work, is detailed and detached, but this is not the stance of the disinterested flâneur; rather it constitutes an ethical commitment to representing the city. Her observation is knowledgeable and engaged. In particular, her work often highlights women’s experience of the historical city, such as during the Second World War, while many men were at the front, in Backfisch im Bombenkrieg (Teenage Girls in the Bomb War (2013)) or contemporary Berlin, not least the women disproportionately represented amongst the older generation as a result of war losses, such as the fictional characters who first appear in Parzelle Paradies before taking a key role in Walpurgistag.
Walpurgistag is a day in the life of Berlin in the carnival mode, presenting the multiple facets of the twenty-first-century city with humour, occasional fantasy and telling detail. It is set on 30 April 2002, that is, the day leading up to the infamous Walpurgisnacht, a night of mayhem and witchery preceding the charged 1 May and the male-dominated riots which feature in Parei. The text charts twenty-four hours in Berlin; chapters are structured by time, and the paths of the characters cross in various ways before converging at midnight on the Mauerpark, where the Berlin Wall was first dismantled by citizens of the GDR after 9 November 1989. Events in the novel are inspired by real occurrences sent in to Gröschner after she broadcast a call to find out what people did on 30 April – something referenced within the novel in a form of montage effect when an amnesiac character practices writing by copying down every piece of signage and lettering she sees while travelling on the U5 line to Alexanderplatz. The novel creates a portrait of the city at both micro and macro levels, by relating individual characters’ life stories within the city, and through the cumulative patchwork effect of the narrative.
Gröschner’s œuvre is concerned with the multiple layers of history present as a palimpsest at once in Berlin’s material form (such as streets and houses) and as preserved within personal memory or through individual life-stories. Berlin is always in the foreground of the novel, which focuses particularly on micro-locations (the famed Kiez or neighbourhood); each chapter starts with reference to a (real) street, and the older characters from the GDR, especially, also map the city through named schools or workplaces. The first chapter, at 0.00 o’clock, sees an older woman on the eve of moving house, as her tenement building is sold for redevelopment, a recurring theme in the novel. Like Parei’s Dunkel, she is the last remaining resident in her house. Gerda Schweickert’s reminiscences reach back to the war and the years of the GDR, as well as encompassing the other inhabitants of her block; each memory is anchored in a specific street in a highly localized area around her current residence in Danzigerstrasse; and even the street names are a form of history, having changed since the times she recalls. Together with Frau Köhnke (Ilse) and Frau Menzinger (Trude), two other residents of the sheltered housing that she moves into on Kollwitzplatz, and recalling some of the interviewees in Gröschner’s reportage texts, Gerda preserves in her memory the history of her area, her house and its inhabitants. The fictional trio are the vehicles for local knowledge, evoking Prenzlauer Berg in the pre-war years, during the conflict – not least the wave of rapes carried out by the incoming Soviet army – and the GDR.
Gerda blames the Wende for her change in circumstances, although to an outside view it might look like an improvement. Dreadlocked itinerant Alex later suggests a similarly reversed, satirical perspective on post-Wende gentrification through its effect on rats, which have lost their bolt-holes and thereby their ‘Heimat’ or ‘homeland’. The anthropomorphized rats suggest a conflicted view of the Wende as both loss of Heimat and material improvement; here, this is not specifically related to the heritage of the GDR (though it is clear that this is most affected) but to the whole city. At the same time, the changing housing stock offers opportunity for those happy to live on the margins of society (again, like Parei’s Hell), such as Annja Kobe who has gone underground (literally, at the beginning of the novel, living in a GDR-era bunker) after being wrongly suspected of her father’s murder, a story developed in Gröschner’s first novel Moskauer Eis.
Gröschner plays with such common urban novel tropes as the notion of the city being written on the body, which is taken quasi-literally when Alex attempts to ascertain the origins of a woman he finds on Alexanderplatz with amnesia, first by testing her accent and knowledge of Berlin dialect – ‘Leute, die den Konjunktiv benutzen und berlinern, sind immer aus Ostberlin’ (‘People who use the subjunctive and talk in Berlin dialect are always from East Berlin’) – and then by examining her arm for GDR-specific immunisation scars. Later, the woman’s reference to Dimitroffstrasse, renamed in the reunified city as Danzigerstrasse and Eberswalderstrasse respectively for the street and the underground station, places her as a former GDR citizen whose memory of reunification (and, as it turns out, her defection from the GDR in 1987) appears to have been lost. The novel is also self-aware about its forebears in city literature, setting up a reference to Berlin Alexanderplatz, perhaps the Berlin novel par excellence, in the prologue, set in Alexanderplatz. Here Alex (also the nickname of the square) asks the policemen about to arrest him to list the trams that crossed the square in 1929; and the cryptic-descriptive chapter titles are also reminiscent of Döblin’s style. Frequent references to ‘der Himmel über Berlin’ (the German title of the Wenders film Wings of Desire (1987), literally ‘the sky above Berlin’) are a further nod to one of the most famous depictions of the city in a magical realist style that matches Gröschner’s fantastic touches.
Fittingly for a novel named after Saint Walpurga, whose feast day (or rather, night) has become associated with witches, it is female characters who are most prominent in the novel. Of the twenty characters named in chapter titles, thirteen are women (as well as ‘die Unbekannte’, the amnesiac woman), compared with six men (plus Stalin the dog). In addition to the sheer number of female characters, women also provide some of the most memorable characters in Walpurgistag, namely the two trios: the older women, Frau Köhnke, Frau Menzinger and Frau Sieckert, and the young Turkish/Kurdish-German gang consisting of Sugar, Cakes and Candy (a.k.a. Hatice, Emine and Ayşe). Both sets belong to groups who are arguably marginalized within the city, and they are carefully sketched through their metropolitan dialects, ranging from broadest Berliner to deliberately exaggerated pidgin Turkish-German. Furthermore, the trios – who mirror each other in causing mayhem within their local area by vandalising open-top cars belonging to men – are linked specifically to Goethe’s witches in the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ scenes from Faust: the older women cause trouble on Walpurgis night, and their conversations are reported in dramatic notation, while Sugar, Cakes and Candy recite Faust and Mendelssohn’s Cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). Several of the other female characters are also united through their association with witches: taxi driver Hosch thinks Annja looks like she should have a broom; and at 22.55 Viola and Heike recall the heathen, matriarchal origins of Walpurgisnacht in the Celtic festival of Beltane, and leaping over fire (an ancient custom) on the eve of 1 May in previous years before men took over the park; while Katrin (completing another trio of similarly-aged women) explains that she acted the part of a witch at a medieval market in the 1990s and was almost burnt alive by accident.
As this theme suggests, Gröschner’s novel belongs to an often overlooked seam of fantastic literature set in the city which lends itself to feminist interpretation. Else Lasker-Schüler’s Mein Herz (My Heart (1912)), a one-sided epistolary novel, is full of flights of fantasy from the bohemian Café des Westens. Lasker-Schüler’s first person correspondent assumes a series of male alter ego characters and treats the city as a gender-fluid lover; the relationship between self and city swings between identifying with, and objectifying, the city – the latter a position often associated with a masculine mastery of the metropolis. Christa Wolf’s sex-change novella, ‘Selbstversuch’ (‘Self-Experiment’ (1975)) is also set in Berlin, and her Leibhaftig (In the Flesh (2002)) evokes the still-divided city in 1988 as the feverish protagonist explores in her hallucinations a Berlin tenement house. Here, the cellars act as prompts to buried memories, much as Gerda Schweickert in Walpurgistag labels the boxes of her possessions after the inhabitants of the other apartments in her block while recalling their stories. Gröschner’s novel particularly evokes Irmtraud Morgner’s ‘feminist Bible’, Das Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura (The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura (1974)) and its sequel, Amanda: Ein Hexenroman (Amanda: A Witch Novel (1983)) which are both set largely against the backdrop of East Berlin. The function of the city in Morgner’s texts is to provide a familiar, real but incongruous setting for mythical characters, such as the spectacle of witch Amanda flying around the Platz der Akademie (now the Gendarmenmarkt square). And the magical elements in Walpurgistag – Annja’s perma-frozen father or Alex putting other characters in his bag, and the meta-level of their interaction with the narrator – are similarly jarring in an otherwise seemingly-accurate representation of Berlin.
Walpurgistag’s structuring device of the twenty-four hour portrait of Berlin allows the characters to represent a multiplicity of positionalities, as well as emphasizing the serendipity and/or randomness of city life. Similar effects are seen in novels set in specific buildings – a common city trope from Baum’s Menschen im Hotel, a multi-character novel set in a hotel in 1920s Berlin, or her Pariser Platz 13, through to Irina Liebmann’s reportage Berliner Mietshaus (Berlin Tenement (1982)), Inge Heym’s Die Leute aus meiner Straße (The People on my Street (2000, though also written in 1982)), or Dücker’s Spielzone, set in two streets in the districts of Neukölln and Prenzlauer Berg – in which a range of characters encounter each other and assume the narrative focus. These multi-character novels also move away from the authenticity of the experience of a first person narrative focalizer and into detached observation and overt fictionalisation. They thus represent a shift from the personal mode that women’s writing has tended to be associated with, a mode that both Keun and Parei’s work fall into, albeit with fictional characters rather than autobiographical texts. Gröschner’s fictional work, in contrast to her non-fictional work, which is authentic (historical accounts) and often subjective (reportage), combines the telling detail of realist Berlin texts with devices – plot and structure derived from the form of the city – which emphasize fictionality. The inclusion of elements of magic, in particular, links her work with earlier writers like Lasker-Schüler or Morgner, whose fantastic visions of the city are distinctly feminist. Her commitment to the city, its material history as well as its varied inhabitants, crosses genres to create a multi-layered, multi-media image of Berlin.

The three novels examined in depth in this chapter reflect changes in women’s relationship to Berlin through the archetypal city motif of the streets. In Das kunstseidene Mädchen women on the street are identified as streetwalkers, their bodily presence in public subject to the gaze of others and objectified as part of the city’s sights; Doris retreats into private spaces until she becomes homeless and is forced into prostitution on the streets. For Parei’s Hell, Berlin’s streets represent the vulnerability of women in public as male rioters take over on May Day, but she reclaims a place in the city through adopting masculine traits and training in self-defence. Finally, Gröschner’s Walpurgistag stages the encounters between her multiple characters largely on the streets: her twenty-first-century city is a carnivalesque site, in which women are agents of chaos and possibility, at least for one exceptional day and night.
Women writers have contributed to the literary image of Berlin throughout the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first are increasingly central to Berlin literature. Since the turn of the millennium, early Berlin women writers have been acclaimed belatedly in critical works or rediscovered by a wider public through republication of their works: see for example the aforementioned Clara Viebig, Margarete Böhme and Mascha Kaléko, or Alice Berend, known as ‘little Fontane’, the author of realist Berlin texts such as Spreeman & Co (1916). These contribute to an increasingly feminized (or, one might say more pointedly, balanced) literary view of the city; though, of course it must be remembered that women writers do not only write about women’s experiences (Berend’s texts, for instance, tend to focus on male figures), and nor is the depiction of female protagonists the sole purview of female authors. The changing literary landscape of Berlin is finally being reflected in many late twentieth- and twenty-first-century anthologies – particularly those devoted solely to contemporary literature – approach parity in their choice of authors, with some even registering a majority of women writers. The 2005 volume Kanzlerinnen, schwindelfrei über Berlin (Female Chancellors with a Head for Heights above/about Berlin (2005)) features exclusively women writers (including Gröschner, whose text forms the basis of a chapter in Walpurgistag) who were installed in a ‘Verkehrskanzel’ (traffic tower, hence the play on Kanzlerinnen), their texts both embedded within the city and detached from it. The editor, Corinna Waffender, feels no need to justify her single-sex selection beyond the implicit reference to Chancellor Angela Merkel who took office in Berlin in the same year, stating programmatically in her introduction ‘Schriftstellerinnen können über alles schreiben’ (‘women writers can write about everything’).



‘Golden Elsie’, the nickname given to the statue on the top of the Siegessäule (Victory Column).

Herbert Günther, ed., Hier schreibt Berlin: Eine Anthologie (1929) (Nachdruck, Berlin: Fannei & Waltz, 1989).

Petra Budke and Jutta Schulze, Schriftstellerinnen in Berlin 1871 bis 1945: Ein Lexikon zu Leben und Werk (Berlin: Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1995), p. 7.

Irmgard Keun, Das kunstseidene Mädchen (Berlin: List, 2004), henceforth kM. Translations from The Artificial Silk Girl, trans. Kathie von Ankum (New York: Other Press, 2002), henceforth ASM.

Herta Müller, Reisende auf einem Bein (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1989), p. 75. Translation from Traveling on One Leg, trans. Valentina Glajar and André Lefevere (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), p. 64, translation modified.

See particularly Ingrid Sharp, ‘Male Privilege and Female Virtue: Gendered Representations of the Two Germanies’, New German Studies, 1:18 (1995), 87–106.

Inka Parei, Die Schattenboxerin (Munich: btb, 2006), henceforth S. Translations from The Shadow-Boxing Woman, trans. Katy Derbyshire (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2011), henceforth SW.

Gilson suggests that the street-name evokes Lehninerstrasse, formerly in Kreuzberg/Neukölln (now Lilienthalstrasse, renamed 1929) which is not far from the location of rape, but transported to the East, merging both history and political geography of the city: Elke Gilson, ‘Selbstbegegnungen in der Stadt: Zu den postromantischen Wahrnehmungsweisen in Inka Pareis Berlinroman Die Schattenboxerin’, Orbis Litterarum 65:4 (2010), 318–46.

Katharina Gerstenberger, ‘Play Zones: The Erotics of the New Berlin’, German Quarterly 76:3 (2003), 259-272 (260).

Katharina Gerstenberger, Writing the New Berlin: the German Capital in Post-Wall Literature (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2008), p. 25. 

As described by Berlin-based blogger and translator Katy Derbyshire, http://lovegermanbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/anna-blumbach-kurze-nachte.html (accessed 15 January 2015). Kaffee Burger is the club which hosts the well-known Russendisko (Russians’ disco), Berghain a famously wild, and exclusive, nightclub. 

Gerstenberger, ‘Play Zones’, 260.

Beth Linklater, ‘Germany as Background: Global Concerns in Recent Women’s Writing in German’, in Stuart Taberner, ed., German Literature in the Age of Globalisation (Birmingham: Birmingham University Press, 2004), pp. 67–88.

Annett Gröschner, ‘Abends riecht es nach Hasch und Fleisch’, Der Tagesspiegel, 26 July 2014 http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/berliner-tuerme-4-grenzwachturm-schlesischer-busch-abends-riecht-es-nach-hasch-und-fleisch/10254680.html (accessed 15 January 2015).

Annett Gröschner, Walpurgistag (Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2011), p. 126. Translations are my own.

Ibid., p. 129.

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