BERLIN, LITERATURE & COFFEE: The Booklover's Guide

BERLIN, LITERATURE & COFFEE: The Booklover's Guide

Even ignoring much of Berlin seems a typical Berlin trait. Berlin is made up of many different milieus that hardly take any notice of each other."

-- D. Zimmer

Ahhhh, coffee and a book: a greater pair there never was! In a city of so much history and culture, there are innumerate iconic writings set in Berlin -- so here's the Spark Notes version (our Staff Picks) and as always: best experienced through an accompanying coffee tour!
See Berlin through new eyes -- as fictional characters and their authors once did. Check out our map featuring notable residences, places where novels were set, and nearby Urban Coffee Corners.


Alfred Döblin  |  Berlin Alexanderplatz 

The author himself is one of the most important figures of modern literature in Germany. If Döblin's urban novel isn't on your to-read list, it should be: Berlin Alexanderplatz is considered by many to be a modern literary classic, applying a series of short montages of Berlin, and inner dialogues to tell a greater story.

Written and set in working-class Berlin-Mitte during the late 20s, with a Weimar Republic on the brink of Naziism, the books centres on the recently released prisoner Franz Bieberkopf and his struggle to reintegrate into a changing society.

Travel back in time when you visit Alexanderplatz: Compare the two distinctly different worlds between that of the golden-era flourishing Berlin in the book, and what you would see there at Alex today.

If you're a history buff, or enjoy strolling around the city trying to look for similarities and differences from then and now, grab your speciality coffee from a nearby corner and follow the steps of Franz Bieberkopf!


Hans Fallada  |  Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone)

If you walking down this quiet street, it's hard to imagine that the rather unostentatious house at number 50 Jablonski Strasse was in fact the centrepiece of an elderly couple single-handedly undermining the fascist regime in 1940s wartime Berlin.

Originally titled Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada's magnus opus is considered by some critics to be the most prominent anti-National Socialism novel of its era. The book follows real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, following the death of their only son during WWII. Hating the nationalist ideology they began spreading postcards with protest messages throughout Berlin.

Having dropped only 200 cards during their brief stint (their modus operandi being to discretely leave them in the stairwells of various Berlin apartments), the SS police were alerted to their actions, and the Hampels were sadly caught and executed.

Fallada captures the inhumanity of the time, through his continuous descriptions of tenants and their ardent belief of the regime. Against this backdrop, the story of this obscure couple gets all the more gripping.

The story's moral is heartening, though bittersweet: through the power of determination, any one of us can change the world for the better. Today, nothing would otherwise hint at this Prenzlauerberg residence's grim past, with the trees on both sides of the road looks just in any other Berlin alley. But here Otto and Elise Hampel left their mark upon history, forever immortalised through Hans Fallada's pen.


Vlademir Kaminer  |  Russian Disco

In contrast to the slightly grim themed Weimar and Nazi regime-centric works listed above, take a literary stroll down Schönhauser Allee where the witty scenes from iconic Berlin-based novels “Russian Disco” and the namesake book “Schönhauser Allee" both play out. There are several Urban Coffee Corners located in the iconic surrounds of Eberswalder & Schönhauser stations to wet yer whistle!

Though a Russian by birth, their author Vlademir Kaminer is a Kiez-local through-and-through -- having moved numerous times within a small square kilometre radius in Prenzlauerberg since 1990. Kaminer exemplifies the 'modern' Berlin; whether funny or absurd, his idiosyncratic observations captures the essence of a changing city, and a renaissance of culture led by immigrants from the 1990s to today. 

In the spirit of all things Schönhauser: drop by Tinman (right next door to the original Russian Disco), or celebrate the area's diversity first-hand at Little Italy, Marrakesch or Enoteca Bertelli!


Vladimir Nabokov  |  Glory

The author of *thatbook -- Lolita -- though known for his Russian and English proses, also spent 15 tumultuous years of exile in Berlin. He was after all, from a long line of White Russian monarchists, and fled his home of St Petersburg in his adolescence following the Revolution. During this period Vladimir Nobakov faced the murder of his sibling by Nazis, the assassination of his father, was married, and celebrated the birth of his son.

In these years of social struggle and obscurity his iconic style was formed. Finding inspiration sometimes even in the most routine of surroundings, things like the reflections of night lights on wet asphalt were fodder for poetic musings.

Nabokov would eventually go on to write eight novels during his tenure in Berlin, all of them, as was the author, set in the city. In his novel Glory, one follows the route of its main character (conveniently also named Glory) through to Potsdamer Platz -- here one of the episodic figures keeps mispronouncing it as "Post Dammer Platz." Drop by Maya or Bombay Spice up Wilhelmstrasse on the way to Brandenburger Tor. 

Ironically enough, the author never came to fancy Berlin and made no attempts to integrate. Instead, he chose to revolve mostly in the Russian emigre circles in Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf and Schöneberg. In this way, Berlin in his novels reflects a peculiarly Russian cosmopolitan Berlin, that of parks, bourgeoise neighbourhoods, street cars, etc. A Guide to Berlin is a short story reporting on everyday life in the city in a rather sketchy manner. Despite its name, the topographic locations are hard to identify, rather Nabokov’s adopts the perspective of a citizen moving around recording daily impressions. 

Throughout his stay the writer moved a total of 10 times in Berlin, fitting in his passion for writing, whilst juggling various jobs: at times a tennis instructor, boxing coach and a language teacher. Two of his former residences -- Nürnberger Straße and Motzstrasse 31-- are both nearby Urban Coffee Club corners: Capri Global Ristorante Italia and Swadishta.

If you walk down Kurfürstenstrasse to the underground station you will pass the Schubert Hall where Nabokov gave readings of his works and recited Faust. In the spirit of recitals and performance, you could indulge a special visit Zimt & Zucker to catch a show over an Urban coffee.

The pre-War Berlin of 1922-1937 is captured vividly Nobokov’s writing -- too many to list really -- but as you read and travel, you may imagine the Berlin of yore as experienced by this fabulous, of not somewhat tortured author.