BY Mitch Speed in Books , Opinion | 10 MAR 22

Kirsty Bell’s ‘The Undercurrents’ is a Protest Against Repression

Part memoir, part literary portrait, the author’s new book on Berlin goes beyond familiar narratives of the German capital

BY Mitch Speed in Books , Opinion | 10 MAR 22

With sleuthing interest and novelistic flair, Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents has ruptured familiar terrain. The book’s subject, Berlin, is portrayed as a thing in motion, captured through a compound lens of culture, hard history and memoir.

The book opens with a flood in Bell’s apartment, which she and her husband recently bought, renovated and moved into with their two children. The flat overlooks the alternately charming and dingy Landwehr Canal in Berlin’s central Tiergarten district, which these days hosts an unsettled overlap of culture, government and communities. It is awkwardly laid out, and too big – a divisive disclosure amidst the current housing crisis. Bell’s second page closes with a hammer blow, signaling a more personal disaster. ‘My husband’, she writes, ‘went away to work and never came back.’     

Kirsty Bell; photograph: J Baier

This familial breach triggers an awareness of the relationship’s long-unspoken brokenness, which Bell connects to the apartment building’s myriad problems – flooding, poor feng shui – that are depicted as symptoms of the architecture’s tormented soul. Considering the floodwater that had gathered on the floor of her family's home, Bell writes that 'The image that formed on the surface of the pool of water did not just reflect a broken home, it also reflected the house itself. These tears of mourning were the building’s own. It would soon become my subject.' In turn, Berlin becomes an entity whose traumas have been repressed, both in the inhabitants’ psyches, and through tides of dysfunctional urban planning.

I flinched while reading these early pages, sensing that a parallel was being drawn between histories of unfathomable cruelty – the holocaust, wartime slaughter and rape of civilians – and the author’s personal trials. This worry was tempered, though, as the book became an associative thesis on the dangers of repression, from gargantuan acts of genocide to the comparatively subtle shames of familial collapse. That this thesis holds together, while encompassing a personal-to-political range so broad as to test the borders of acceptability, may be this book’s most important achievement.

Map of Berlin, 1850. Courtesy: Kirsty Bell and Fitzcarraldo Editions

An enchanting and sometimes disturbing symbolism runs through The Undercurrents, as Bell imaginatively weaves the city’s hard factuality with the emotional and physical experience of living in it. She theorizes that the sandy earth upon which Berlin sits ‘exerts a constant, subtle downward pull’, and asks if this explains ‘the strange lethargy that sometimes hangs across the city? Its shared sense of inertia?’ Some thirty pages later, the book’s recursive architecture comes to the fore, as Bell returns to this subject, now sensing menace, as if the city and its people shared a troubled, collective unconscious. Thinking back to Berlin’s fascist history, she is ‘grasped by a grim sensation… A forceful downward pull. Like a negative maelstrom that senses disaster beneath the increasingly frantic pace taking hold of this metropolis.’ Psychoanalysis has influenced Bell’s thinking. When it comes time to deal the chasm of German history, she draws on the writing of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich to achieve a dangerous but important balancing act; while clearly depicting the holocaust’s depravity, she concurrently explores the ‘debasement and psychological impoverishment’ that World War II inflicted on Germans.

Kirsty Bell, The Undercurrents, 2022, book cover. Courtesy: Fitzcarraldo Editions

In acknowledging that she is ‘a propertied Bourgeois woman’, Bell projects witty self-reflexivity. It’s an epithet used by Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg to describe Berlin’s early 20th century salon-goers, women whose wealth enabled a degree of autonomy from patriarchy. Bell subsequently chronicles Berlin’s female literary history, from Gabriele Reuter’s 19th century novels, which addressed – in Reuter’s words – ‘the silent tragedy of everyday life’, to aristocrat Marie von Bunsen’s The World in which I Lived: Memoirs of Happy Years (1860–1912) (1930). She recounts how Luxemburg goes apartment-hunting, frustrated by the city’s costs; then, in a brutal turn, is murdered by fascist mercenaries. Honouring this history, Bell traces the often-invisible cruelty of wealth and corruption; in the early 1900s, a father pleads in vain with the police to investigate the slumlord whose negligence makes his family’s home unlivable. Not that this ugliness prevents Bell from writing a history of culture, art and letters in the broadest sense. Her descriptions of Adolph Menzel’s paintings and sketches illuminate 19th century Berlin. Less rarefied objects also figure in Bell’s cultural history. Visiting city archives, she traces the lives of the former owners of her building, who were toy manufacturers. Her inclination that they might have been Jewish is quashed, as she finds one family patriarch’s free-willing Nazi membership. 

Map of the Berlin Wall, date unknown; Courtesy: Kirsty Bell and Fitzcarraldo Editions

Given that The Undercurrents is fundamentally a protest against repression, I thought about the repressions and convenient elisions that might accompany this book’s reception. Its final pages circle the property-speculation bonanza currently drowning sub-affluent Berlin. Like myself, Bell, who moved to Berlin from the UK two decades ago, is an art writer. It is an icky fact that our words, in lavishly praising art objects, also legitimate the patron class, who rub close shoulders (when they are not simply synonymous) with precisely such community-eviscerating property speculators. Many years from now, another author may well write a sequel to Bell’s book. Who knows what they will have to say about the city, and us.

Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is also available in German from Kanon Verlag

Main image: Map of Berlin, 1920; Courtesy: Kirsty Bell and Fitzcarraldo Editions

Mitch Speed is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.