Berlin, city of archives

Museum of Industrial Objects

Berlin archives everything

I travelled from the German Literary Archive in Marbach to the archives of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin two weeks ago, making it an August buried in carbon copies, contracts with amendments scrawled on them, occasionally angry letters, random bills and ominous pronouncements from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. Archival work is not what I feel trained to do; I started my life in books as a close reader of texts, and that’s still where I feel my skills lie. For Sebald’s Bachelors, I moved beyond text to theory, but for this next project, I am moving beyond text to paratexts and into the dark terrain of biography: trawling through reams of correspondence to try and discover the origins and careers of individual texts.
Every author’s archive is different; Sebald’s is notoriously neatly curated, others are completely exhaustive, others thin and reticent, others random, with large gaps matching the rips and tears of lives lived in Germany’s disrupted, terrible twentieth century. The objects deposited in archives are unexpected; sometimes a call slip yields a pair of glasses, a friend’s notebook, a random newspaper that has been kept for no evident reason, a photo of the back garden. Every author comes across very differently in their business correspondence – some the model of courtesy, some testy, some, particularly those writing in the GDR, extremely cautious. Reading through this material is a slow, odd, sometimes intrusive and very exhaustive process.
It is, in short, as Sebald knew, unheimlich. And I am sceptical about archival methods, at times, when they lean towards the positivistic. What if the one illegibly handwritten letter that I decide is of little interest contains a crucial sentence on the third page that might demolish the entire argument of one of my chapters? What if the archive of Author X contains little useful information, but in fact the archive of Obscure Defunct Literary Press Y or Best Friend Z contains precisely the documents from Author X I need? Archives claim a totality which, in fact, they cannot possibly possess, and although I am committed to being thorough, I am horrified at the thought of claiming or aspiring to total knowledge.
But the greatest archival doubt I have is this ; as I work through publishers’ contracts, royalties negotiations, book blurbs, I imagine the writers I am researching – mostly elderly, slightly melancholy Jewish men – coming and sitting on my desk, and gently asking, ‘Why on earth are you spending day after day reading my hurried letters to foreign publishers? I struggled for years to write groundbreaking novels, witty short stories, volumes of poetry. Those are my life’s work; if you care about my testimony, you should spend a morning with them.’
I’m sorry, company of writers. I am reading through your works, slowly, when I’m not in the archive, too. My hope is that the archival work will make the voice of your testimony stronger. But in the meantime, I will keep reading your marked-up galleys and your polite but rushed answers to to academics, and feeling slightly foolish.
(Photo of a museum round the corner from where I am currently staying. Because Berlin archives everything.)

2 thoughts on “Berlin, city of archives

  1. So is it Sebald that you are working upon? Have heard it is very warm in Berlin at the moment. Where should I look for info on Brecht’s Chinese poems? Been reading Der Blumenmarkt-originally by Po-Chu-i- a lovely poem.

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