Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?
Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting use of cities. I love the way G. Cabrera Infante made Havana such a part of his work; I adore how Ciaran Carson writes about his native Belfast; I’m awed by Faulkner’s ability to spin gold out of rural Mississippi. The list goes on: Bukowski’s L.A.; Auster’s New York; Joyce’s Dublin. As someone who has spent a lot of effort writing stories and poems about a city I both love and hate, I should have been more receptive to Šteger’s book. After all, this is a poet writing in prose about his individual encounters with Berlin. Sounds like my kind of book.
And it is. Sort of. Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult.
I think part of the problem is the way I approached the book. Berlin is best read over the course of a week or two, one vignette lasting the course of days; though, at 131 pages, the book can easily be polished off in a sitting. And that is my problem: I read it quickly and, in doing so, missed the effect. After putting it down for a week, I revisited some of the more memorable bits in preparation for this review and found this:
It seemed that every moment winter would touch its own back. Walking in it nearly all year, the snow melted in the daytime, budded again overnight from sidewalks and car hoods, consuming into March and then into April the deep patience of the most euphoric innkeepers, who at the first rays of better prospects populated the sidewalks with tables and chairs. Winter was so long that even Berlin’s biggest stay-at-homes enjoyed it when spring finally came.
This is delightful to me, though I shared the same passage and it elicited only the sad recognition of a native Midwesterner. This again reminds me of Jarrell’s idea, only inasmuch as I begin to question the purpose of reviews. They are a product of one person’s reading, so, to that end, they are bound to be flawed. But that is fine. My reading is solely my own and if it is my duty to relay what this individual reading yielded, so be it. Take from this the following: Berlin is a fine book of surprising lyricism that did not exactly do what I expected, but wouldn’t it be a dull world if things always went as planned?