Humane, thought provoking, and moving, this hybrid literary portrait of a place makes the case for radical close readings: of ourselves, our cities, and our histories.
The Undercurrents is a dazzling work of biography, memoir, and cultural criticism told from a precise vantage point: a stately nineteenth-century house on Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, a site at the center of great historical changes, but also smaller domestic ones. The view from this house offers a ringside seat onto the city’s theater of action. The building has stood on the banks of the canal since 1869, its feet in the West but looking East, right into the heart of a metropolis in the making, on a terrain inscribed indelibly with trauma.
When her marriage breaks down, Kirsty Bell—a British-American art critic, adrift in her midforties—becomes fixated on the history of her building and of her adoptive city. Taking the view from her apartment window as her starting point, she turns to the lives of the house’s various inhabitants, to accounts penned by Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Gabriele Tergit, and to the female protagonists in the works of Theodor Fontane, Irmgard Keun, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A new cultural topography of Berlin emerges, one which taps into energetic undercurrents to recover untold or forgotten stories beneath the city’s familiar narratives.