Tag Archives: German Literature

The European Bookshop

172920The European Bookshop, 5 Warwick Street, London, W1B 5LU

The view from the southern foot of London Bridge always seems to me to capture the essential character of this city.

To the left is Southwark Cathedral, which has stood for over a thousand years and is still in use.  On a Thursday, Friday or Saturday the courtyard outside this medieval site is filled with hungry Londoners eating meals from Borough Market, which has existed since 1040, though its current incarnation is decidedly Victorian.  Looking East is Tower Bridge, rising up victorious and grand from the Thames in all its late-Victorian glory and leading towards the Tower of London on the North side of the river, which also dates back to the eleventh century.  To the northeast is St Paul’s Cathedral, that most distinctive of London landmarks, an oily rascal known as well as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (Henry IV , anyone? anyone?) built at the close of the seventeenth century.  And the Gherkin – a symbol of London as a global financial centre – and the Shard make their case for the power of the new millenium.

The layers of history, the palimpsest of stories told by generations of Londoners and newcomers, make London what it is.  Ancient and modern, old families and humble immigrants, traditionalists and revolutionaries co-exist here, adding layers of stories which enrich rather than replace the city’s past.

Across the city, in Piccadilly Circus, the same is IMG_2111true.  London’s oldest bookshop, Hatchard’s, may be overshadowed by the huge Waterstone’s, but it’s still there.  Clarissa Dalloway’s harried wanderings along Regent Street and Bond Street may not have the same immediacy as the enormous Top Shop assaulting you with pop music, but even that fictional character colours the way I experience the area.  It is the middle ground between posh Mayfair, busy Oxford Circus and trendy Soho with its own unique history.  The layers of history in every part of London reflect the generations of people who have come here from other parts of the country and the world and added their touch or made a home.

So it’s no wonder that the stories of London are read and written and told in IMG_2114many dialects and languages, translated from Old English to Modern English, into Portuguese and Farsi and mirrored back to us in similar stories that arrive from all over the world.  We need only look at the number of Arabic, Russian, Polish, French and Bengali bookshops that have filled up the city to see how much London has benefited from the profusion of other and different voices that fill it.  One of these, hiding from garish Regent Street on a quiet road in Soho, is the European Bookshop.  It’s the best place in London to find books written in, translated from and translated into French, Spanish, Italian or German.

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Now, having lived in North America, I am particularly appreciative of the mere fact that this bookshop exists.  Cuz, like, hello, there are, like, other languages, dude!  Even though my rusty French and dodgy Spanish keep me from fully appreciating what’s on offer, it makes me very happy that I live in a city which respects the importance of hearing each other’s stories enough for a place like the European Bookshop to thrive.

IMG_2116The ground floor is a Francophile’s paradise, full of French literature, poetry, philosophy and social commentary.  From Balzac to Baudelaire, Sade to Sartre, all of the famous Frenchmen and women who have captured the world’s imaginations are available in their original language, which is always the best way to read them.  But what is particularly brilliant about the European Bookshop is that it doesn’t settle for just the crowd-pleasers.   We can also explore the work of writers whose fame never went beyond France, or those we tend to forget originally wrote in French (cough cough, Samuel Beckett!)  It also gives browsers the chance to learn about writing from other Francophone IMG_2118countries or regions.  I discovered a Quebecois playwright, a Moroccan novelist and a wealth of novels and poetry by writers from former French colonies in North Africa, writing about the post-colonial experience in their colonial language.  I was reminded of how powerful and how inflammatory language can be, and of the power and significance of words, which we too often waste or use foolishly.

There is a small Italian bookshop at the back of the ground floor as well and IMG_2110Spanish and German books are downstairs.  In each you’ll find well-stocked selections of fiction, biography, history, poetry and theatre but there are also translation of English books into other languages. In the German section are the twisted fairy tales, imaginative novels and grim memoirs that you would expect from the country and the language, but their original passion and force is restored to them, I imagine, by being read in the language in which they were written.  If you’re interested in anything from Walter Benjamin’s brilliant musings to Angela Merkel’s biography, this is the place to go.

 In the Spanish ‘Traducciones’ section I found Ulisses by James Joyce, a translation of the epic novel.  Reading Ulysses in English is enough of a IMG_2113struggle, but trying to do so in translation is a task I’ll just have to admit I’m not up to.  Distressingly, Joyce is only two books away from Spanish translations of the 50 Shades series. Normally this would have made me livid, but I realised that looking at the wall of Spanish books next to me, I had no idea which books were award-winners and which were rubbish and that maybe that’s okay.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As an unrepentant book snob I think it’s extremely important to recognise good literature and – if nothing else – quite a lot of fun to deride bad literature, but IMG_2112every once in a while, it’s nice to leave ideas of good/bad or respected/mocked behind and just let yourself get swept up in the magic of a wall full of books.  And rummaging through a collection of poetry, plays and stories in another language is a great way to bring back the mystery and adventure of reading for its own sake.  Some books may be better than others, but when you’re liberated from prejudices and preconceptions, the only way to find out is to read!  We can return to our snobbery later; it’ll still be there.  Like all of our human failings, it’s not going anywhere, but the elusive glimmer of adventure is only a fleeting one.

IMG_2115In each section there is a collection of children’s books.  Which makes sense, really, because the best way to get some one to fall in love with words and language is through a good old-fashioned bedtime story.  Whether they take you to a dark enchanted forest or an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, the love of words starts with a book, read anywhere in the world, in any language.  The particular magic of The European Bookshop is that, like the city that gave it a home, it brings so many stories together in one place, not to replace each other, but merely to enrich our understanding of the story-filled world around us.

Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus

IMG_2535Dussman das KulturKaufhaus, Friedrichstrasse 90, 10117 Berlin, Germany

Dussman das KulturKaufhaus is a massive department store in the centre of Berlin, not far from the Brandenburg Gate and hoards of tourists. It’s similar in size and location to the John Lewis on Oxford Street. In other words, it sounds like the kind of place that I would tend to avoid. The reason I just can’t IMG_2526keep myself away from it, though, is that while most department stores are full of clothes and appliances, homeware and haberdashery and other non-essential things, Dussman is full of all the things I love and live off: books, music, DVDs, paper and pens and more books. It’s a book city, the kind you need a map to navigate but where the back roads and little country lanes are a lot of fun to explore and the perfect place to get lost. Split over several floors (three? four? five? I just can’t remember) and featuring a sunny atrium and a garden, Dussman is the biggest bookshop in Berlin and the one-stop-shop for all your bookish needs.

Wandering around the ground floor, you’ll find novels, poetry, mass-market thrillers, classical literature and bestsellers from a wide range of mainstream and independent publishers. Quantity is the most striking feature of this

Beautiful hardcover editions of German literary classics.

Beautiful hardcover editions of German literary classics.

bookshop, but quality is there too; if you are looking for a special book, a particularly nice edition, an old classic, a hidden treasure or even the most specialist of genres, you can find it here. There are books by German authors, but there are also many books in translation from other languages. If, like me, you’re a lover not just of literature but of books, of paper and card and glue and vellum (not that I encounter much vellum, but I love the idea of it) then you’ll be pleased to know that between the novels, you can also find sheet music and maps. On the other side of the ground floor (am I getting across how large this bookshop is?) is the first music section, which is not just an afterthought but a wide and varied selection.

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After you’ve had enough of the ground floor, you can take the lift if you’re clever to explore the others, where you’ll find every section a bookshop could possibly have: more music and film sections which have documentaries, jazz, classical IMG_2532and opera and world music, then books on art, cookery, gardening, humour, philosophy, sport, business, technology, education, history, languages, law, literary theory, politics, science, travel, comics, graphic novels and manga. I challenge you to name a book (or a film or an album) that this shop does not stock. On the top floor, in a rather uninspiring location next to the business and management books, I found one of my new favourite places: a couple of arm chairs pushed up against a big bay window, facing away from the shop and other browsers to look out over the rooftops of Berlin. By the time I’d made it up that far and then started to head back down again, I was quite exhausted and stopped for a bit of a rest in the excellent children’s and young people’s section.

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The children who shop here must be very well-rounded as the selection of children’s books in German, English and other languages included stories and poems and lots of educational books about geography, history, science and pretty IMG_2531much every other subject you can imagine. I’m getting tired of listing subjects; from now on, just assume that if you can name it, Dussman has it. Watching families come into this busy bookshop and pick out new treasures to bring home and read together is the most encouraging thing to witness if you love books!

Finally, there is the English section, which is really a bookshop inside the bigger bookshop. I’m told it’s the largest collection of English books in Berlin, so it’s an absolute lifeline for ex-pats who are looking for books from home or feel that they IMG_2521can barely handle reading Proust at all let alone in German. It’s also great way to explore Germany’s literature even if you don’t speak the language. There is a whole section of English translations of books about Berlin and books by German writers. Before going to Berlin, I had read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories which are insightful, subtle and highly amusing, but, ultimately, are still the work of an outsider looking in. As the world gets more and more globalised, I think we have a duty to find out more about the other people we share this planet with, but you can’t do that if you only read works that came IMG_2525from your own small island. That is why collections like these are always so interesting – when one country curates a selection of its finest literature to present to the rest of the world, it can’t help but cause debate, and the choices are often completely different from what someone on the outside would have predicted. After roaming around through this lovely bookshop-in-a-bookshop for a good forty minutes, we bought The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which is a bit of a rite of passage for anyone interested in dense European novels. When I buy a book, I always like to find a time, as soon as possible, to sit down and admire my new purchase. At Dussman’s English bookshop, you can curl up on a sofa by the window and fondle the crisp new white pages while you look out onto the busy street below.

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In a bookshop this large, it’s easy to get side-tracked and end up wandering aimlessly for hours. I say go for it. In a place with so many different possibilities, so many new things to pique your interest and make you think, you owe it to the adventurer in yourself to explore every different avenue. You have to be IMG_2518indiscriminate in your enjoyment, embracing the new and strange and obscure as well as the classic and best-selling and putting the two of them together. Sometimes I like to play a game with my bookshelves. I pick two books that I happen to have stuck on there beside each other and wonder what would happen if the characters were to meet. Would Stephen Dedalus play nicely with Pip? What would Dean Moriarty and King Lear talk about? It’s not the coolest game but it’s made me smile many times. At Dussman, these opportunities, questions, connections and segues are everywhere. They’re in between the pages of the book you’ve never heard of, or in the name of a German poem that makes you think of something you read when you were young, or in a travel guide to Bali. All you have to do is be patient, exploring everything you can until something exciting pops out at you.IMG_2522