A Reading Life

The distinct literary landscape of Weimar noir

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2010

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There are worlds in literature that have hived off from the geographical and historical locations from which they arose. Over the years, through pages of print, these places have acquired independent existences, emblematic moods, populations, and ways of life. There is, for instance, England of the Regency period, alive with contested inheritances and uncontrollable lust, headstrong orphans in chemises and untamed lords in riding boots. There is the American South of southern gothic with its grotesques and crazies, its corn liquor, incest, and revenge. There are the suburbs and exurbs of novels of middle-class angst filled with people working out who they are. And of course, there’s the realm of noir: Menacing, sleazy, and originally patrolled by high-strung man-eaters. The world of noir is the most literary territory of all and has many divisions, including small-town, big-city, and Weimar Berlin.

The Berlin of 1919 to 1933 as conjured in short stories, novels, and feuilletons is cold, cruel, and crummy. It is louche and violent, a world of hectic gaiety, anomie, and shabby expedience. Looking at it just from the vantage of my own reading, I see Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin as its original delineators, and after them come Christopher Isherwood and Katherine Anne Porter to situate it in the English language. From there it continues to thrive in its own unwholesome, crepuscular way, now, especially, as an arena for the investigations and bleak soul-searchings of good-guy detectives. I know three: Bernie Gunther of Philip Kerr’s early novels and Nikolai Hoffner of two novels, so far, by Jonathan Rabb. And, just arrived, is police-inspector Armina Treffen of Craig Nova’s “The Informer” (Shaye Areheart, $26).

Armina, 26, is twice embattled in her position as an investigator of serious crimes: as a woman and as one who puts the integrity of her job before political considerations. When we first meet her she has been called to the scene of the murder of a young prostitute, a death that is clearly the work of a serial killer and rapist who has been notching up victims in the Tiergarten. The hunt for this man brings Armina into contact with the book’s other main character, Gaelle Altman, a 22-year-old prostitute.

Born of a respectable family, Gaelle has been badly scarred in an accident, which deformity has made her an outsider, filled her with self-loathing, and propelled her into a squalid life on the streets. There her services are peddled by Felix, a wizened 16-year-old who is lame and creepy. Lonely to the core, Gaelle further compounds her isolation by selling information to political groups, regardless of their beliefs and goals. The grim paradox, superbly conveyed by Nova, is that she is not really motivated by money, but rather by the intensity of her yearning to believe in something and to belong. “Why,” she asks herself, “couldn’t she get one man, one group, someone to act in a way that she could trust?” Why? Because, as we see as the story unfolds, both the thugs and party officials of the right and the agitators and Moscow patsies of the left are cynics and frauds; because she herself is hollowed out by neediness; and because German society has lost civil and social cohesion.

The atmospherics of this book are perfect and executed with precision. Berlin is pervaded by “a perfume of malice.” Gangs of Nazi thugs and left-wing heavies wage battles in the street. But more horrible than such violence is the overall mood of sordidness. This is conveyed palpably in the appearance of a Nazi Party meeting hall. Drab and arid, its menace is almost preternatural: “The hallway was covered with wainscoting that had been stained dark brown, and an overhead bulb left it covered with a sheen of icy light.’’

The novel has plenty of suspense, an excellent plot, convincing characters, and a couple of knockout revelations, but it is its ambience that makes it the best contribution to fictional Weimar I’ve come across in a long time.

Howard Frank Mosher’s “Walking to Gatlinburg” (Shaye Areheart, $25) begins, geographically speaking, in Vermont and continues down through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, before ending up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. When it comes to literary cartography, however, the novel is situated smack dab in Cormac McCarthy territory — or to be more precise, in the lawless, nightmarish, picaresque world summoned up by that author’s first five books.

At the center of Mosher’s novel is 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson, who sets out in March 1864 to find his brother, Pilgrim, a doctor in the Union Army, last seen at the battle of Gettysburg. The Kinneson family has been part of the Underground Railroad, and Morgan’s last act before setting out is to attempt to guide an old black man to the next stage on the way to Canada. Alas, his charge is murdered by two members of a band of marauding degenerates. “Living emblems of everything that was insane about all wars,’’ they are Ludi Too, an enormous horror who wears a bearskin, head attached, and plays a hammered dulcimer as he makes his murderous way across a war-deformed land; and Doctor Surgeon, club-footed vivisectionist and disembowler. Their hideous little company is rounded out by Prophet Floyd, nutcase instigator of millenarian frenzies; Steptoe, actor, child killer, and necrophiliac; and King George, also known as Swagbelly, a 400-pound black killer.

Traveling by land and water, Morgan finds himself stalked by these repulsive creatures as he makes his way south. The war between the states has left chaos and dissolution all around, in human communities, in nature. Past rural groundedness is inviolate only in language, in such words as stob, berm, kine, and dandiprat. Scattered throughout the novel they are vestiges of a better time, throwing this ravaged, phantasmagorical world into baleful relief.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at