Review of The Weather in Berlin

by Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin 2002   $24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

 

 

While the title of Ward Just’s new novel—The Weather in Berlin—suggests a European interlude for American Dixon Greenwood, its wealthy, aging, filmmaker protagonist, the real locale of this reflective, slow-moving tale is Dixon’s memory.  As such, the success of Berlin rests in how effectively Just can engage the reader in Greenwood’s past and his attempt to make sense of his life.

As the book opens, Dixon Greenwood has accepted a three-month residence at the Mommsen Institute, a Berlin think tank.  His actress wife, Claire, is making a film in California, so Greenwood finds himself in Berlin, alone with little more than his memories and the colleagues at the institute.

In the realm of this fiction, sixty-four-year-old Greenwood needs no introduction.  His directorial heyday was during what one observer notes was “the golden age of the Industry, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy, M*A*S*H, Cabaret, both Godfathers, Chinatown …”  To this list one would add the two films that secured Greenwood’s place in film history and the hearts of moviegoers, Summer, 1921 and Anna’s Magic.

Anna’s Magic starred the riveting Ada Hart, who succumbs to a heart attack as the book opens.  During the filming of Summer, 1921, Greenwood had no premonition that, thirty years later, strangers would stop him in the street to explain how the film had changed their lives.

            A film about a summer on a German lake just after the World War II, Summer, 1921 experienced its share of interpretations, seen by many as “an allegory of America’s vicious role in the postwar world.”  Dixon, however, “had no interest in allegories, then or later.”  Instead, Dixon was focused on the actors, three beautiful teenaged girls.  Dixon cast these amateurs for their looks and their exoticism.  All three were Lusatian Sorbs, a tiny minority of Slavic origin, living in Germany on the Czech border. 

            Most beautiful of all was Jana, who had “Garbo’s presence and integrity.”  One day in the middle of filming, however, Jana disappeared while swimming, and after a perfunctory search, was declared dead.  On Dixon’s return to Berlin, he is haunted by the memory of her youth and beauty. 

            If this sounds as if the novel has a plot, it does, but only nominally.  This work is really about two issues, cultural marginalization and the cost of assimilation, and who controls memory, both cultural and personal.  To explore these two themes, Just uses Greenwood’s memory and his occasional forays into the Berlin countryside.

            The narrative is glacially paced, meandering as it does down the byways of this aging man’s surprisingly sharp memory—never does he stumble with a name or a face.  Along the way, salient observations are offered, such as the relation of modern Germany to America.

            “Five decades later, no wonder so many Germans wanted to be like Americans, enjoying the blessings of the free market in which to pursue happiness without the inconvenience of memory. They believed Americans forgot things, history mostly; they put unpleasantness behind them, got on with their lives, threw up a memorial, achieved the envied but elusive closure. Americans didn’t have time for revenge! They refused to take responsibility themselves, refused even to assign it elsewhere. What a marvelous state of affairs, stepping cheerfully from one year to the next with scarcely a stumble or a look backward. Who wouldn’t envy such people?”

            Greenwood’s encounters with German academics and filmmakers make for pages of discussion on Germany’s relation with its past, with its two halves, with its minorities, with America, and so on. 

Along the way, Greenwood is offered an opportunity to direct episode 145 of Wannsee 1899, a wildly popular television period drama (a stand-in, one supposes, for the real show, Heimat), seen by others, however, as “Prussian nostalgia.”  His surprising choice for the character of the Baroness in this film provides a brief and stimulating plot element late in the story.

Just writes beautifully, and the lack of any action in a narrative isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  However, the bulk of this novel consists of Greenwood making tea and having a decades-old memory, Greenwood pouring himself a drink and having another memory, Greenwood riding in a car and having a memory, to the point where one hopes that he would go to a whore house or get hit by a car or nearly drown in a lake.  As it is, there’s just not enough dramatic conflict to sustain the reader’s interest.  Author of twelve previous novels, Ward Just has not achieved a lucky thirteen.