Humane, thought-provoking and moving, The Undercurrents is a hybrid literary portrait of a place that makes the case for radical close readings: of ourselves, our cities and our histories
The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin 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 centre of great historical changes, but also smaller domestic ones.
When her marriage breaks down, Kirsty Bell – a British-American writer, in her mid-forties, adrift – 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. Humane, thought-provoking and moving, The Undercurrents is a hybrid literary portrait of a place that makes the case for radical close readings: of ourselves, our cities and our histories.
‘It is easy to be carried along by these submerged currents, by the momentum of the prose, the motion through a resisting city. As in other classics of urban discovery, the personal becomes universal, and the past that demands to live in the present is revealed like a shining new reef. As we return, time and again, to the solitary figure at the window.’
— Iain Sinclair, author of London Orbital
‘With The Undercurrents, Kirsty Bell does for Berlin what Lucy Sante has done for New York and Rebecca Solnit for San Francisco; she tells the stories recorded in the city’s stone and water, and in the hearts of its inhabitants. Her profound and idiosyncratic chronicle of Berlin is an act of hydromancy, divining a history of love and loss from the water that flows beneath and between the city’s bricks.’
— Dan Fox, author of Limbo
‘I read this watery, engrossing book in the bath, following along as Kirsty Bell’s reflective curiosity leads her onward along the Landwehr canal, in and out of the archives, novels, memoirs, and stories of her building and her neighbourhood. Evocative and fascinating, The Undercurrents is a liquid psychogeography of Berlin that had me mulling over the psychic charge of place not only where Bell lives, but where I live too.’
— Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London
‘Kirsty Bell has achieved a real work of art: She tells of Berlin's sunken past as a freshly emerged present – and she explains the energy of this city from the history of the people, the streets, and the hopes that have shaped it.’
— Florian Illies, author of 1913: The Year before the Storm
'From the first moment I heard Kirsty Bell read from her writing, I have yearned for the book she was then working on. And now here it is, perfect and perfectly balanced, a clear-eyed and beautifully written account about place, about consciousness. I treasure The Undercurrents, and so will you.'
— Hilton Als, author of White Girls
‘With sleuthing interest and novelistic flair, Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents has ruptured familiar terrain. The book’s subject, Berlin, is portrayed as a thing in motion, captured through a compound lens of culture, hard history and memoir.... an associative thesis on the dangers of repression, from gargantuan acts of genocide to the comparatively subtle shames of familial collapse.’