For years, my motto has been, “Life’s too short to read bad books.” What I mean by that, of course, is that life is too short to read books I don’t like. I acknowledge that my “bad books” might be the very ones you adore. But if they’re not working for me, I usually have no problem casting them aside and moving on to something else. After all, my TBR list is hundreds of books long, not to mention the books I’m not re-reading. So why (oh, why) did I finish The Weather in Berlin, by Ward Just?
This is not a book that’s really about anything I could determine. The premise is that a movie director who is no longer making movies goes to Berlin to be interviewed about the films he made in the past. The most important of those films was Summer, 1921, after the filming of which one of the female stars disappeared. This interview process drags the director, Dixon Greenwood, deeper and deeper into nostalgia for his own past, his father’s, and Germany’s.
This book was both boring and implausible. Just’s style is vague, a sort of impression of Hemingway, and it wanders here and there without making connections until the last 25 pages of the book. The characters are so sketchily drawn that I couldn’t remember one from another. Every once in a while, an incident would occur, such as the long-ago disappearance of the young Sorb girl, and I would think, This is it! The story is beginning! But the incident would submerge itself in another long, monotonous conversation, or a wash of Dixon’s memories, and it would lose all force.
Also without force was the contention that Germany is somehow the capital of the 21st century, the pivot on which modern society turns. Just was able to bring turn-of-the-century Germany to modest life in the guise of an episode of a television program, Wannsee 1899, but modern Berlin had no dynamism, no power. Dixon’s conviction that Germany, past and present, was somehow vitally important was hollow.
The book, as I’ve said, was also implausible, mostly because of the dialogue. Has anyone ever talked the way these people talk? I’m an academic myself, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Dixon’s wife left messages on his answering machine that went on for four or five pages. Does anyone have machines that will even take messages that long? If I’m wondering that, maybe they should have been trimmed. There’s an incident where Dixon has been taken out to shoot wild boar, and he and his fellow hunter have a long philosophical conversation about the state of Germany, with the boar standing there patiently in the underbrush. This seemed to me so patently ridiculous, not to say pretentious, that I almost couldn’t go on reading.
So why did I? Honestly, I don’t know. I kept thinking something would happen. The themes of nostalgia, of Dixon’s father’s role in the war as an interrogator, of the creation of narrative through film and through the way we tell our lives to ourselves and other people, should have been interesting. Alas, no. Onward and upward.