Zadie Smith and Daniel Kehlmann in Berlin - Culture

There it is again, the concentrated physical presence of a tightly packed audience in a very large hall. The minority of mask wearers are scattered about it as if dabbed on it, and they too cannot keep their distance. That's how it was on Thursday evening in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, as part of the 22nd International Literature Festival Berlin Zadie Smith and Daniel Kehlmann performed. Some cinema operators and music promoters report that audiences are reluctant to return, but that blockbusters and big names are moving. Perhaps that is also the case in the literary world.

A black table, two black chairs, two microphones, two water bottles, two glasses and a book on display. Simultaneous translators bring the English conversation into German. Zadie Smith and Daniel Kehlmann were born in 1975 in north London, he was born in Munich. The book in front of them is called "Intimations". Zadie Smith wrote it in New York during the first weeks of the pandemic and completed it in late May 2020. It was published in German a few months later under the title "Reflections. Corona Essays".

It is the occasion of the evening, is occasionally quoted, at the end Zadie Smith reads a page or two from it, but what is given here is not a book presentation, but a duet of memory. "I am a special reader of your book," says Daniel Kehlmann right at the beginning, "when the pandemic struck in spring 2020, we lived in the same building. The street that you see, the lady with the dog, that Man with no legs, I recognized them all while reading."

"Locked in a room with the kids, it was panic, desperation."

And he contributes to the book, which isn't in it, re-read the emails they exchanged back then. Zadie Smith ponders the consoling thought that suddenly everyone had to do what writers always do when they write: sit in a room, don't go out. Daniel Kehlmann looks back at the voices from back then, who saw the lockdown as an opportunity to reflect, to slow down life with a welcome reduction in emissions: "Even the good air felt like dystopia." Zadie Smith, very relaxed in tone, very cool, recalled himself as a nervous wreck: "Locked in a room with the kids, it was panic, desperation. You were more positive, I was like a zombie and you were Mister Science."

In this chat among writers, Daniel Kehlmann, the son of an Austrian director, was given a double role, which he mastered with virtuosity. On the one hand, he was a colleague on an equal footing, who talked shop with an author friend about writing, and who occasionally brought his own books such as "Measuring the World" or the Eulenspiegel novel "Tyll" into play. At the same time, however, he was the moderator of the evening and, as the questioner, had to ensure that the conversation continued and that topics were introduced. You could also say that he kept throwing interesting colorful balls onto the stage at Zadie Smith, most of which she left behind. Or charmingly thrown back with the sentence: "I would never write historical novels" - in which the echo "I don't like to read them either" was unmistakable.

Zadie Smith and Daniel Kehlmann in Berlin: Lives in Berlin again: the German writer Daniel Kehlmann

Living in Berlin again: the German writer Daniel Kehlmann


The little monologues she did best, for example about her pre-Covid internet abstinence, which turned into the opposite during the pandemic, until she found herself exposed to a collective voice day and night, which she then spoke to her volume of essays - as a conversation with herself - wanted to parry. But when Kehlmann reported how he himself stopped consuming the television series and literature turn of the century in Vienna, Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler, the ball came to a standstill again.

Both left New York and returned to Europe

And when, in a passage about the pandemic and the division of opinions in the immediate vicinity, Daniel Kehlmann introduced Franz Kafka as an author who was incapable of abstract opinions, the dialogue soon died out. Only when Zadie Smith, when the talk turned to problematic authors, joined Philip Roth did a mini-monologue flash: "I don't read him as a great analyst of female existence, but if I want to know something about death, then I read him. "

Both Kehlmann and Smith left New York during the pandemic and returned to Europe. He now lives in Berlin, she again in "London NW", which she made the subject and title of a novel about ten years ago. She has just finished a new novel and is still living in the euphoria of success.

Here, in Europe, chatting reaches its limits, here the stoic in the moderator Kehlmann is required. When it comes to the London community and English government policy, Zadie Smith has a high density of commonplaces. By the way, the news of the Queen's death has not yet reached the stage. When Kehlmann wants to address "the darkest topic of these days", the war in Ukraine, towards the end, he receives no answer.

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