Will Self: I went out for posh nosh in Berlin, but found myself sniggering at the menu

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

I ran into the crime writer Philip Kerr at Gatwick – he and his family were happily on their way to Corfu, while I was gloomily en route to Berlin to do some work with my German translator. Kerr was ebullient and ridiculously fitlooking – full head of dark and luxuriant hair, tanned and solid. I was wraithlike and skulking about in the duty-free shop, wondering if I could slit my wrists with a Swarovski crystal gewgaw. When I told him my destination, a faint shadow seemed to cross his handsome features and I thought: fair enough. After all, Kerr has been writing his Bernie Gunther thrillers, which are set in Berlin, for decades – and he probably thinks of the city as belonging to him in a perverse way. That’s what writers are like.

“You should go to swim out at Wannsee,” he said. “There’s a beach on the lake and you can sit in a deckchair and watch the Germans in all their Naturheilkunde glory eating footlong wurst.” I said, “Hmm, I’m not sure I want to go to Wannsee – it always makes me think about the Nazis doing their worst.” Kerr was undeterred: “Fair enough – but if you’re in town, make sure you eat at Borchardt. It’s the place for an echt Berlin meal.” Regular readers of this column know that a truly echt Berlin meal is a currywurst gulped down in an Alexanderplatz chain outlet but I didn’t want to be pissy, so I told Philip I’d give the idea some serious thought.

That evening, after a long day combing through text with Teutonic efficiency, I thought to myself, sod it, enough with the low-rent nosh, I’m going to splash out for once – if Borchardt is as echt as Philip says, then it’ll count as a real meal on that basis alone. I found the place lurking on the ground floor of a big, gloomy, mid-19th-century building a block behind the Unter den Linden. Inside, the dining room was big, square and uncompromisingly plain –white napery, leather banquettes, white ceilings held up by huge, marble Corinthian columns. A maître d’ with film-star looks passed me over to a waiter wrapped so tightly in his spotless apron that I thought: were I to have surgery, I’d like this man to perform it.

The medic seated me at a table in the equally four-square courtyard that the dining room opened on to and gave me the menu. I used to have a girlfriend who collected the mistakes in the English translations on foreign menus when she was on holiday. For her, “plume piddling” offered in Kathmandu or “streak and chops” proposed in Positano was the very soul of wit. At the time, I thought it all pretty feeble but then that was when I still thought there was a soul of wit – not just a labouring and sclerotic heart. Seeing that “shit take mushrooms” were offered on the Borchardt menu caused me great pleasure. The supposed German preoccupation with excreta here elided seamlessly with my own avocation, for was I not there to take the piss?

Then, when I saw that “young veal” was also proposed, my cup of sparkling mineral water ranneth over. I mean to say, just how young can veal be, given that it’s pretty juvenescent to begin with? After all, most veal is killed at some time between 20 weeks and a year, although there is the delicious titbit known as “bob veal”, which comes from calves slaughtered when they’re at most a month old – and often only a few days old. Here at Borchardt, there was “young veal”, which was presumably very young indeed or they wouldn’t have made a big deal about it. Perhaps that’s why the waiters were so surgically precise: before the long evening at the dining tables began, they were assisting at operating ones, where cow foetuses were delivered prematurely, then butchered for their ineffably tender meat.

Such Burroughsian musings (The Naked Lunch exhibits an unhealthy preoccupation with “slunks”, or aborted cow foetuses) stopped me from staring too much at my fellow diners – always a problem for the solitary. True, there were two young men at an adjacent table who were drinking cocktails of such pinkish luminescence that I couldn’t forbear from asking the waiter what they were. “Aperol and prosecco,” he told me, setting down the half-dozen fines de claire I’d ordered in front of me.

As I went on staring at the Italian cocktail and slurped down the first of my French oysters, it occurred to me that while Philip may well have been right about Borchardt, I’d managed to lose an authentic German experience completely . . . in translation.

Food in Germany always brings out the wurst in people. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era