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Memory Palace at the V&A: Shored against my ruins

In effect, this exhibition is a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

“I originally resisted moving to Brooklyn because it’s so fucking clichéd,” says the novelist Hari Kunzru, now an Essex boy in New York. We’ve just had to leave the first Brooklyn coffee shop where we’d wanted to do the interview because the entire cast of Girls were sitting tapping on their MacBook Airs and nursing lattes. Sometimes the New Yorkness of New York is overwhelming.

I’m here to talk to about Memory Palace, a collaborative, multi-dimensional project between him and 20 graphic designers and illustrators for the V&A in London. The curators, Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar, wanted to put on the first exhibition of graphic design in the museum for a decade but for it to centre around a specially commissioned work of fiction. The result is a dystopian novella by Kunzru – chosen for the non-linear and allusive quality of his fiction, in novels such as Gods and Monsters – and a simultaneous exhibition of the book, as interpreted by the designers. In effect, it’s a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Kunzru also seems a natural choice of author because he’s at ease with the contemporary art scene, has artist friends and writes on art. He tells me he can feel closer culturally to that world than the literary one. “The book world can feel rather divorced from other cultural institutions and it frustrates me.”

His brief was deliberately loose. He worked with the curators and designers on what a book would look like conveyed in a museum space. To Kunzru, it was imperative the book “should use the fact it was going to be presented in the V&A of all places – imperial treasure house”, while bringing in many strands of his interests and obsessions: Sixties “inner space” science fiction, green anarchism, Norse mythology, the 18th-century cult of ruins, disaster movies and the eponymous “memory palaces”.

“I came across the concept of memory palaces reading about the Renaissance. It was the idea of imagining spaces, mostly cathedrals populated with mnemonic objects to remember complicated pieces of information.” This became an anchor for his story as he imagined the circumstances in which such a system would be used again: “And I realised it would only be if you took away the whole digital world and the internet.” At the same time he was becoming obsessed with online writing by anti-civilisationist anarchists. “I find it an intriguingly alien set of thoughts: they believe that everything went wrong at the dawn of agriculture. To them, as soon as you start having a surplus, you’re going down the route of building a palace for the leader, and with that comes numbers and writing and domination . . .”

Memory Palace is a semi-allegorical, everyman story of a London far in the future in which a magnetic storm (“the Withering”) has wiped out the world’s technology and knowledge. Books and any forms of remembering are banned by the hardline, kiltwearing rulers, or thanes, “the bringers of the Wilding”. London is in ruins and people have lost the art of memory, except for a small resistance group called the “memorialists”, of whom the nameless, Winston Smith-like protagonist is one. We read and see his journey as told from prison; both book and exhibition are presented in fragmented form, chunks of prose interspersed with illustrations; and in turn the text and graphics brought to life in the gallery space.

As much as there is a solemnity and seriousness of intent about the project, it’s also clear Kunzru has had tremendous fun with the language, in the mangled and misinterpreted words from the past (an “internet” for a banned group, “landfills” for vast treasuries, “pewters” for computers, “sign” for information, “tricknology” for technology and so on). “It allows you to be a little bit sly and satirical – and any time you’re writing a dystopian story, you’re not really writing about the future, you’re writing about now.” As such Kunzru sees it firmly as a “post economic crash book”. But it’s also a chance for the self-professed sci-fi geek to obliterate his former hometown, turn the Olympic park into the worst slum in London and shatter the Shard: “It’s a privilege of being a writer that it’s very cheap to express ideas that would be expensive on film – I can destroy London just by typing a few sentences.” He knew early on that he wanted to include the Olympic Park: “it’s immediately amusing to take this shiny, new venue and ruin it straight away.”

The ruin of London is nothing new in literature, he says, from early 20th-century sci-fi and “weird Victorian penny dreadful stories about airships bombing London and yellow hordes storming up the Thames”. The main work of dystopian fiction that influenced him, however, was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. “It’s an extraordinary novel set after a nuclear disaster that imagines an England in which technology has been obliterated and it’s reverted to a tribal setting.”

I tell him I love the protagonist’s misplaced, rose-tinted nostalgia about the London of the past (our present). “He thought it was a wonderful world of palaces, whereas today is a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian world of grubbing about in the ruins.” There is a sense for Kunzru that it was ever thus, that we’ve always rubbished the present and remembered some previous, imaginary past. Something like the hyper-idealised Downton Abbey? “I’ve been thinking a lot about Downton Abbey recently and I think it’s definitely a symptom of the End Times. It’s true! But yes there is always this sense that perhaps we live after the great times, whether that’s the Sixties, the Empire or the Battle of Agincourt. That suspicion you’ve come after the party.”

This fear about the fragility of civilisation permeates the project, I suggest, because of our over-reliance on technology, and it wouldn’t take much for us to slip backwards. Kunzru compares it to no one remembering phone numbers any more; if you’re arrested and have one call, who do you call if you know no numbers. “We’ve outsourced a lot of our memory to devices.”

In Kunzru’s vision, with the death of the digital world, we are plunged back into a dark age. As he says, “I’d love to imagine we’d all discover our love for each other but I suspect that there’s some pretty nasty shit.” He compares his experience of the recent hurricane in New York: “When you take the power away, what happens is that a lot of people freak out. During a false alarm hurricane a few years ago, people were losing their minds: candles ran out so someone in my building just panic-bought Diptyque!”

The exhibition is a triumph for the collaborators’ collective vision. Some of the practitioners have interpreted Kunzru’s text two-dimensionally, others in vivid sculptural form. It’s as if the pages of the book have burst open, magically scattering words and illustrations into the gallery’s rooms.

The story ends in a viewer-participatory space, symbolising the prisoner’s cache of memories that are, as Kunzru puts it, “going to dissolve into this larger body of memories the group was going to hold.

“The question is: if someone asked you if you were able to transmit one of your memories, what would it be? It’s about what persists of us after we die. And that’s a religious, a scientific and a literary question.

“Memory Palace” runs until 20 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis