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All this garlic has turned us into a vast army of urbanely middle-class undead

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Nick Lezard, whom I met at Prezzo for one of our twice-per-lustrum inter-columnar suppers, told me that prezzo means “price” in Italian. Nick is good at languages but he couldn’t be certain whether this restaurant chain was named after the common nounal form of the word, or the verbal one “priced”, which prezzo can also mean. Does it matter? Surely not, after all it can be safely asserted that once you’ve named so many eateries in such a way you clearly understand the value of nothing.

What Nick didn’t know – but I did, having laboriously scrolled through their listings – was quite how many Prezzos there are in Britain: 188. A scattering of this multitude are located in big city centres but on the whole Prezzos loiter in the smaller towns, the Basingstokes and Nuneatons, where they wait to pounce on unsuspecting punters and feed them trattoria fare – pasta, pizza, scallopini – continuing that strange inversion plague of vampirism, whereby in the past 20 years quantities of garlic have transmogrified the provisional petite-bourgeoisie into a vast army of urbanely middle-class undead.

Blah factor

I had toyed with the idea of reviewing Prezzo and Zizzi (126 outlets) in a single day, on the grounds that they’re both chains that manifest the blah factor in spades; but a wiser organ than my stomach prevailed and I resolved there was only so much dark-wood laminate I could bear to look upon. So much dark-wood laminate and so many artfully arranged wine bottles (in Prezzo these are fanned out in a rack shaped like the arched window on Play School, begging the question: what’s through it today? To which the answer can only be: rehab). Nick – absurd Brief Encounter-inflected anachronism that he is – ordered a glass of Chianti from the black-aproned Euroserf, but she snapped that they only had Shiraz (£5.60 x2, “soft and dry with a good concentration of blackcurrant fruit and spicy overtones”). The Euroserf growled whether I wanted a large or a small mineral water, and when I asked for specificity she testily conceded that “large” was a litre.

A litre! What kind of a weirdo goes into a chain restaurant on a Wednesday evening and drinks enough mineral water to leach the amino acids from his brain? Well, quite a lot of them actually – the joint was packed, and on almost every table there several bottles of the pricey fizz (£3.95). We ordered crab cakes (£5.65 x2), Nick said he would “try” the lasagne (£9.75), and I risked the Pollo Siciliana (£12.50), which was glossed on the menu as “Chargrilled chicken breast, prosciutto ham and plum tomato slices baked with our own blend of cheese”. In the event, both dishes looked like blobs of cheesy gloop – mine had the consistency and warmth of flip-flops left out in English summer sun, Nick’s was cold in the middle. “Has it been microwaved?” I asked him and he grimly replied, “I suspect not even that.”

Did we complain? No – because life’s too short and I operate on my own form of Pascal’s Wager, reasoning that in the unlikely event that at the moment of my death I discover that the deity is a 22-year-old Slovakian girl in a tomatosauce- flecked black apron, I’ll be pleased that I didn’t. Anyway, Nick and I had become too embroiled in a mild contretemps about salad to bother with anything as prosaic as the food. Nick claimed that he only ever ordered salad in France – “a nice frisée with lardons” was the phrase he had the snobbery to use – while when he was in Blighty he preferred to get down with the herbage in the privacy of his own hovel.

Rocket man

I had ordered a rocket and Grana Padano salad (£3.50), on the grounds that I simply wasn’t fulfilling my daily lactose quota, but in the event my Sicilian gloop came with an adequate salad garnish. Nick, while helping himself to forkfuls of my rocket, said he’d once seen a flyon- the-wall documentary in which British sous-chefs sat around with their sweaty feet in boxes of salad. Why he imagines their Gallic counterparts could never be guilty of such bestial behaviour is beyond me – but unlike most of Prezzo’s clientele, Nick fancies himself, despite all appearances to the contrary, as some sort of Proustian character, who turns down the Duchesse de Guermantes’s invitations in order to slum it with his friends.

We finished off with a single espresso each (£1.90 x2), and I paid the bill. Nick offered to divvy up – he even had his wallet out – but I find myself constitutionally incapable of going Dutch with anyone quite as Francophile as him, especially in a chain Italian restaurant run by Englishmen based in Essex.


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 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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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