Some of Germany’s best writers have written about and lived in Cologne. Malcolm Burgess helps you get under the skin of this fascinating city.
Heinrich Boll, Essays (1979)
Born in Cologne, the Nobel Prize-winning author is one of its finest and most perceptive observers.
It really is futile to praise Cologne’s cathedral. It is so big that you cannot miss it. Especially as it is right beside the railway station and throws its shadow over all the trains that arrive there. You alight, look up at it involuntarily and a few minutes later you are inside it, perhaps even before you have taken your suitcase to the hotel. The Rhine is actually pretty wide too, sailed by many ships and bridged by many bridges, and when you have alighted from your train you smell it even before you see it. The Romanesque churches really should be praised instead, they are much too modest: a whole grey wreath of them lying peacefully around the cathedral.
Irmgard Kevn, Gilgi, one of us (1931)
Later banned by the Nazis, this kaleidoscopic novel beautifully evokes Cologne’s Weimar days.
Martin Bruck wanders through the streets. Shitty weather, wet and sticky. Look up, dirty grey clouds – look down, blackish, slippery, damp paving stones. The lights on the Hohenzollernring scowl into the fog. Urban’s Hostelries – Café Vienna. Jazz tunes spill out in little waves as far as the shivering doormen in the entrances. Within, a few provincial types revel in boredom on red plush chairs. At the slightest provocation, the waiters will tell you how bad business is … Only one adorable little cigarette boy continues to represent the inflexibly arrogant Ku-damm aspirations of the Cologne Ringstraße.
Gisa Klonne, Nothing But Deliverance (2011)
Gisa Klonne is one of Germany’s top crime writers whose detective inspector Judith Krieger heads Cologne’s murder squad.
The Old Town lies cloaked in motley light. The bars and beer gardens have long since closed, but readers still lounge on the lawns by the promenade, in pairs or small groups … For a few seconds, a train on the railroad bridge drowns out all the other sounds. One of the streetlights in the park flickers wildly, making it even harder for her to orient herself. But the cathedral looms over the scene with stony calm. The cathedral, the philarmonic, and next to it the bridge.
The Old Town
Roland Koch, Couples (2000)
From a well-known Cologne-based author who often writes about his city.
To places where you can discover the soul or the secret of the city if you listen closely or have the time to look closely. The lower middle-class streets behind Mauritiuskirchplatz, or Bobstrasse. A tram ride all the way to Zündorf through the neighbourhoods on the right bank of the Rhine. A stroll down Engelbertstrasse, where Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann used to live. The steps of the Freibad Stadion in late August, under the chestnut trees
Wolfgang Koepeen, The Hothouse (1953)
A prize-winning German writer whose novel evocatively describes the Rhineland at the end of the war.
The Rhine was now wending its way between flat beds, a winding silver ribbon. Distant hills arced up out of the early morning haze. Keetenheuve breathed in the mild air and straightaway felt sad. Chambers of commerce and tour operators described the area as the Rhine Riviera. A hothouse climate flourished in the basin between the hills; the air stagnated over the river and its banks. Villas stood beside the water, roses were bred, prosperity strode through the parkland wielding hedge clippers, gravel crunched crisply under the pensioner’s lightweight footwear, Keetenheuve would never join their ranks, never own a home here …
The Cologne Riviera
Jürgen Becker, Fields (1964)
Cologne-born Becker offers a superb record of experiences of contemporary life in the city.
The midnight celebrations on the 1st February 1926, a significant hour in world history, were reported on by Cologne’s newspaper, the Kölnische Zeitung: At the stroke of midnight a roar and a surge swept through the crowd of people. St Peter’s Bell, also called the German Bell on the Rhine, tolled the ceremonial declaration with heavy and powerful peals. On two giant candelabras, which had been put up on each flank of the cathedral’s steps, mighty fires blazed up to the heavens, an image that no one who saw it will forget. Deeply moved, the public watched in silence. Then Mayor Adenauer stepped up to the lectern and delivered a pithy speech that, relayed by loudspeakers, could be heard without difficulty on the square.
Heinrich Boll, Absent Without Leave (1965)
This opening story in this collection of stories of the same known offers an intimate portrait of Cologne before- and after World War II.
A stupendous heritage, an immense historical cargo (immense in proportion to its latitude, anyway) … and in case anyone should feel I have moved my parents’ house perilously close to those environs where Nietzsche foundered but Scheler flourished, let me inform him that in none of these streets was or is that calling pursued of which the drunken Roman sailors took Agrippina to be an exponent …
Franz Schatzing, A Taste for Death (2003)
Inspector Cupper faces a challenge as he scours the city for Inka von Barneck’s murderer in this recent novel from the Cologne crime writer.
Cüpper was running like a man possessed. Back in the day, he used to be a decent sprinter, but that was at the academy before years of eating and drinking too well. He charged down Riehler Straße, ignoring the pain in his chest. Zoo Bridge was ahead of him in the distance, light years away.
If only he could drive there… but he had left the car at the digital megastore because there weren’t any spaces in town. Bloody Cologne!
Panting and wheezing, he ran into Reichsberger Square. His shoes beat out a rapid staccato on the asphalt. There was a squeal of brakes; he kept going, knowing that the driver had stopped just in time. The next crossing showed a flashing red man as well. He didn’t slow his pace or check for traffic: he sprinted across the road.
Irmgard Kevn, Gilgi, one of us (1931)
Another vivid and poignant excerpt from Irmgard Kevn’s tour-de-force
Martin turns down Ehrenstraße. The housewives’ El Dorado. Shop cheek by jowl with shop. Butchers creatively light up their displays. Between bleeding hunks of meat pale bunches of narcissi wonder what they’ve done wrong. Fluffy little bunnies stare reproachfully out of their dead glass eyes. From fishmongers’ shops silver-bellied pike and haddock unleash a vengeful stench. Ladies with shopping nets bustle past the windows, as greedy for spoils as Sioux Indians on the warpath. Pale, neglected women pull bedraggled children after them, poor unemployed men try to fill their bellies from the warm smell of bakeries. Tauber’s radiophonic shop releases something terribly sad from the Tsarevitch free to air into the crowded street… at the dead of night…
Heinrich Boll, Essays (1979)
Boll brilliantly sums up what he sees as Cologne’s town-like atmosphere – ‘the town that is incidentally a city.’
There are people in Cologne who live ten minutes from the cathedral but ‘go into town’ when they go to the city centre. You can ask after someone who lives very centrally and be given the reply that ‘he has gone into town’. A really beautiful woman does not need to prove that she is beautiful. Let the jealous prove that her nose lacks perfection, that her waist is too slim and her mouth too large. She can smile at these censures, for she knows that she possesses something that is indefinable and immeasurable: beauty, something that is not flawless but is perfect. Cologne is not flawless but it is perfect, perfectly Cologne, and again I am struggling to say just what Cologne is.