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Rhapsody in Gray

THE WEATHER IN BERLIN, A Novel, By Ward Just, Houghton Mifflin: 320 pp., $24

June 02, 2002|JOSEPH KANON | Joseph Kanon is the author of, most recently, "The Good German," set in postwar Berlin.

Ward Just writes the kind of books they say no one writes anymore: smart, well-crafted narratives--wise to the ways of the world--that use fiction to show us how we live. The kind of books, in fact, that most novels tried to be before confession and dysfunction cut their wide swath across the literary landscape.

His books are conventional, perhaps, but still the gleam in the eye of every journalist who, in the folklore and like Just himself, traded in the city desk for a battered typewriter in a room somewhere (Paris, preferably) to wrestle his prose into a semblance of real life.

Cynical on the outside, Bogart romantic on the inside, Just even has the rumpled lived-in features that would look perfect in a trench coat. But he gave the cliche new life by writing the books the others just talked about writing. And he keeps getting better. "The Weather in Berlin" is his 13th novel, after "A Dangerous Friend" and the excellent "Echo House," and one of his finest. It has so many of the pleasures of a conventional good read that you may not notice, at least for a while, the ambition and mastery poking modestly between the lines.

Certainly the premise is conventional enough. A middle-aged film director, Dixon Greenwood, fearful that he's lost his audience and his inspiration, finds his life unraveling and, with nothing better to do, accepts an invitation to spend the winter as artist-in-residence at the Mommsen Institute in Berlin. (Just himself spent the winter of 1999 at the American Academy there; rarely has a foundation stay paid off so well.) For Greenwood, it proves a fateful choice.

His best film, "Summer, 1921," a lyrical account of three bohemian artists and the girls they spend a summer with on a Franconian lake, was shot there in 1972 and, predictably, a return to Germany brings the past rushing back, something to pick over during the long evenings in the institute's Wannsee villa. So far, we've-been-here-before territory. But not quite.

In a series of plot turns that ultimately bring Greenwood back to professional life, we are taken on a series of fascinating detours: a whole society (the former East Germany) that, like Greenwood, has lost its audience and is left behind and resentful; the remembered music at a country club dance; a walk through the Seelow countryside, a battlefield in 1945 and now "a giant ossuary disguised as a simple farm"; meditations on the nature of storytelling in all its forms, from anecdotes over drinks to the framing of camera shots; and, not least, the contradictory haunted world of contemporary Berlin.

Great cities attract us in different ways. Berlin has never been beautiful or graceful, and certainly no one goes for the food. The legend of its Weimar heyday, all sexual license and cultural ferment, owes much to the nostalgia of the intellectual diaspora that followed. But what it has, uniquely, is the drama of its own survival.

"Berlin was a narrator's utopia," Greenwood thinks, "the story of the world, ruin and rebirth." Just is so good at capturing the look and feel of the city (his suburban Wannsee is pitch perfect) that I wish Greenwood had left the villa more often. But when he does get into town, Just gives it to us in knowing, precise strokes. The esplanade down the middle of Karl Marx Allee has the aspect of "the exercise yard in a penitentiary." Even the weather, famously gray, becomes "a soft, gunmetal gray" or "a refugee gray," in each instance just the right shade.

More important, he makes the city work for his story. Berlin has always drawn in its visitors: Some of its most famous literary images, from Christopher Isherwood's seedy cabaret to John le Carre's spy dropping from the wall, have been created by foreigners. This city where "the old wind lingered, a part of every day" becomes, with all its baggage and shadows, a plausible place for Greenwood to recover a lost piece of his past that will lead him to his audience again. The weather in Berlin, after all, is "motion picture weather, you could make of it whatever you wished."

Not everything here plays out so neatly. There is a political protest that feels more worked up than real, bits of dialogue that slip into pure exposition and moments when the pace goes, well, a little slack: One way or another, a lot of time is spent looking out windows at the lake. But it seems almost unfair to complain when right afterward, there will be something so skillfully handled that you can take delight simply in what's happening on the page.

Just gives us not one but two stories-within-a-story ("Summer, 1921" and a German television costume drama)--a technique that can be as boring as listening to someone's dream--and, improbably, gets away with both. His novel has texture: characters with families and pasts, meals eaten, the smell of a wounded animal, landscapes in sharp, deep focus. It's not postmodern--irony here is wry disappointment--and it's not in your face.

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