The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany


Nobody writes travelogues about Germany. The country spurs many anxious volumes of investigative reporting--books that worry away at the "German problem," World War II, the legacy of the Holocaust, the Wall, reunification, and the connections between them. But not travel books, not the free-ranging and impressionistic works of literary nonfiction we associate with V. S. Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin. What is it about Germany and the travel book that puts them seemingly at odds? With one foot in the library and one on the street, Michael Gorra offers both an answer to this question and his own traveler's tale of Germany.

Gorra uses Goethe's account of his Italian journey as a model for testing the traveler's response to Germany today, and he subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin's Arcades project. He reads post- Wende Berlin through the novels of Theodor Fontane, examines the role of figurative language, and enlists W. G. Sebald as a guide to the place of fragments and digressions in travel writing.

Replete with the flaneur's chance discoveries--and rich in the delights of the enduring and the ephemeral, of architecture and flood-- The Bells in Their Silence offers that rare traveler's tale of Germany while testing the very limits of the travel narrative as a literary form.


Rain again, and wind, the kind of wind that drives the water sideways and makes an umbrella seem useless even when it doesn’t turn the thing inside out. I had known it would rain when I went out for a late-afternoon walk—the skies had already looked theatrical and the forecast had put the odds at fifty-fifty. Here in Hamburg that doesn’t mean it might stay dry, but rather that it will pour one minute out of two. Yet while there’s nothing unexpected about it, I’d still rather wait out the storm inside, and so I splash another hundred yards along and into the city’s Kunsthalle. Shake myself dry, check my coat. and then I climb the stairs to wander through a dozen rooms of old masters, looking at winter scenes by Ruisdael and van Goyen, a Claesz still life, and a Cranach triple-portrait in which you can see the brutish familial resemblance in a clutch of Saxon dukes, all bullet eyes and pinched noses. It’s not my first visit and I stop only at the pictures I already know I like, while trying simultaneously to delay arriving at my favorites for as long as I can. But it’s too much, and in the end I find myself skipping past whole rooms, hurried along by my desire for one painting in particular.

In the foreground, a solitary figure stands on a promontory, looking out over a fog that seems to foam like the ocean itself.

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