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'The Weather in Berlin' by Ward Just

Just's pretty prose doesn't do justice to his subject

Sunday, June 16, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor


The Weather in Berlin

By Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin

If people spoke only half as beautifully as they do in a Ward Just novel, we’d be living in a nation of cultured salons, a civilization of eloquent phrase-makers, a country where President Bush would sound like Winston Churchill.

Just’s characters are perfect talking machines; in fact, even voice-mail messages are composed as carefully as a Henry James moment. Imagine coming home to your phone-answering gizmo, pressing the button and hearing:

“So many different Buddhas. ... And so much to aspire to, charity, compassion, sympathy, balance -- those four and others besides. ... Just about everything a boy could want -- except, conceivably, charity, compassion, sympathy and balance. And those, too, within reach.”

But people don’t talk that way, no matter how intelligent they are. They’re human, after all, a fact that all good fiction writing acknowledges. Just, a veteran and respected novelist -- revered, really, in the old-boy literary club -- knows that.

He’s after bigger game than the human condition, here, however; his target is the retelling of German history in the 20th century.

It’s grand-sized goal but perhaps one better achieved by a well-practiced historian than a journeyman American writer who began his career as a journalist in the Vietnam War era.

When attempting to fictionalize the “grand sweep of history,” people can easily become pawns, tiny figures who mouth the big thoughts of their creator, then stand mute because they have only one dimension.

The major pawn in Just’s game is Dixon Greenwood, a 65-year-old Hollywood director whose career has petered out. When the offer comes to be a fellow at a millionaire’s institute in Berlin, Greenwood leaves Tinseltown and wife Claire, a film actress, to manage on their own.

(She’s the one who leaves the long eloquent voice mails -- and there’s not a screenwriter in sight.)

Many of Just’s other heroes were politicians; now he’s taken on the task of creating an artist, albeit a commercial one, but the result sounds as stagy as a movie studio set.

Greenwood’s life, with its dashing, larger-than-life father who read Fitzgerald as bedtime stories to his son, and the fairy tale of how his first film became a cult classic, seems too pat and mannered.

Just uses his hero as a sounding board for the tales of various Germans, narrators, really, for those key moments in history. The effect costs Greenwood what little personality he had to start with.

When action eventually interrupts Just’s endless conversations, it’s just too coincidental to ring true. To whit, Greenwood is casually given the chance to direct a segment of Germany’s most-popular TV soap opera, “Wannsee 1899,” although he’s apparently never worked in television.

Then, just as production is about to start, a woman who appeared in Greenwood’s cult film, then vanished years ago, miraculously reappears and is immediately cast in a major role. With no acting experience or training in the interim, she performs brilliantly.

Greenwood also directs this piece of German Schlag brilliantly as well, but when he’s finished, he seems as unmoved as ever.

Along with the director’s tale, Just constructs a version of today’s reunited Germany, then scrolls backwards to 1899, operating on the theory that “the modern world” began there. He uses a handful of symbols from an old dying boar in the Prussian woods to a violent street demonstration in Berlin for emphasis.

The result is a serious-minded, frequently lusterless novel dotted here and there with carefully crafted and impressive sentences, the kind that will preserve Just’s reputation.

With that reputation so secure, Just might try a few risks in the future, like creating living, breathing characters with just a bit of humanity.

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