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Book Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Ciaran Brass reviews one of the Weimar Republic's most famous literary works

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Image Credit: Penguin Classics, 2019

Throughout the entirety of Berlin Alexanderplatz, author Alfred Döblin stubbornly reminds us that main character Franz Biberkopf “swore to remain decent” as long as he had money – then the money runs out. Biberkopf spends the first half of the novel attempting to outrun his fate and makes the best of his life as a reformed convict, eking out a meagre existence flogging newspapers, slaughtering animals at an abattoir, and skirting the clutches of radical workers’ movements and organised crime. In the end, the inevitability of his fate perseveres in the form of the villainous Reinhold, and through the cipher of Biberkopf Döblin focuses his novel on a man at the fringes of society, circling the drain of the socially, politically and morally volatile interwar Berlin.

Although such a synopsis of Berlin Alexanderplatz might project an aura of tragedy, Döblin doesn’t labour to portray Biberkopf as a pitiable or even sympathetic character. Hardened by his experiences in the Great War and a subsequent life as a pimp and organised crime affiliate, Biberkopf is sentenced to jail for stabbing a lover to death in a fit of rage. Although he swears to become a respectable man upon his release from prison, one of his first acts as a free man is to force himself on the sister of the girlfriend he murdered, whom he was carrying out an affair with prior to his sentence. In spite of this, Döblin is not particularly interested in interrogating Biberkopf’s behaviour in the same manner as Dostoevsky and his troubled drifters – instead of moral hand-wringing, Biberkopf’s cruelty towards others is reciprocated and even outstripped by other characters we encounter in the gutters of Weimar Berlin, creating a squalid and disturbing portrait of a society in utter decline.

In contrast to the novel’s amoral characters and absence of moral judgement, there is a tangible anxiety over the political state of interwar Germany that pervades Berlin Alexanderplatz. Döblin situates Biberkopf at the swirling intersection of worker’s movements and political campaigners – Weimar Berlin is coming apart at the seams, and communists, anarchists, and national socialists alike jockey for the support of Berlin’s workers. Biberkopf, one of Marx’s lumpenproletariat, scoffs at any sort of organised movement but happily hocks fascist-friendly newspapers. One darkly comic scene sees him nearly come to blows at a beer hall with a persistent anarchist organiser. Döblin published Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, one year before the Communist and Nazi parties made massive gains at the expense of Weimar liberals in Reichstag elections, and four years before Hitler assumed the chancellorship. Döblin, a Jew, would leave Germany a month after Hitler’s ascent to power, and his portrayal of Berlin’s aggrieved and embittered working classes paves a possible explanation for how the Nazi Party used their frustration to consolidate power.

The delicate art of translation is oftentimes an invisible and thankless task when reading world literature, particularly for Anglophones. There are some universally recognised classics, such as the Maudes’ translation of Tolstoy, Steegmuller’s Madame Bovary, and Woods’ work on Thomas Mann’s oeuvre, and if Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t yet merit mentioning in the same breath as those three, he isn’t far off the mark. Berlin Alexanderplatz in particular, a work of high modernism and peppered throughout with heavy Berlin slang, must have represented a unique challenge for Hofmann, but he meets the task with aplomb, imbuing the translation with life and colour. In the novel’s afterword, Hofmann elaborates on his process, contrasting English’s much “speedier rhythm” to German, and approaching the slang in a manner he dubs “regionally unspecific” – the use of Northeast slang such as “tab” and “bairn” testifies to his whirlwind approach. This fascinating insight into the translation trade is a must-read for anyone interested in world literature and the process preceding its availability.

With Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin creates one of the great examples of a city symphony, matching the vivid portraiture of geographical space achieved by Joyce with Dublin or Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Stylistically, Döblin’s work is most similar to the technique developed by American author John Dos Passos in his USA Trilogy, which combines omniscient narration with a pastiche of newspaper clippings, contemporary song lyrics and historical incidents in order to fully submerge the reader into the setting. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, it’s a dizzying and at times overwhelming literary flourish – Döblin takes the point of view of a wisp of smoke escaping from a Berlin beer hall in one section, and the unborn foetus carried by a woman travelling on the city tram in another. Critic Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Crisis of the Novel, was right to praise Döblin’s brash bulldozing of structural and stylistic conventions. Not only does it portray a singular space in time and history, but Döblin’s literary gesamtkunstwerk is “formally, above all.”

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