My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let’s get the literary-historical info and honorifics out of the way first: Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the monuments of the modernist novel, often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses (“quite wrongly and needlessly,” says the present translator, about which more later) for its linguistic and cultural variety show meant to present the modern city in toto. In this case, that city is Weimar Berlin on the eve of destruction, which lends the novel, laden as it already is with a sense of fatedness and doom borrowed from the Bible and Greek myth and medieval lore, a special poignance, as of a photo over which you sigh, “This is the last picture we have of him before the accident.”
Its author, Alfred Döblin, was a middle-aged writer, a psychiatrist by training, Jewish by heritage, a mover in artistically and politically radical circles. These facts inform the novel: its clinical or case-history approach to its protagonist, the street-level slang of its narrative voice, its delirious news-of-the-day, lives-of-the-city montages, and its overall mood—seedy, seen-it-all cynicism masking the earnest wish for a better world.
I can recount the plot—I’ll do it shortly—but perhaps more important than the plot, because more mysterious, is the narrator or narrative mode. Each chapter begins with a little summary (“You will see the man turn to drink and lose himself”), as does the novel as a whole, and the chapters’ subdivisions have headings that seem to mock the goings-on (“Lina takes it to the queers,” “The duel begins! It continues rainy,” “Battle is joined. We ride into hell with a great fanfare”).
We have a narrator who does seem to be distinct personality, one who moralizes over the action, who grows didactic, who often explains the novel’s point to us with a Dickensian fervor; yet this narrator also speaks in the argot of its protagonist and his class and context, Berlin’s criminal element and lumpenproletariat. If Joyce is somewhat misleadingly known as the stream-of-consciousness man, narrating from within the welter of his characters’ consciousnesses, then Döblin is certainly very different: he addresses his hero in the second person (“You swore, Franz Biberkopf, that you would keep to the straight and narrow”) rather than burying himself behind his eyes or “I,” and he splices into his narrative the news of the day, medical information, recountings of myth, popular songs, political speeches—all the news that’s fit to print, and some that isn’t.
While these techniques are not actually un-Joycean—Joyce did more than stream-of-consciousness, and Ulysses has some Döblinesque passages: in “Aeolus,” “Wandering Rocks,” the end of “Oxen of the Sun,” “Eumaeus”—I found Berlin Alexanderplatz reminiscent of certain later rather than contemporaneous novels: Naked Lunch, Gravity’s Rainbow, even Neuromancer and Trainspotting. It made me wonder how far the 1931 translation by friend-of-Joyce Eugene Jolas had traveled into the Anglosphere. This anticipatory quality must be what the present translator, Michael Hofmann, has in mind when he writes in his afterword that, “The literary name and fame of the city of Berlin, if not the idea of modern city literature altogether, are founded on the novel in your hands.”
Naïvely, I thought “modern city literature” was founded by Dickens, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Woolf. But what if the consciousness streaming in Döblin’s novel is that of the city itself rather than any one character, a sentient urban aggregate or an articulate and self-conscious street argot rather than any individual flâneur? In that case, Döblin inaugurates the great 20th-century dismissal of Romantic and realist aesthetics, with their doting regard for the sole self and psyche, in favor of a literature that explicates or enshrines systems and discourses.
But we do have a main character, a hero, and even a somewhat traditional hero’s journey: from innocence to experience: “So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9,” we read at the conclusion; the novel’s proem or “argument” proposes at the beginning:
The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose. A radical cure has been performed on Franz Biberkopf. […] To see and hear this will be worthwhile for many readers who, like Biberkopf, fill out a human skin, but, again, like Franz Biberkopf, happen to want more from life than a crust of bread. (Döblin’s italics)
Note the absurdist comedy even in this moralizing passage, with its implication that some readers do not “fill out a human skin.” Even so, Döblin has a message to the world about the necessity of wanting “more from life” than to subsist and consume.
Franz Biberkopf, who had fought in the Great War, did four years in Tegel prison because he murdered Ida, his girlfriend (and employee: Franz is a pimp), in a fit of jealous rage. When he gets out of jail in the novel’s opening chapter, he is so disoriented and overwhelmed by the frenzy and chaos of the modern city that he collapses and has to be restored to his senses by a pair of solicitous storytelling Jews who are the moral compass of the novel’s first quarter. This opening episode, a kind of prose-poem about urban shock and the kindness of eccentric outsiders, might almost stand on its own as modernist milestone.
Following his release, Franz vows to go straight, but he slowly gets entangled in dangerous complications. First, politics: though Franz himself is fairly apolitical, he becomes a seller for a far-right paper and falls into confrontation with the leftists who frequent the bars and target him for his fascist armband. Then he falls in with Reinhold, with “his long, bony, yellowish face”: “He felt powerfully drawn to him. […] Franz couldn’t take his eyes off him.” The strangely frightening and brutal Reinhold is the novel’s villain; while Franz isn’t a good man, Reinhold is a worse. This is a staple of crime fiction, sanitized for kiddies in the Batman/Joker pas de deux: the hero may be unsound or a reprobate, but the villain’s a psychopath. For all that, though, Franz and Reinhold are magnetized to each other.
Reinhold draws Franz back into a life of crime, first to “a booming trade in girls,” after Franz keeps taking in Reinhold’s cast-off girlfriends, and then to robbery with the Pums gang. First Franz loses his arm to Reinhold’s perfidy, and then he takes up with his old friends from his pre-prison days and goes back to pimping. But when he meets the innocent Mitzi and gets her involved with Reinhold, all manner of murder and madness ensue until the novel’s conclusion, in which a delirious Franz meets Death in the insane asylum and is reformed at last, not in the sense that he becomes a productive member of society—though he does—but because he stops living his life as if unconscious, unalive to the roiling human chaos all around him that Dr. Döblin has for 400 pages been at such pains to anatomize. Sounding like a Berlin tough, sounding significantly like the very voice of the novel, Death tells him:
‘You lost the war, sunshine. It’s all up with you. You can pack up. Put yourself in mothballs. I’ve had it with you. You can squawk and wail all you want. What a wretch. Got given a standard-issue heart and head and eyes and ears, and thinks it’s enough if he’s decent, or what he calls decent, and sees nothing and hears nothing and lives in the day and doesn’t notice a thing, try as I may. […] You weren’t born, man. You were never alive. You’re an abortion with delusions. […] The world needs different people than you, more alert, less impudent, capable of understanding how things work, not pure sugar, but sugar and shit mixed together.’
Insofar as death is exhorting us as well as Franz, what should we have been noticing over the course of the novel about “how things work”?
Berlin Alexanderplatz is morally but not politically didactic. At a political meeting, Franz even berates a representative of the official left. If Lukács in the 1920s hailed “the viewpoint of the proletariat,” Döblin gives magnificently cynical voice to “the viewpoint of the lumpenproletariat” (scorned as such by his leftist interlocutor: “He’s no comrade, and he’s no colleague neither. Because he doesn’t work. Doesn’t seem like he goes on the dole either”):
‘And I shit on your moaning and your strikes and your little people who are supposed to be organized. Self-reliance. I see to what I need. I’m self-sufficient. Amen.’
And Franz laughs and laughs. No higher being will come to our rescue, no god or emperor, no tribune to relieve us of our misery, we can only do it ourselves.
Yet this is a novel beloved by Brecht and Benjamin. It is a novel wherein a minor character laments, “It’s because we were betrayed, Franz, in 1918 and 1919, by the politicians, they killed Rosa and they killed Karl. We shoulda stuck together and made common cause.” And it is a novel wherein Franz’s faith in self-reliance is also subjected to Death’s “radical cure”:
Much misfortune comes of walking alone. If there are several of you, that is already better. You have to get used to listening to other people, because what others say concerns me. Then I see who I am and what I can take on. […] What is destiny? One thing is stronger than me. If there are two of us, it’s difficult to be stronger than me. If we are ten, still harder. And if we are a thousand and a million, then it’s very difficult.
Solidarity’s rebuke to destiny explains Döblin’s evocation of myth throughout the novel. If the Anglophone “mythic method” (as theorized by Eliot if not exactly as practiced by Joyce) contrasted archaic repletion with modern degradation, Döblin’s Berlin version works in reverse: modernity gives an advantage to Franz that Job and Orestes lacked. Humanity’s struggle with death is a historical constant, but Franz, offered (literal) asylum by his psychiatrist author, comes alive out of his danse macabre, allowed as it is to play out in inner space, despite the several murders already committed for lack of enlightenment.
Sexual science, that hallmark of Weimar modernism, may also aid beleaguered humanity. Within the first chapter we hear of “Drs. Magnus Hirschfeld and Bernhard Schapiro of the Institute for Sexual Science, Berlin.” What is this novel’s “booming trade in women,” and also its brutality toward them, all about? Anticipating later sexual science, Döblin suggests it’s about men using women to mediate their relations to other men, whom they actually desire. When an old man “urges [Franz] to get into sexual enlightenment” early in the novel (“That’s a booming industry right now”), Franz is thrown into a “great confusion,” “free to think about queers”—a motif most delicately picked up by his later fatal attraction to Reinhold. The novel does not flinch before sexual violence, and while it dubiously seems to expect us to see Franz’s abuse as hapless and Reinhold’s as heinous, Franz is not let off the hook either: “Mitzi has been murdered, no one lifted a finger for her, that’s what’s happened here.”
Not to say that the novel’s feminism is as foundational as its socialism. Döblin’s mythic personae include the Whore of Babylon, pictured as Death’s enemy. Death may redeem by reminding us to live better, but the Whore of Babylon is death-in-life, sin and sickness, and this in a novel where all the trouble is caused not by whores but by their vicious, violent masters. Why not, then, the Pimp of Babylon?
Even without that bit of masculine confusion, though, it is hard to imagine this novel being acceptable today, when the left-liberal literati has adopted the attitude toward art and society once exhibited by Satanic-panic-era suburban school-board members. Döblin gives us a mass of often disturbing material, and while he moralizes over some of it, he leaves us to make up our mind about the rest, an artistic practice now considered dangerously misleading, even, as we now say, “harmful”: the reader might get the wrong idea or be seduced by the allure of depicted anti-social behavior. Irony? Not to be risked: what if the children don’t get the joke? As Hofmann, also the translator of right-wing modernist poet Gottfried Benn, has commented:
Americans are apt to think of books as potential contaminants anyway. “My God, I’m not reading a Fascist here, am I?” A little bit the same with Pound, who was much worse [than Benn]. Of course you have it with all of the modernists: Eliot, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Joyce. But you have to read them. You have to read worse people than that. You have to read Céline. Worse people than that—I can’t think who at the moment. You can’t be bien-pensant and care about literature.
But Döblin’s own fate under fascism is worth considering here: driven into exile, his works proscribed as degenerate art. Even a novel like this, one that aims so plainly at its hero’s regeneration and our own.
About the translation: Berlin Alexanderplatz is said to be untranslatable, due to the localism of its style. How to render Berlin’s underclass sociolect into an English we can read? Hofmann largely opts for its London counterpart (yer man Franz snogs a load of bints, innit?) and does it persuasively to my Yank ear; but Hofmann is a more controversial translator-critic than that one choice would suggest. He has asserted that the translator is a writer, a literary consciousness, a poetic chooser of words, a maker, rather than a transparent medium:
I want a translation to provide an experience, and I want, as a translator, to make a difference. I concede that both aims may be felt to be somewhat unusual, even inadmissible. I can see that the idea of me as writer leans into, or even blurs, the idea of me as translator (after all, I don’t need someone else’s book to break my silence: I am, if you like, a ventriloquist’s ventriloquist). Translating a book is for me an alternative to or an extension (a multiplier!) of writing an essay or poem.
Like a lot of ideas that strike one as dangerous, it’s only dangerous as generally applied. You certainly wouldn’t want just anyone to think like this. And as a reader of Hofmann’s essays but not of the German language, I can say that Döblin indeed sounds like Hofmann. Luckily enough for all three of us, Hofmann’s contagious style of paradoxically jaded exuberance, its love of lexical ingenuity and its abruptness of syntax, sounds like just the thing to convey the noise, as well as the signal, of urban modernism.
The back cover of the NYRB Classics edition calls Berlin Alexanderplatz “one of the great books of the twentieth century.” I’m not sure I would have come to that judgment on my own, and maybe one does have to read it in German (though you don’t have to read The Magic Mountain in German to know it’s great). Franz is too much the everyman, the empty vessel to be filled with meaning, to carry a truly great novel, and his co-stars, even Reinhold, likewise lack the substance that a Mann (or Joyce) would confer. Such might be the price of writing a novel affirming solidarity over individuality, stressing systems over psyches.
On the other hand, maybe my idea of greatness is too bourgeois. Maybe it’s a good thing to read books that challenge and abrade, whose aesthetics and morals aren’t my own. Maybe we should consider that we have the sugar and the shit all out of proportion.