Berlin Alexanderplatz

My New Year’s reading resolution is (as it is every year) to read some of those longer classics which have so far escaped my limited attention. In 2019 I will be aided (or perhaps tormented) in this endeavour by Boyd Tonkin’s The 100 Best Novels in Translation, having established that I have so far read only 38 of his chosen novels, which in fact number more than one hundred as he has sneakily included two trilogies and a quartet. What better place to start than Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, out of print for over ten years, but recently released in a new translation by Michael Hofmann.

Berlin Alexanderplatz tells the story of Franz Biberkopf:

“…a course, rough man of repulsive appearance, back on the streets of Berlin, a man on whose arm a pretty girl from an engineer’s family once hung, whom he turned into a whore and finally beat up so badly that she died. He swore to all the world and to himself he would remain decent. And as long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money, which was the moment he had been waiting for, to show them all what he was made of.”

The novel begins with Biberkopf’s release from the Tegel prison, where he has served four years for his fatal attack on his girl, Ida. His initial feelings are of dread – “His real punishment was just beginning” – signalling Doblin’s portrayal of Berlin as a place of struggle and uncertainty. (Franz will, in fact, return to the Tegel’s walls more than once when he is troubled as if they represented something solid in his life). Franz’s mood picks up when he visits a cinema:

“Here were lots of people at liberty and enjoying themselves, no one’s telling them what to do, how lovely, and yours truly in the midst of it!”

Though the novel is much more than the landmarks of Berlin via the tour bus of Franz’s consciousness, we are kept aware of his volatile emotions both directly and indirectly as the narrative flickers between the authorial voice and his. Franz’s efforts to go straight are initially successful: soon he has a new girlfriend, Lina, and a job selling newspapers. When he is cheated he takes to drink but not yet to crime, despite his encroaching poverty:

“Franz, it’s two weeks now you’ve been squatting in your wretched attic. Your landlady is about to evict you. You can’t pay your rent and she’s not a landlady for the fun of it. Unless you get a grip on yourself, you’ll end up in the homeless shelter.”

It is through his friendship with Reinhold that he becomes unwillingly caught up in a robbery, asked to act as lookout. As they are making their escape, Reinhold throws him from the car and he is run over by the pursuing vehicle. He survives but loses an arm and has to begin again in his struggle to survive.

Franz is neither hero nor anti-hero; he lacks the wit and charisma to be a decent villain. There is a sad gap between how he sees himself in his more vainglorious moments and the reality. “You have no idea who I am. Who Franz Biberkopf is,” he says, “He is afraid of nothing. I got fists. See my muscles.” But though he threatens revenge on the man who cheats him and, later, on Reinhold, he does not act. Only women ever feel his fists.

The treatment of women in the novel is relentlessly degrading and brutal. Franz resorts to violence whenever he feels slighted or jealous. Meanwhile he will happily live off his girlfriend’s earnings through prostitution. For a while Reinhold passes his girlfriends onto Franz when he tires of them, though even Franz balks at this having a sentimental attachment to his lovers. What is most shocking, however, is the way the women acquiesce. In the novel’s second half, Mitzi is devoted to Franz, even after he beats her, while Eva, who introduced Mitzi to him, is also infatuated, wanting to have his baby while remaining with her own boyfriend. In the earlier scene where Franz visits Ida’s sister on his release he sleeps with her but, though he uses force at first, the suggestion of rape is ambiguous at best:

“…her arms aren’t able to push him away any more, her mouth is helpless. The man doesn’t say anything, she leaves him him him her mouth, she’s softening as in a warm bath, do with me what you please, she dissolves like water, it’s all right, come to me, I know everything, I want you too.”

This, too, adds to the picture of life on the margins as one of compromise and suffering, part of the wider picture Doblin wishes to present of the city. This includes long sections where the central characters do not appear, weather reports, statistics, and extracts which read as if from a scientific handbook, as, for example, describing Franz’s attack on Ida: “…the movement is in proportion to the force exerted, and will continue in the same direction (the force here being Franz, more specifically his arm and implement bearing fist)…”

Berlin Alexanderplatz is an enormous achievement: an unflinching portrait of a man with few redeeming features which still retains something of the reader’s sympathy; a picture of city in all its chaotic life; and a snapshot of a moment in time so vivid it allows itself to be inhabited. It is surely one of the key texts of the twentieth century.

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16 Responses to “Berlin Alexanderplatz”

  1. banff1972 Says:

    Agree–it is a tremendous accomplishment. I suspect for many years it was admired but not thought of as especially formative, but I think maybe we are catching up to Döblin. The generic instability you mention (weather reports, etc) seems less weird today.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    So glad you’ve written about this as it’s given me a much better understanding of what to expect from it. While I really like the setting and concept of this novel, I fear I would find the abuse of women too upsetting right now. A pity, as it sounds like a seminal text.

    Coincidentally, a friend recently gave me a copy of the Boyd Tonkin that she’d found in a charity shop. I think I’ve read 14 of his top 100, so you’re already doing way better than me!

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I’m reading this at the moment (about 60 pages in) and I’m thinking of abandoning it. I’ve persevered with these kinds of modernist collage novels before but I usually wish I’d given up.

    This kind of approach to writing a novel is difficult to do succesfully. It is so easy for it to become just a random series of uninteresting events, which is what I fear BA will become for me.

    • 1streading Says:

      How did you get on? I did find it took me some time to get fully absorbed. I often find with books like this that I’m fine as long as I can read for a while uninterrupted (unusual in my life!) so I read it over the holidays.

      • Jonathan Says:

        I stuck with it and finished yesterday. I liked it more as I continued and the narrative seemed to settle down. I then enjoyed the non-Biberkopf vignettes more as they then made some sense to me. At first the book just seemed to be all over the place but I’m tempted to go back and read some of the earlier chapters to see if they make more sense now.

      • banff1972 Says:

        You might find Nat Leach’s thoughts on the novel (especially the opening sections) interesting:

      • Jonathan Says:

        Thanks for the link. I think I came across your posts on BA when I was thinking of giving up on it. I was looking at some reviews to see whether I should continue or not. I ended up just stumbling on without expecting much but grew to like, though not love, the book.

        When reading it I kept comparing it to Canetti’s Auto da Fé, which is a favourite of mine. It was published a little after BA, is nearly as experimental and also covers the underclass/criminal world.

      • banff1972 Says:

        Thanks for reading the posts! I agree it is more a book to like than love, but as you noted there are some amazing passages.
        I read the Canetti when I was 18–which is to say I forced my eyes across each line… It was totally lost on me. I’m curious to read it again: I think I could make a lot more of it now! Not sure why people don’t talk about it much. Seems like Canetti is due for a revival.

      • Jonathan Says:

        I read Auto da Fé when I was in my twenties and loved it. I re-read it a couple of years ago and wondered if I would like it as much as before—I did; it’s a great book IMO.

      • banff1972 Says:

        Have you ever thought of organizing an internet readalong?

      • Jonathan Says:

        Well, I’m not planning on reading it again so soon after my last read but it might be a good idea for anyone who hasn’t read it.

      • banff1972 Says:

        Fair enough!

  4. Berlin Finale | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] in Berlin during these final days. This is not only done with set-piece descriptions reminiscent of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with chapters set aside which take us into the offices of the Gestapo, or tell the story of a […]

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