Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Doblin’

Berlin Alexanderplatz

January 1, 2019

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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