Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Here is a book whose fearsome reputation precedes it – or should I say (spoiler alert) exceeds it? Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monument of modern German literature and, more prominently to me, a byword for fat unreadability. It’s not clear whether this is because of intrinsic qualities in the book itself, or the widely disliked first English translation by Eugene Jolas. The book is a running joke in Ned Beauman’s novel The Teleportation Accident, where the ‘hero’ Egon Loeser has been trying to read it for 30 years:

About a year earlier, he had taken a slow train to Cologne to visit his great aunt, and on the journey he had deliberately brought nothing to read but Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the basis that after six hours either he would have finished the book or the book would have finished him. He lasted one stop before turning to the other man in the carriage and saying, ‘I will give you fifty-seven marks, which is everything I have in my wallet, for that novel you’re reading.’

‘Don’t you care what it is?’

‘Is it by any chance Berlin Alexanderplatz?’ said Loeser.

‘No.’

‘Then I don’t care what it is.’

Six hours was an optimistic estimate by Loeser – it took me over a week to complete it – but otherwise he was unnecessarily gloomy. In this new translation by Michael Hofmann, Berlin Alexanderplatz is not at all difficult and rarely daunting, except in its length.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was originally subtitled The Story of Franz Biberkopf, at the insistence of Döblin’s publisher Samuel Fischer, for whom (writes Hofmann in an excellent afterword) “‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ was the name of a railway stop, not the title of a book.” The subtitle is dropped in this new edition, but if another were to be added, I suggest The City. Just as Melville called his most famous novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, because it sought to reduce the entire concept of the whale to writing (though ‘reduce’ is probably not the word), so Döblin does the same not just for Berlin, but the modern city in general. Berlin Alexanderplatz is Europe’s Moby-Dick, a work of unified force whose story is intercut with advertising slogans, court reports, and all manner of found materials whose inclusion has the intended effect: it makes for a book as busy as the city.

The story of Franz Biberkopf (‘beaverhead’) is simple enough. At the start of the book, it’s the beginning of 1928 and Franz has just been released from prison, and immediately we see Döblin’s casual, reflexive style: “The awful moment was at hand (awful, why so awful, Franz?), his four years were up.” It’s awful because freedom is its own punishment, away from the routine and certainties of prison: now, terrifyingly, Franz is once again responsible for his own fate. He does try to go straight, initially through working in trade, selling laces door to door but with ambitions for more (“why not be the man to introduce garden statuary into small towns?”), but we are high in the Weimar republic, and the economic outlook is not favourable (“one and a half million unemployed, up by 226,000 in a fortnight”). It’s inevitable, then, that Franz finds himself falling in with a gang of crooks (“do I run, do I not run, what do I do”), whose company defines him for the rest of the book, through a car accident with dramatic consequences, to his involvement with a string of women – Lena, Eva, Cilly, Sonia (or is it Mitzi?) – none of whom he treats well, to say the least. But here he has – literally – form, as his prison sentence in the first place was for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Ida, to whose killing we get a flashback, in a depersonalising style that George Saunders might have been inspired by:

It only remains to list the further consequences of the process thus initiated: loss of verticality on the part of Ida, reversion to the horizontal, in the form of colossal impact, at the same time as breathing difficulties, intense pain, shock and psychological loss of balance.

Not that anyone else gets off lightly either. Part of the aim of Berlin Alexanderplatz seems to be to show how a great city can be terrible for so many of the people who live in it. To illustrate this, Döblin’s focus, apart from an ironic expression of concern for the impact that inflation is having on the middle classes, is on the down-at-heel and the down-and-out, the occupants of seedy bars and apartment blocks. The story at times threads through the floors of a building, passes from one consciousness to another, reading correspondence, eavesdropping in a pile-up of chaotic set pieces.

Yes, all human life is here, and not just human, as the glamourless locations include the local slaughterhouse (“courts of justice for the beasts”), which is portrayed in a loving four-page description. If Döblin gives the animals here as much attention as he does his humans elsewhere, it’s only to emphasise that the mass of the people in this economically stratified, still war-wrecked country are no better off than the “dear piggies” on their way to market. The ironic and amused tone Döblin adopts here (“We have come to the end of physiology and theology, this is where physics begins”) is common throughout the book, as he peeks out from behind the curtain – look! I am writing a novel! – and this is never better expressed than in the sub-chapter headings:

Markets opening directionless, gradually drifting lower, Hamburg out of bed the wrong side, London continuing weak

Victory all along the line! Franz Biberkopf buys a veal escalope

Keep your eyes on Karl the plumber: something’s going on with him

Reinhold’s Black Wednesday – but this section can be skipped

All in all, Hofmann’s casual style suits the looseness of the narrative (“the book contains a great deal that is simply there for its own sake” he writes in the afterword) pretty well. One of the difficulties for the translator of Berlin Alexanderplatz is the supposedly untranslatable idiomatic language of working-class Berlin, for which Hofmann says he has chosen what fellow German translator Anthea Bell calls “the regional unspecific,” though to me it seemed more directed than that, usually toward British speech (bunch a flars, nothink, facking, even leave it aht), though I suppose if you’re going to settle on a vernacular rendering, European English makes more sense than American. (In the second English translation, by Anne Thompson, northern English dialect was used.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz was a bestseller in its time, so much so that Döblin regretted the shadow it cast over his other work, but for years has been only patchily available in English. This Penguin Classics edition (the same translation is being released in the US by NYRB Classics) is part of a new look reserved for, I think, first publications and significant new translations, presumably to be followed in due course with a standard black Classics or Modern Classics paperback. The covers are colour-coded to indicate the original language, as with the Pocket Penguins series (olive here for German). The rough card covers and spartan design seem to communicate seriousness and significance, like a brown road sign that directs drivers to a destination that’s good for you. That gives it more the daunting quality of black Penguin Classics than the approachable coolness (to me, anyway) of Penguin Modern Classics. Probably either look would be suitable, for a book that is at heart both seriously significant and a great deal of fun.

8 comments

  1. I love “keep your eyes on Karl the plumber” but could see farking might irritate me. Thanks for writing about this!! Have always meant to read it x

  2. I was just looking at my own review of the Eugene Jolas translation (https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/berlin-alexanderplatz-by-alfred-doblin/), where I said in the comments “We need to somehow convince Michael Hofmann to do a new one.” I was rather taken by it – the use of contemporary film techniques in novel form, the Dos Passosy bits, that incredible sequence in the abattoir (which I see you refer to above too), and all the patter and life and sprawl of it.

    Hofmann is quite right though isn’t he that there’s a lot that’s here for its own sake.

    The slang issue is genuinely tricky. In my review of the Jolas I mentioned him using phrases like “on the q.t.” and “cheese it” which read pretty oddly in a 1920s German mouth, but they get the concept over ok. I’m not sure “bunch a flars, nothink, facking, even leave it aht” are actually any better (particularly “leave it aht”). But then, how do you translate highly specific regional period slang?

    The Anne Thompson review seems to have been a bit brushed aside. Even before this not many seemed to know about it, and I think it’s only available on Kindle (which isn’t ideal given this book’s use of logos and suchlike at certain points). Have you seen it? I have a suspicion it might actually be quite interesting.

    Anyway, lovely to see a review of this from you. It’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to getting this year.

    1. Thanks Max. Your Dos Passos comparison is interesting – I haven’t read him so didn’t make the connection. I’d read that the Jolas translation uses US gangster slang, which sounds about right from your examples. I suppose the point is that if you’re going to translate idiomatic regional dialect, you have to pick a horse and ride it. Hofmann says he has been nonspecific but I don’t really see that. Curiously, I remember objecting to his use of British English in Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. The Anne Thompson translation was also in a Penguin Modern Classics edition I think (judging by this, anyway) but yes, is now out of print other than on Kindle.

      1. His Manhattan Transfer is excellent. That said, I’m just suggesting a parallel, I’ve no reason to believe there’s any chain of influence.

        I think the US gangster slang actually mostly works ok. It does jar a bit, but then I’m not American so it would, but Doblin is depicting a gangster milieu. I don’t actually see how one can be nonspecific. Underworld slang is by its nature specific, and anyway I agree that the examples here seem fairly specific themselves.

        Anne Thompson’s translation feels to me like it’s been a bit unlucky – not only out of print save on Kindle but also it doesn’t seem to have been widely reviewed. Hofmann’s a bit of a star translator so his will I suspect be seen as definitive, but the Thompson one does sound interesting to me and the treatment of slang possibly better.

        If it were shorter I’d read both, but it took me a fair while to read the Jolas and while I can see myself reading one other translation reading two more would be pretty dedicated. I’ve read multiple translations of Eugene/Yevgeny Onegin, but it’s not something I do habitually.

  3. so happy to see this review here as this is *exactly* the book i am hoping to read next. being a Hofmann fan, your discussion of the breadth of BA reminded me of several Hans Fallada novels (is release from jail a Weimar trope?), and i’m curious to see how they compare/contrast. in other matters, i am torn between supporting NYRB and the better cover presented by Penguin. i fear the power of the cover . . .

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