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.
‘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.
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.