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.


‘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.

Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace

A few years ago, I had a discussion with someone who said they never re-read books. This seemed to me a wild claim. Re-reading is, to me, an essential component of reading: I might even say that the first reading of a book is only ever a provisional act, a test to determine whether it is fit to be retained for a future revisit, when I’ll take my time over it and give it the reading it deserves. In practice, because I am fully engaged in this first-level sifting, the re-reading almost never happens, an effect enhanced by the usual drains on reading time (see blog posts passim).


Re-reading might be done for comfort reasons: I know people who read an old favourite each year, particularly favourites from adolescence or early adulthood. For me I’m more likely to re-read if, despite having read the book before, perhaps multiple times, it’s one that I’ve never got to the bottom of. Examples – books I’ve read at least three times each – would include Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, with its classic Wintersonian ‘spiral’ narrative, and Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, with its impeccable narrative mysteries.

This month I read another book for a third time. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan 1993) was previously published by Peter Owen, one of the first and finest internationalist independent publishers in the UK, which I wrote about here. Now, in a raid on deal for its backlist, Penguin has reissued some Peter Owen titles in its Modern Classics range. (That, of course, is another common trigger for me to re-read a book: Penguin has given it a handsome new look.) That cover image, by the way – a perfect complement both to the book and to Penguin’s new eau de nil look for its Modern Classics – is by Taiwanese artist Hsiao-Ron Cheng.

The Ice Palace is about two young women – children, in fact, at 11 years old, though this is easily forgotten – who have a strange connection and who are brought together, and separated, by a mysterious crystalline ice structure in the Norwegian fjords. There is no sentimentality or neat resolution, no happy ending: it is the anti-Frozen. A close comparison might be made with Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, which shares with The Ice Palace its brevity, a sense of inchoate threat, and a fairytale atmosphere, though The Ice Palace remains much more uncompromising and bold. The two girls are Siss and Unn, opposing monosyllables, who have come to know one another in school, and at the beginning of the book are going to spend the afternoon together for the first time. Siss, in whose head we remain for most of the book, feels both excitement and fear, is “quivering with expectancy.” There’s an uncomfortable, nascent sexual feel to their history of becoming aware of one another at school. “They were both playing some game of enticement.” Siss, aware of Unn’s eyes on her in class, feels “a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it.”

When Siss reaches Unn’s house the atmosphere is turned up to eleven, and the scene where they sit together in Unn’s bedroom is so highly charged that the pages crackle. Everything is suggested and implied, but nothing stated, even in their elliptical dialogue. (“There’s something I want to tell you. I’ve never said it to anyone.” “Would you have said it to your mother?” “No.” “Will you say it now?” “No.”) Eventually the evening, the encounter, ends, Siss runs home and the girls are separated. We are still less than 30 pages into the book but already I feel constrained from discussing more of the plot – even in re-reading, there are many surprises and turns here that it would be unfair to disclose.

There is one chapter from Unn’s point of view, which is central to the book. Partly this is because it introduces us to the ice palace of the title, with a heady line in singing, ringing prose:

From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

But it is also key because it’s so hard to tell the difference between this chapter, featuring Unn, and the previous ones featuring Siss. The two are represented like two halves of one body, with all the questions that arise from that: how do they depend on one another? What happens if they are separated?

What follows Unn’s visit to the ice palace is a narrative that in some ways is traditional – a mystery, a quest, suspense – but doesn’t follow any pattern we are familiar with. There is plenty about the close-knit community of village life in Norway, with all the balance of support and oppression that that implies, and one of the beauties of the book is the rural warmth even in chapter titles – “Snow covered bridges”, “woodwind players” – which provide a haiku-ish quality (“like the water drop and the twig”) and a reassuring warmth amid a coolly threatening story. There is real force in the sober beauty of lines like these, when Unn’s aunt and Siss say goodbye for the last time:

They were floating, almost at one with the darkness, reflecting no light. Their footsteps could not be heard. But their breathing could, and perhaps the heart. They mingled with other almost nocturnal stirrings, like a small vibration in long wires.

The language in The Ice Palace is perfectly clear, but it resists straightforward interpretation. I’ll resist the obvious iceberg comparisons, but the style is ice-like in being simultaneously translucent and opaque. Sadly there is no introduction or other supplementary material in this new edition, which is exactly what a troubling text like this needs. We can turn, though, to Doris Lessing’s review when the book was first published in English, which is valuable particularly for its discussion of the community in which Versaas lived his whole life, and how the book must be seen in this context. Robert Macfarlane is a fan too (“it dazzled me with its discretion, precision and angular icy beauties” – typically summing the book up better in half a dozen words more effectively than I can in a thousand), as is Max Porter, who is “surprised it isn’t the most famous book in the world.” Well, I can see why it’s not, but it would be nice if this reissue gives more deserved attention to this entirely mysterious, entirely satisfying story.

Eighteen to the dozen: my books of 2017

This year, the tenth anniversary year of my blog, which I celebrated by not adding any new content to it, I nonetheless kept a note of books I read that thrilled or tickled or astonished me. And here it is, with links to added commentary on Twitter where applicable (which usually follows in a thread from the first tweet I’ve linked to).

Trends are: (1) brevity continues to win the day; (2) most of these books are, in style if not in subject matter, straightforward to read—they slip down easily; and (3) there is more non-fiction than in previous years. All three features point in the same direction: an ever-increasing scarcity of time and attention as the twin calls of career and parenthood crowd out quiet time. The first two speak for themselves, and for the third, I think non-fiction generally accepts a different, more attenuated, form of attention than fiction, or at least the kinds of fiction and non-fiction I read do.

I haven’t attempted to cut this list down, in order to make up for the lack of recommendations on my blog for the rest of this year. But nor have I softened my gaze (as if!): all of the books here delighted me and are recommended, for the reasons given. The list is alphabetical by the author’s last name.


Giorgio Bassani: The Heron
For the last few years, Penguin has been putting out new translations, by Jamie McKendrick, of Giorgio Bassani’s series of romanzo di FerraraI’ve enjoyed those I’ve read enough that I decided not to wait for the final volume, The Heron, due next year, but to buy the existing edition in the Quartet Encounters series. (A reliable imprint in itself.) This one is translated by William Weaver, whose work I first came to more than 20 years ago via his translations of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. I’ll be interested to see whether McKendrick can live up to Weaver’s smooth, engaging version. The Heron, in subject, is quite unlike the other Ferrara books: it is a very gloomy account of a middle-aged man who leaves his family early one morning to go hunting. In a sense, it is an apt farewell to the novel for Bassani, who lived another 30-odd years after its publication in 1968, and in that time wrote a few short pieces and made revisions to his earlier work, but published nothing new of substance.

Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
It took a long-haul flight to get me to knuckle down to this 500-page classic, which turns out to be as good as its longevity would suggest. It even managed to win me over despite digressing into a character’s backstory for most of its length, a technique I normally hate. Like many classics, it’s both surprising and reassuring. Brief Twitter thoughts, and affirmations from fellow admirers, here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: We Were Eight Years in Power – An American Tragedy
Having been aware of Coates through praise of his books Between the World and Me and The Beautiful Struggle, I read an article by him this year in The Atlantic, ‘The First White President’, and knew I needed to read his new book as soon as it came out. As it happens, that article is the final piece in We Were Eight Years in Power, which collects Coates’s essays about American politics through the context of race, one for each year of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is a fascinating book partly because Coates writes so seductively, partly because you can see his confidence grow with each year (and the confidence The Atlantic‘s editors have in him, as his word count swells), and partly because he is so relentlessly pessimistic about the institutional embedding of racism in American society. I tweeted about it, and from it, regularly while reading.


Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays
The only Didion I’ve read, years ago, is The Year of Magical Thinking, but recently people were recommending her novels on Twitter and I thought I’d start with the first, published in 1970. I read most of it in an airport while awaiting a delayed flight, which seems apt for its air of suffocation and stasis. Above all else, it’s only now clear to me who Bret Easton Ellis was ripping off inspired by particularly in his early fiction. By that I mean that this is a satirical story of deadened wealthy people, very dry and funny and fairly horrifying too. One early Penguin edition described it as “the truth about women as objects.” Twitter thoughts here.

Paul Fournel: Antequil, Alone
I pre-ordered this book after seeing someone (who turned out to be the publisher) praising it on Twitter, then forgot all about it until it arrived. It was a lovely surprise: an elliptical biography, translated by Nick Caistor, of one of the world’s greatest cyclists, not that I’d heard of him before. Perhaps that is the best sort of biography to read, unencumbered by foreknowledge. The extracts I’ve posted on Twitter will tell you whether or not it’s for you, but I was interested to note after I finished it that I have another book by Fournel on my shelves: his playful novella Dear Reader, which I really must get around to now, and realising that he is a writer of the Oulipo school made his particulate approach to Jacques Anquetil’s life make more sense.

Martin Gayford: Man with a Blue Scarf
Another example of the pleasure in a book that’s about something you know nothing of. Here it’s not just Lucian Freud, the ostensible subject of the book, but art generally. This of course means that those who do have a little knowledge may not find it as satisfying. But this account, by an art critic and friend of Freud’s, of sitting for a portrait over a period of months, is fascinating, and one of the very best books I read this year, as I hope my extracts in tweets show.


Chrissie Gittins: Between Here and Knitwear
It was a sad day for all of us who like buying books and eventually, sometimes, reading them when Nicholas Lezard’s Paperback of the Week column in the Guardian ended in June after 25 years. But he did offer this recommendation on Twitter earlier in the year, saying that if he had read the book at the time it was published (2015), he would have included it in his column. He would have been right to: this is a sort of life story in short pieces from childhood to maturity. It has a very light touch but is frequently funny and sometimes very moving, particularly in the later sections. I can’t find any Twitter thoughts on this one, which is odd, but it’s a book that stayed with me throughout the year.

Sarah Hall: Madame Zero
I read, or started, Hall’s most recent novel The Wolf Border a few years ago, but didn’t get far. It made me wonder what all the fuss was about. Now I know: it’s in the stories, which are strong and original. This collection starts and ends with two somehow similar and equally brilliant stories of physicality – carnality, even – ‘Mrs Fox’ and ‘Evie’. Little wonder that ‘Mrs Fox’ won the BBC National Short Story Award (you can read it here) and ‘Evie’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (you can read it here; non-subscribers can register and read it for free). The remaining stories are good but inevitably don’t quite match those powerful bookends. Nonetheless this collection was a revelation to me.

Hiromi Kawakami: Record of a Night Too Brief
This year Pushkin Press issued a series of books of short Japanese fiction. This was the first of the four I read and my firm favourite. It consists of three stories, translated by Lucy North, all of them odd, surreal even, but budding with comedy and poignancy. In particular the story ‘A Snake Stepped On’ is sinister, moving and surprising – and entirely sui generis. If you liked Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and who didn’t!), try this one. I was pleased to get some context from the translator on Twitter, who told me that “in Japanese medieval Buddhist literature, snakes, women and desire often feature as a sort of set. Fear of sexual desire projected onto women’s bodies…” You can read my thoughts on the book upthread of that link.


Yiyun Li: Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life
I haven’t read much of Yiyun Li’s fiction, and she hasn’t produced much recently. This memoir helps explain her silence: it reports on her experience of catastrophic, suicidal depression. It is brave and bleak, but also full of life as she finds a way forward in part with reference to the writers she has loved, from Katherine Mansfield (who provides the book’s title) to John McGahern and most of all William Trevor. When I read this book, at the tail end of last year (it’s in this year’s list because it was published in 2017), Trevor had just died and I felt more than a twinge of empathy for how his death must have affected Li. As well as being an emotional wringer, like all good books about writers, this one leaves the reader with many more books on the TBR pile. I tweeted some extracts from it.

Mike McCormack: Solar Bones
I was a bit late to this novel, which was general all over Ireland last year and won the Goldsmiths Prize, but it was worth the wait. I’d only read a few of McCormack’s stories before (including one about a man being investigated by the police as he is the only person in Ireland not to have written a memoir) but this shows beyond doubt that the acclaim is justified. The conceit, of it being written in one long sentence, is neither as tiresome nor as false as it sounds. It is still in paragraphs, but the lack of punctuation drives McCormack to build a rhythm into the structure of the sections and their links that is very seductive. The book builds to a brilliant ending, too. Tweets here.

Ross Raisin: A Natural
I liked Raisin’s debut novel God’s Own Country, and didn’t get on at all with his second, Waterline. I approached his third therefore with some trepidation, but fears fled very quickly. This was the best new novel I read this year. This time there is no obvious ventriloquism in the voice, which instead offered a low-key, unhurried telling of the story of a lower-league footballer. For those who were let down by people who said Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was the book that even football agnostics could like, this is the one for you. Aside from the emotional heft, Raisin’s sinuous sentences take the reader in constantly surprising directions. It’s a cliche to put it like this, but: why wasn’t this book all over the prize shortlists? My tweets are here.


Claudia Rankine: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
After the great acclaim for Rankine’s Citizen a couple of years ago, Penguin reissued her earlier book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which takes the same form of political poetry, often on race in America. Although it came out in 2004, it feels decades older: back then, Bush and Iraq were the greatest political issues for US liberals, with no sign of either Obama or Trump. In that sense it feels at times quaint, though that is largely a reflection of our own love of feeling that we live in the worst of all possible times, and that everyone else had it easier. I will pass over my literary ignorance as to why the book is classified as poetry at all when it is almost exclusively written in prose, and simply recommend it for its eye-opening force and elegance of form. Not much more said in my tweets but here they are.

Gwendoline Riley: First Love
I’d been meaning to read Riley for ages – slim novels about miserable people? Sounds like just my bag – but it wasn’t until her new novel was published that I did. It’s a first person account of a woman’s relationship with her lover and her mother, and has some brilliantly horrible dialogue. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and Goldsmiths Prize this year and seems to have been so ubiquitous in recommendations that I had to check just now that it really did come out only in 2017. I liked it enough, in fact, that I read it twice (it is very short). My only worry now is that those who were in the ground floor with her have assured me that First Love is her best book, so now I don’t know if I should bother to try her others. Tweets here.

Katie Roiphe: The Violet Hour
This was another Nicholas Lezard recommendation, an account of the deaths of six writers: Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter (though Salter is not much more than a postscript). Perhaps in keeping with my inability to concentrate on anything very long these days, the short, piecemeal approach to biography – a short period covered, a concentration of time and subject – works very well and I finished the book feeling overwhelmed in curious ways. For some reason I can’t find any tweets about it (probably down to my habit of starting a book-thread with an image of the cover and no mention of the author or title), but here is Lezard’s review than inspired me to read it.


Stav Sherez: The Intrusions
I don’t read much crime fiction, largely through ignorance which leads to an inability to find the sort of thing I might like (Highsmith, Price, Harris, that sort of thing). But I was sent this novel by the publisher and it was, I think, the first book I read in 2017 and it remains one of the ones I enjoyed most. Sherez is a recommended presence on Twitter, who is a great reader and proponent of interesting fiction, and now I see that he’s a very good writer too. This is the third in a series of crime novels, but I am living evidence that you don’t need to have read the others. It’s bang up to date about social media trolling and other issues, and entirely gripping.

Sjón: Moonstone
I loved Sjón’s novel From the Mouth of a Whale several years ago, but didn’t read more of him until now. In honesty, this story of a boy growing up, cinema, homosexuality and more, was not one I felt deep love for throughout – but it is one of those rare books that goes up into a new register in the last couple of pages, and by that I was very moved and impressed. In any event it’s short and it won’t take you long to get to those final pages…

Denton Welch: A Voice Through a Cloud
Another author I’ve been meaning to read for years – for seven years, in fact, since he was mentioned here in conjunction with Jocelyn Brooke. Finally this year I did, and wasn’t disappointed. Welch’s unfinished novel, an account of a period in hospital recovering from a serious cycling accident, is simple, vivid, painful and beautiful. His early death, at the age of 33, was a huge loss. Immediately I read this, I went and bought his collected short prose. He deserves to be republished with a bit of love. A few tweets here, which remind me that in fact I had read him before, though just last year, and one short story’s worth.

Catching Up

I’ve been remiss this year in posting links to my reviews published elsewhere, so here’s a recap of the year to date.


Anakana Schofield: Martin John
Click here for my Guardian review of this funny, stark, circular novel which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada and the Goldsmiths Prize in the UK.

Carlo Gébler: The Projectionist
Click here for my Times Literary Supplement review of a memoir, by his son, of a writer who once sold millions of novels but is now remembered, if at all, only as Edna O’Brien’s former husband.

Toby Vieira: Marlow’s Landing
Click here for my Guardian review of a debut novel that comes with a seductive voice fully formed, and a clutch of pink diamonds.

Stanley van der Ziel: John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition
Click here for my Times Literary Supplement review of a very thorough study of the works of John McGahern.

The Happy Reader
I’ve written a piece for the latest issue (no. 8) of The Happy Reader, Penguin’s bookish quarterly. Each issue features a long interview with a reader (this time Kristin Scott Thomas) and a series of pieces inspired by that issue’s book, which this time is Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. I’ve written a piece about exclamation marks in book titles… You can’t read it online, but the magazine is a lovely thing and very cheap to subscribe to.