Endstation: Berlin Alexanderplatz

My original list of reads for German Literature Month was a fairly random selection, made up of books I had lying about and a few classics that had been downloaded to my Kindle.  However, as I began reading and reviewing my selection, I noticed a couple of themes which each ran through several books.

The first was the origins of the German nation and the rise of the Prussian state, as you can see in my reviews on Goethe, Heine, Wolf and Fontane.  The other, tangentially-linked, topic was the city of Berlin, German capital and the heartland of Prussia and its bureaucracy.  As well as Fontane’s portrayal of late-nineteenth-century Berlin, we were also treated to Cees Nooteboom’s description of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Birgit Vanderbeke’s flight from the grey capital and Judith Hermann’s stories of the young and carefree living it up in a newly prominent city.

So, having noticed the patterns which emerged from the month, I decided to change my plans a little.  Apologies to Alois Hotschnig, and his novel Leonardos Hände, but I had another book on my shelves, one I’d been meaning to get to for quite a while, and a novel which would cap off my reading for the month quite nicely.  You see, when it comes to books about Berlin in German, there’s one which you just can’t avoid…

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a book which regularly appears in the top-ten lists of German novels and has also been known to occupy the top spot on those lists.  The story begins in late 1927, when Franz Biberkopf, the hero of the tale, is released from prison and heads off to Berlin to start a new life.  The reader suspects that this may be a tall order, but just in case we have any doubt, the writer immediately informs us that after four years in prison:

“Die Strafe beginnt.”  p.15 (dtv, 2011)

For Franz, the real punishment for his crime (which we later find out is the manslaughter of his girlfriend) really is just beginning…

Initially, Franz persists in his plan to go straight, taking on a number of menial jobs, and he manages to get by, finding many friends (and women) to help him with his return to society.  However, there is always a feeling that this is destined to be short lived.  One of the men in his local pub says:

“Man soll sich nicht dicke tun mit seinem Schicksal.  Ich bin Gegner des Fatums.  Ich bin kein Grieche, ich bin Berliner.” p.56

“You shouldn’t boast about your fate.  I am against destiny.  I’m no Greek, I’m a Berliner.”

In fact, Berlin Alexanderplatz plays out exactly like a Greek play, complete with prologues to each part telling us the woes our poor, mortal hero will face over the next fifty pages…

The book is not just about Franz though.  In reality, it is the story of a city, a snapshot of Berlin over the period of a year and a half during one of the most uncertain, but exciting, times in its history.  The Weimar Republic is still in power, having survived hyper-inflation and various revolts, and the Great Depression is just around the corner.  Both Nazis and Communists are attempting to convert people to their cause – either could still rise to take over power in the Reichstag.

For the majority of the people though, politics is something that can be worried about another day.  The cast of Berlin Alexanderplatz (mostly drunkards, thieves, wheeler-dealers and prostitutes) are more concerned with making the most out of life.  This is the time of Cabaret, and there’s a lot more splurging and sleeping around than concern about extremists rising to power.  Döblin often leaves Franz to his own devices for a while, taking us off to other bars and dance clubs, showing us what else is happening in the metropolis.  As we get to know lawyers, shopkeepers, moneylenders and newspaper vendors, we begin to get a fuller view of life in 1928 Berlin.

So, a novel from the 1920s, set in and around a large European city, following one man’s story, interspersing it with snapshots of what is going on around him – that sounds oddly familiar…

And so it is.  The more you read Berlin Alexanderplatz, the more it reminds you of Ulysses.  Just as Joyce shows the reader Dublin through one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, Döblin uses the hapless Biberkopf to paint us a picture of his chosen city, even if his picture concentrates on a slightly nastier, and more lawless, section of society than his Irish counterpart’s portrait.  Ulysses, on the whole, is a story of the Irish (lower) working class – Döblin’s characters seldom have any intention of working…

The parallels are also prominent in the way the writers play with language.  Berlin Alexanderplatz contains a lot of dialogue, the vast majority of it in the Berlin dialect, which would make it tricky to read at the best of times.  However, Döblin’s experiments with language go a lot further than that.  The writer uses many different varieties of language in his novel, constantly breaking the flow of the narrative with sections written in various registers and genres.  One minute you’re reading one of the numerous nonsense rhymes that permeate the text, the next you’re wading through two pages of legalese contractual jargon; after reading a very familiar weather report for the Brandenburg region, you then find yourself in the middle of a mock-mediaeval text… 

All of which (as you can imagine) makes reading Berlin Alexanderplatz – in German at least! – a very difficult task at times.  However, it’s well worth the effort.  The book was published in 1929, which means that Döblin was writing about the society he was actually living in, making it a fascinating glimpse of what was happening at the time just before the Nazis came to power.  In fact, several scenes (possibly unintentionally) give hints as to how events would later unfold…

As for Franz, well, he’s a man of his time, full of inner rage and unable to control his drinking or his temper.  I won’t spoil the story by telling you what happens to him, but it is interesting to think about why events happen as they do.  Is he destined to fail? A victim of circumstances?

“Denn der Mann von dem ich berichte, ist zwar kein gewöhnlicher Mann, aber doch insofern ein gewöhnlicher Mann, als wir ihn genau verstehen und manchmal sagen: wir könnten Schritt um Schritt dasselbe getan haben wie er und dasselbe erlebt haben wie er.” p.217

“Because the man I’m talking about may not be an ordinary man, but he is ordinary in the sense that we understand him completely and sometimes say: we might have done exactly the same as him and experienced exactly the same things.”

There, but for the grace of God,…

17 thoughts on “Endstation: Berlin Alexanderplatz

  1. Guy – I loved it, but I do wonder how it will read in English. Stu said that the translation was an American one, which would be enough to put me off straight away 😦


  2. I always felt it is very like Leppin Blaugast this book ,I would reread it if a new translation became available and agree the film tv series worth watching fassbinder at his best ,all the best stu


  3. Stu – A TV adaptation would be very interesting. However, I think it would probably be very different from the book. Can you imagine making 'Ulysses' into a mini-series? 😉


  4. You know I tried to read it too and never managed beyond page 30. I didn't get along with the style at all. It's in French, a brand new translation.

    I'm not sure your review, as thoughtful as it may be, encourages me to read it.
    Now the book is definitely daunting and I suspect it will sit on the shelf for many years to come. (just beside Ulysses…)


  5. There's a very good English translation on Amazon and elsewhere (kindle and paperback) now which is in English English. Much easier to read and truer to the spirit of the original.


  6. Thanks for this review, which I just came across via Book Around the Corner and comments on Max's Pechorin blog. I too have this on my pile tbr. My wife keeps asking why I don't read 'happy' books, though, and this doesn't sound a barrel of laughs…


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