Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, which we starting on the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Weimar Republic. There couldn’t be a more appropriate date.
Please note this will be a detailed discussion and there may well be spoilers in my answers to the discussion questions.
What enticed you to choose this novel as a readalong title?
This novel has been at the periphery of my reading sights for as long as I can remember. However, the comparisons with Ulysses were an absolute turn-off. (I abandoned Ulysses on page 9). I started considering Berlin Alexanderplatz again when Deutsche Welle included it in their 100 German literature reads. When I embarked on my Age of the Weimar Republic reading project, I knew its time had come. It is a simply a case of now or never!
Summarise your initial expectations. Are they being met?
A modernist challenge. Very much so. (Sigh)
I know that’s no ringing endorsement, but that’s certainly the way I felt at the end of Chapter 2. (I’ve now read to chapter 7, and things do improve, but more on that in future weeks.)
Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?
I’m reading Michael Hofmann’s translation which reads well, but isn’t quite a colourful as I’d expected the novel to be. (Well the storyline is, but the language isn’t.) This puzzled me, as I knew that much of the original is written in the Berlin vernacular of the 1920s. So, breaking all my rules of not reading afterwords until after I have finished a novel, I read Hofmann’s thoughts.
One approach is to find an equivalent to the Berlin vernacular, which is what Eugene Jolas did in his American translation. And he has been slated for it ever since. (According to Hofmann unfairly.) Hofmann’s approach is quite different, and he has a point. If you were to render Berlinisch into some British regional dialect, which would you choose? Cockney, Geordie, Glaswegian, Scouse? As a reader, I would doubt the authenticity of characters from the Berlin underworld talking to me in British accents. And more importantly, I probably wouldn’t understand them either!
So Hofmann (who isn’t fluent in any of the above regional dialects) has adopted what Anthea Bell called the “regional unspecific”: contractions, dropped endings, a bit of colloquial, a bit of vulgar, the odd odd word. It has probably flattened the original, but I’d rather have that that an incomprehensible English translation.
Besides there’s enough to contend with in this challenging text …
What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?
You have to wonder why Biberkopf is so reluctant to be free, don’t you? Why he considers freedom to be the beginning of his punishment? He’s a bit of a lost soul in the midst of the hustle and bustle, “the tearing rush” of the city which initially appears hostile. Fortunately he is offered a temporary refuge by a kindly Jew, who notices his distress. Not that he behaves all that well or at all gratefully. But this support is enough to initiate Biberkopf’s resolution to go straight (“become decent”).
Which seems laudatory, but I’m skeptical. Before too long we find him blaming, Ida, the girlfriend he pimped and killed, for her own manslaughter. Then he rapes her sister, Minna. You’ve got to laugh at at his risible attempt at reparations – a new apron to replace the one he ruined during his attack.
Döblin’s not making it easy to like him. Deliberately it impossible in fact. Bad things are going to happen to Biberkopf. (We know that from the summary Döblin provides prior to chapter 1.) I wonder if my sympathies will be awakened at any point?
Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz”. He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence. Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way? How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2?
A portrait of a city is simply not as relatable or as sellable as a novel with a human face (regardless of how lowlife that human being may be). Now, that the classic status of the novel is established, Döblin’s original title can be restored (and has been in the NYRB classics edition.) And that is entirely fitting because Berlin is the star, the story of Franz Biberkopf is only one story among the many that Döblin tells. Although his story has a plot and provides a pathway through the vast panorama that is Berlin.
After a minor excursion into the Garden of Eden (which I’ll come back to later) Chapter 2 begins with Berlin, symbols of its administrative departments, planning permits, listings of the stops on various tramlines, and brief vignettes of citizens’ lives, before switching back to Biberkopf. Is this the hostile, chaotic city we saw through Biberkopf’s eyes in chapter 1? Actually no, it is a very structured entity – just like Döblin’s chapter. (cf David Dollenmayer’s The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin pages 68-71).)
Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage?
I already know this is a novel which will take many readings to understand in its entirety. That it is not as chaotic a jumble as it may appear at times. But there is a danger of missing significance and meaning in the textual whirl. For instance, that allusion to the Garden of Eden at the beginning of chapter 2. What’s that all about?
For me the beginning of mankind signifies the beginning of the novel proper (Chapter 1 a prologue in my mind). Franz Biberkopf is entering Berlin and he is happy. He is feeling optimistic and he has turned over a new leaf. However, we all know that it was a one-way street out of Paradise for Adam and Eve ….
There is so much scriptural allusion throughout the novel. I’ll keep my eye on this and hopefully I will fathom out Döblin’s intentions at some point.
Thoughts of others