He stood in front of the Tegel Prison gate and was free.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

I read this book badly; much worse than it deserved. When I read it in solid chunks of fifty or a hundred pages it fizzled and raced along, forcing me to work to keep up. When, as I mostly did, I read it in ten or twenty page slices it lost me instead in a sea of disconnected images.

That’s the risk you take with Modernism. It does rather make demands of you.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of Franz Biberkopf, a newly released ex-convict determined to go straight. He’ll suffer three tremendous blows, is laid low, but ultimately comes to a kind of redemption, or at least a sense of meaning and self-awareness. Are these spoilers? If so blame Döblin, because the book opens with a foreword which forms part of the novel and in which Döblin sets all this forth. Like Nabokov’s much later novel in Laughter in the Dark, we know where we’re going, what’s interesting is how we get there.

That foreword is the first clue that we may not be in for a straightforward narrative here. Then again, the back of the book with its comparisons to Joyce and Dos Passos (and Dos Passos for me is easily the more relevant of those comparisons) gave that away anyway.

Franz leaves prison fearfully. He’s been institutionalised, and he doesn’t know how he’ll make it outside though he wants to do better than he did before he went in. He takes a tram into the centre, but is soon overwhelmed by the indifferent crowds, by the sights of people doing ordinary things like drinking beer and having lunch. He doesn’t know how to cope, outside the ordered environment of the prison.

A passing Jew takes pity on Franz, invites him into his home and gives him a moment’s refuge in which to find himself again. Franz, and the reader, listen to an old Jewish man tell a story, and by the end of it Franz is ready to head back into the streets and to take on the world. There won’t be many more examples of altruism in the book, and in a German book written in the late 1920s it’s hard not to see some significance in the only real act of kindness coming from Jews.

Berlin Alexanderplatz does have a plot; mostly concerning Franz’s attempt to go straight, his friends and girlfriends and how he becomes entangled against his will with crime once more. It’s actually not a bad story on that level, and it’s not a surprise it’s been made into a TV series and film because Franz’s journey is interesting in its own right.

The real interest though of Berlin Alexanderplatz is its evocation of Berlin as a city. Döblin draws heavily on film techniques of his day, with the novelist’s eye panning like a camera across scenes and with frequent use of montage. Descriptions merge with fragments of adverts, with overheard conversations, fragments of newspapers, even with street signs. Here’s an early example:

From the south the Rosenthaler Strasse runs into the square. Across the way Aschinger provides food as well as beer to drink, music, and wholesale bakery. Fish are nutritious, some are happy when they have fish, and others are unable to eat it, eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish. Ladies’ stockings, genuine artificial silk, here you have a fountain pen with a 14- carat gold point.

Genuine artificial silk, how can you resist?

Berlin is awash with politics and people trying to make a Deutschmark. They all rub against each other, live-stock dealers, thieves, communists, ex-soldiers, the revolutionary left and the far right. Among all this Franz is trying to find his own place, at one point selling gay magazines, at another necktie holders, whatever it takes to get along.

Two days later it is warmer. Franz, who has sold his overcoat and is wearing thick underwear, which Lina got him somewhere, stands on the Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabish & Co., high class men’s tailoring to measure, excellent work and low prices are the characteristic of our products. Franz is hawking necktieholders. He reels off his patter:

‘Why does the smart man in the West End wear a bow tie when the proletarian doesn’t? Ladies and gents, right up here, you too, Fraulein, and that lady with her husband, children under age admitted without extra charge. Why doesn’t the proletarian wear bow ties? Because he can’t tie ‘em. Then he has to buy a tie-holder, and after he’s bought it, it’s no good and he can’t tie his tie with it. That’s swindling. It makes the people bitter; it pushes Germany still deeper into poverty than she is already. But why don’t they wear those big tie-holders? Because nobody wants to put a dustpan around his neck. No man or woman wants that, not even the baby, if he could speak for himself. Please don’t laugh at that ladies and gents, don’t laugh, we don’t know what’s going on in that dear little child brain. Oh Lord, the dear little head, the little head and the little curls, it’s pretty, ain’t it, but when you have to pay alimony, it’s not to be laughed at, that gets a man into trouble. Go and buy yourself a tie like this at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s or, if you don’t want to buy it from Jews, get it somewhere else. I’m a Nordic, I am.’ He raises his hat, blond hair, red ears standing out, merry bull’s eyes. ‘The big shops don’t have to get me to advertise them, they can exist without me. Buy a tie like the one I have here, and then decide how you’re going to tie it tomorrow morning.’

The patter continues for another page and a half or so, often quite funny, but then that’s part of the point of patter. Notice the little dig against the Jews there, the assertion of racial purity. Later Franz changes profession again:

Franz now peddles Nationalist pro-Nordic newspapers He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order.

Franz isn’t in fact “against the Jews”, and he knows perfectly well it was Jews who first helped him when he left prison. Franz though is not a reflective man, and if a little anti-Semitism helps pay the rent he’s not the sort to think about any wider issues that might come with that.

In Döblin’s Berlin everyone is hustling in one way or another. Crippled veterans of the Great War beg in the streets; those with jobs mostly seem to be just getting by while pimps and burglars are leading the good life. Berlin is a vast human hive, permeated by adverts, noise and bustle.

Everywhere there are building works, rents are going through the roof, empty political slogans are disgregarded while the promises of literature and philosophy are packaged and commoditised and sold in the same way as ale or life insurance. There’s an extraordinary three page section, too long to quote here, which merges all these elements and more cutting between adverts, description, court rulings, and tiny vignettes showing the marital problems of a couple running a shoe business and the tensions between a poor lawyer and his cleaning lady.

In one harrowing sequence Döblin’s gaze wanders into a slaughterhouse, where he follows cows, pigs, sheep and lambs all going to the slaughter. He observes them dispassionately, no different to how he regards the people who will later eat them. What separates us from them? Perhaps just that we can kill them, and they do not know that and cannot in any event kill us. Döblin’s gaze is not without compassion, but those he watches largely have none.

At these times the narrative wanders like a camera. When that takes you inside the slaughterhouse it’s chilling, when it enters homes and shows neighbours packed in together it’s fascinating. Here’s an example, from the end of a five and a half page passage:

At the very top a tripe butcher, where of course there’s a bad smell and also the howling of children and plenty of alcohol. Next door a baker’s apprentice with his wife, an employee in a printing shop, she has inflammation of the ovaries. Wonder what those two get out of life? Well, first of all , they get each other, then last Sunday a music-hall show and a film, then this or that social meeting and a visit to his parents. Nothing else? Well now, don’t drop dead, sir. Add to that nice weather, bad weather, country picnics, standing in front of the stove, eating breakfast and so on. And what more do you get, you, captain, general, jockey, whoever you are? Don’t fool yourself.

Here’s a slightly different illustration of how Döblin applies this technique:

Opposite, in front of the little Web Radio Store – till further notice free charging of batteries – there stands a pale young woman, her hat pulled down over her face, she seems to be thinking intensely. The driver of the big black and white taxi standing nearby thinks to himself: Is she wondering now whether she ought to take a taxi, and if she has enough with her or is she waiting for somebody? But what she does is to twist about in her velvet coat as if her body were being wrenched, then she walks on again, she’s unwell, that’s all, and has the cramps, as usual. She is about to take her teacher’s examination, today she would have liked to stay at home with a hot water bottle, she’ll be better tonight, anyway.

What this passage does is show the difference between film and literature. Film can show the outside of things, and does so much more efficiently than language can. Film though can’t show us what’s on the inside, and so Döblin uses his language-camera to show us the Berlin not just of people’s homes and streets, but of their thoughts too.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is then a challenging novel. It demands close concentration, and when I couldn’t do that the result was that I became deeply confused about who was who and what was going on. When I did pay attention though, it unpacked itself into a brutal vision of the life of a city, and showed itself as a huge accomplishment.

It’s a moral book. That’s clear from the outset of course, when we’re told that Franz will receive three setbacks on his path to self-knowledge, but it’s present too in a frequent use of the most powerful biblical language and imagery, applied to lives as far from biblical as one can imagine.

The last 150 pages or so of Berlin Alexanderplatz I read over a weekend, and it was a joy. I read while listening to early Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer, and to Jelly Roll Morton. They work with it, because the book itself is a form of jazz, pushing its own boundaries and veering so far on tangents you wonder how it will ever get back to the main themes and yet it does. It pulses, full of rude life and the vitality of a new century in which anything, everything, is possible.

Is it worth reading, given the challenge it represents? I think so, yes, but again like the best jazz it’s not background music to listen to while making polite dinner conversation. It’s not a book that goes down easily; it’s not tasteful. Franz Biberkopf is in many ways as unsympathetic as a protagonist can be (particularly as details of his past crimes and his propensity to violence against women become clearer), and yet he is the spirit of his age, hustling and prepared to do whatever he needs to, steeped in blood and error yet perhaps not beyond hope.

Is it still relevant? Here’s a final quote, taken from a diatribe from one of Franz’s political friends which Franz only part listens to:

Not the satisfaction of human needs, but the expectation of profit is at the hands of modern production. Every technical advance multiplies the wealth of of the possessing classes to an infinite degree, in shameless contrast to the misery of vast sections of the community.

As I write this some 83 or so years have passed since this was published. Sadly, despite that great passage of time, it remains a contemporary novel.

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26 Comments

Filed under Berlin, Döblin, Alfred, German Literature, Modernist Fiction

26 responses to “He stood in front of the Tegel Prison gate and was free.

  1. Probably not a book I will ever read, but it sounds fascinating! I can understand the comparison to Joyce, because some of the quotations definitely smack of stream of consciousness. Here it may be the stream of consciousness of the city of Berlin itself rather than the characters. And it makes you wonder what Doblin would have done if he were writing today about one of our 21st century’s big cities.
    Max, I just have to say, you write the best reviews of anybody. I never miss your posts!

  2. I felt Max he did for Berlin what Joyce did for Dublin and that is to make it into a living kicking beast of a place ,my only regret is I didn’t read it in the original German and thus get the fact that it is more in a berlin voice by the language it is wrote in this is the one thing we can’t get in a translation but is also the think that Joyce loses in translation that extra bit of icing on the top tha one can only gain reading in the original language but at least we have a translation all be it a american translation ,all the best stu

  3. Lorinda, you’re very kind. Stream of consciousness of Berlin, nicely put.

    Stu, indeed, or Dos Passos for New York.

    You do remind me though that I’ve written all this and I quite forgot to talk about the potential issues with the translation, which is remiss of me. The translation, as you note, is American but more to the point it’s period American and where the characters use slang the translator translates that into period US slang. The result is characters who are “on the q.t.” or who tell each other to “cheese it”. It’s a valid translation choice, in that it captures the sense of the dialogue, but also a slightly jarring one since it seems odd for Berlin criminals to be telling each other to cheese it.

    Still, it’s the only translation out there. We need to somehow convince Michael Hofmann to do a new one.

  4. Very intriguing; ‘Laughter in the Dark’ is one of my favourite books; even if it is very obviously a proto-Lolita. Opening with a forward that forms part of the novel is classic modernism: the questioning of boundaries and all that (“They all rub against each other” as you wonderfully put it).

    I know exactly what you mean about reading badly, too. For about 5 weeks now, every time I’ve sat down to read I’ve only been able to manage about 4 pages – suffice to say, it’s not at all conducive to clarity or understanding etc. But I think most people have reading funks like this. I hope they do, anyway.

    Also: Fantastic ending to this review. I’m sure there’s a whole book to be written about the seeming paradox of on-going contemporariness in some fiction.

  5. Bit of a drag when it’s not the right book for your life at the moment. This one is one my list due to the Fassbinder connection. Sounds excellent.

  6. I’ve had the DVD on my Amazon buy later list for some years now. I’m pretty sure that I’d never get round to watching it. I read a large chunk of the book and very much enjoyed it before being distracted by something else (Paris actually but I was on a Berlin kick for a while).

    It reminded me of Orwell’s Down & Out in Paris in London for the subject matter and the outcomes. The experience whether fictional or (semi-) real is very much the same, only the techniques differ, BBC Radio is having an Orwell season at the moment. I’ve listened to DAOILAP and Hommage to Catalonia recently.

  7. leroyhunter

    Sounds ambitious and troubling Max.

    I’m reading an historical account that parallels (and contrasts) Germany and the USSR in the 20s and 30s. Was just reading what Modernism meact to the totalitarian regimes and why they rejected it so utterly. Fascinating stuff.

  8. Tom, good point on classic modernism. I don’t know if everyone gets those reading blocks, but I certainly do. I tend to turn to SF or crime at those times.

    Glad you liked the end of the review.

    Guy, it was a drag, but it is excellent. The Fassbinder is definitely on the cards at some point.

    Steve, I thought of you with it actually, given your love of Berlin. Do you think you’ll go back to it at some point?

    As a teenager Catalonia was one of my favourite books (not because of my age, that’s just when I read a lot of Orwell).

    Leroy, both. Döblin doesn’t hit the reader over the head with the politics, but it is there. What’s your current and previous reads’ titles? Both sound interesting.

  9. AggieH

    Engrossing review. This is one of those classic classic books that languish optimistically on my TBR list with little chance of ever being promoted to my actual TBR pile.

    “That’s the risk you take with Modernism. It does rather make demands of you. … a challenging novel. It demands close concentration.”

    If I may lower the literary tone in here, that reminded me of Ned Beauman’s “The Teleportation Accident”. A good yet irritatingly smug book, it contains too many too knowing literary in-jokes. The most successful one, sustained throughout a long narrative span, involves the narrator – a disaffected member of Berlin’s cultural scene – reading Berlin Alexanderplatz.

    (Opening pages, 1931)
    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.’

    (Pivotal scene, closing pages, 1962)
    ‘You’re rereading that?’
    ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz? Rereading? No. I’ve been reading it for thirty years. I only have eleven pages to go. I hope to finish by next autumn.’

  10. leroyhunter

    It’s all the one read Max – all 600-odd pages of it. Flying by though.

    The title is The Dictators by Richard Overy, who I’ve read a number of titles by, and is (in my view anyway) a model of both historical exposition and analysis. He traces the German and Soviet regimes showing both the comparisons and contrasts, while attempting to distil a more nuanced and evidence-based view of what constituted “totalitarianism” in both regimes. He approaches the task in thematic chapters – justice, economy, dissent, militarism etc. – and one chapter specifically looks at culture. How it was controlled, what was excluded and rejected, the purposes of state culture, popular participation etc. All fascinating. As I said before, both regimes feared and rejected Modernism (for slightly different reasons) – incidentally, they both repressed jazz as well, which was enormously popular in both countries in the 20s.

    Here’s an apt quote:
    “In march 1933 the president of the Prussian Academy of Arts wrote to all its members, asking them to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the question of whether they were willing to eschew any anti-government activity and to work loyally for the new ‘national cultural programme’ imposed by the regime. Among those who refused were the novelists Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin; fourteen other members were expelled, including the German-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg.”

  11. Interesting to see I used the word “demands” twice. A bit sloppy of me actually, but I guess it underlines the point I was making.

    I was actually curious about The Teleportation Incident, so it’s amusing to hear that it has this reference. Good yet smug, I think it’s the sense of smugness that put me off reading it in the end. That joke is quite good though, particularly the 1931 bit of it.

  12. I tried to read this one in November but couldn’t go past the 30 first pages. I lacked the concentration (work was hectic at the time) and everything written was a sort of blur. I stopped it. It’s now neatly shelved in my daunting TBR, sitting right beside Ulysses.
    I wondered if it was easier in an English translation but apparently it isn’t.

    I can’t tell if I’ll get to it eventually and although your review is very good (as always) I can’t say you encouraged me to read it. Neither did Tony when he reviewed it, btw (http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.fr/2012/11/endstation-berlin-alexanderplatz.html)

    That last quote is incredible but not that surprising. After all, I found that business practices in Grand Hotel were quite contemporary.

  13. Another question: Why did you put the cover of a French edition?

  14. I couldn’t find the cover of the 1970s Penguin edition that I have, and I thought that one captured the book well. Simple as that really.

    Work being hectic makes this incredibly difficult, as I found myself. It really does need a clear run (this comment was briefly paused by a small cat leaping onto my lap demanding attention – oh the challenges we bloggers face).

    Putting it next to Ulysses makes a lot of sense. What else is on your daunting pile out of interest?

    Regarding translations, I think the original is difficult, I doubt any translation will be any easier. Thanks for the link to Tony’s review by the way, I’ll read that over the next couple of days.

  15. Leroy, I missed your comment. Thanks for that recommendation. I’ll look it up, though god knows when I’d get to read it…

  16. My daunting list? Rather predictable:
    - Moby Dick,
    - Ulysses,
    - The Book of Disquiet,
    - Memoirs from Beyond Grave
    - Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
    - Life: a User’s Manual
    - The Essays by Montaigne

    PS: lucky you. You have to deal with a cat leaping on your lap. I have to deal with a child with stomach flu. :-) Is it a new one?

    I just wonder if German translates better in English than in French.

  17. Childe Harold’s not one to see as daunting. You may not enjoy it, I don’t know, but it’s not difficult the way Joyce is. Once you get the rythm of the verse it flows along quite nicely. Also, if you look back at my reviews you’ll see I read it in three quite distinct chunks (I think it was three), which is how it was published. It doesn’t have to be digested in one go like Ulysses does.

    I see the Chateaubriand is 42 volumes. That’s daunting.

    My own daunting list would probably be the following at the moment (I own all of these):

    Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’m really looking forward to but it’s still daunting;
    Ulysses;
    The Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon;
    Moby Dick;
    Miklos Banffy’s Hungarian trilogy (just for length really);
    War and Peace;
    Anna Karenina;
    Several other Russian classics.

    Most of those daunt by reason of length more than anything else. Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow are the only ones that really daunt by virtue of style as well.

  18. Wow, Max, I’ve actually read three things you haven’t! I studied Ulysses in my senior seminar in college – read it through twice at that time, although it certainly would merit being read many times. What does a twenty-year-old have to bring to that book, especially back in 1959? We also read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I’ve dipped into Finnegan’s Wake. And I read War and Peace in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Took most of the summer, as I recall. Then I read Moby Dick as part of a special reading project with my major professor between by sophomore and junior years. I loved that book. And I read Byron till he was coming out of my ears in grad school – Manfred, Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage … Odd, somewhere along the line I stopped reading literary materials (except poetry) and diverted into fantasy and SF. Maybe I just read too much serious stuff in college. But I know it influenced the way I write fiction.

  19. War and Peace is extraordinary, fascinating, a book I couldn’t put down when I read it.

    Let’s say that Byron in English is daunting for me. (I don’t want to read it in French) Plus I don’t do well with Romanticism, usually.
    I’d love to read the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon too.
    I should have added some Russian classics to the list (especially Crime and Punishment)
    Gravity Rainbow is so daunting that it goes straight to the “don’t bother” list as I’m sure I would abandon it.

    I wish I could read on demand, the daunting books are nice to read with someone else in a readalong. But I can’t keep up with weekly schedules or stuff like that.

  20. Lorinda, I’m not even slightly surprised you’ve read some fairly major works that I haven’t. I’d have expected that given your interests actually.

    SF is serious stuff by the way!

    Why would Ulysses be harder in 1959? Was it a question of narrower perspectives, in the absence of the internet and a perhaps more conservative social context?

    Have you read Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener? I’ve reviewed it here and it’s marvellous.

    Emma, Byron in English, yes, I hadn’t thought about the cross-language issue. How were the quotes I used in my reviews for you?

    I can’t read on demand either. It’s just not within the range of my talents, I read as the mood takes me and also I read for pleasure and scheduling might damage that.

  21. Ulysses wasn’t harder in itself – it was the inexperienced reader! In 1959 young girls (or at least me myself!) weren’t as savvy and sophiscated as they are now. We didn’t grow up as quickly. I think I understood Ulysses pretty well all things considered, but I’m sure I would get a lot more out of it now. And I haven’t read Bartleby the Scrivener. Another title for my TBR list!
    An anecdote: At Cornell I took a course in Romantic literature with M. H. Abrams, author of the work of literary theory entitled The Mirror and the Lamp. He was usually a very sober, gruff professorial type. When we got around to Byron, his opinion was that Byron was a master of satiric humor that shows up particularly in Don Juan. The day after New Year’s, Abrams lectured on Don Juan and he apparently had celebrated a little too much, because he laughed and joked his way through the lecture, keeping everybody in stitches. Nobody knew what to think! Next lecture, he was back to his old sobersides, rather forbidding self and he never did that again!
    BTW, I put up my final post on Evangeline Walton’s Prince of Annwn this morning. http://termitespeaker.blogspot.com

  22. I must admit that I really like Berlin Alexanderplatz. I think a comparison with Ulysses is legitimate, particularly in regards to the narration. In both novels, the narrator is challenged by the confusion and sensory bombardment of the modern world. As you’ve pointed out, the narrator tries to enforce some order in the novel: he sets out what’s going to happen and he divides the story into books and chapters. But he can’t keep control, and the novel fragments into bizarre and (seemingly) irrelevant deviations from the principle storyline. He promises us a resolution at the end, but what this resolution actually is remains clear as mud (and the topic of much discussion to this day).

    I’d suggest it is this sensory bombardment of the city is also to blame for Franz’s problems. After leaving the highly structured and regimented life of the prison, he enters the (in some regards) structureless and chaotic city. He is so unprepared for this that he cannot defend himself from the sensory bombardment, and he begins to confuse his own feelings with the surrounding environment (e.g. his panic transforms into falling roofs).

    In a nutshell, I’d say the book is a critique of traditions (omniscient narrator) and social institutions (the prison and the institute where the doctors fail to diagnose Franz correctly) that are so unsuited for the modern world that they are necessarily destructive.

    That was my take on it anyway. Thanks for your article. I very much enjoyed reading it!

  23. I agree with your suggestion in your second paragraph, and the point about how his feelings are confused with the environment is an excellent one and not something I’d (consciously at any rate) picked up.

    Nice nutshell too. I think that’s certainly part of it, though whether it’s a nutshellable book I’m not absolutely sure.

    Delighted to have a comment on this. It was a challenging read, but very worthwhile.

  24. acommonreaderuk

    What an excellent review Max – I now really know what I’m in for when I read this book. From what you say, it reminds me of Gregor Von Rezzori’s Oedipus at Stalingrad which is set in Berlin in much the same period. I think you did well to read this in 50-100 page chunks where possible.

  25. I haven’t read Von Rezzori yet. I have another of his, but Oedipus at Stalingrad sounds very interesting.

    Reading in chunks helps massively. At the moment I’m only reading the Proust I’m on in 10-15 page chunks and it makes it much heavier going. You don’t get a sense of flow in the same way, and it gets much harder to keep the wider book in mind when you’re crawling through individual pages at that rate. It does the book no favours at all.

  26. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

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