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.
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.