A review of Alfred Döblin’s turbulent, encyclopedic riot of a novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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“Unbe-fucking-lievable,” interjects the ominvalent narrator of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz at one point. I’m not sure if the original German (Ist gar nicht zu glauben) conveys the amazed profanity here in Michael Hofmann’s 2018 translation, but “Unbe-fucking-lievable” nevertheless captures the raucous spirit and mutable form of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The novel is a polyglossic spree, an encyclopedic riot, a tragicomic masterpiece of syntax and diction, chopped and screwed, twisted and turned.

What is it about?

The first italicized page summarizes the entire novel in nine neat paragraphs, beginning with this one:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

For further clarification: It is the 1920s in Berlin, that slim decadent wedge between those two big wars, and the Weimar capital buzzes with working-class resentment and political unrest. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

We soon find out the “stupid stuff” Biberkopf did that landed his ass in jail, and find that the stuff wasn’t so much stupid as stupid and horrific. But by the time we’ve discovered the crimes of Biberkopf, it’s too late: the narrator’s got his sharp teeth sunk into the bit of our brain that pumps sympathy for the supposed hero of the story.

But again: What is it about?

Well:

Biberkopf tries to play it straight, but life on the Alexanderplatz and its seedy environs ain’t easy. He slings newspapers, mixes it up with communists and Nazis alike, and tries to keep his nose clean. But, this being a picaresque tale, he falls in with old associates, falls into old petty crimes, and eventually loses his arm. (Like, literally.) He takes to pimping, thinking it easy, but pimping presents its own problems. There’s love, lust, murder, and betrayal. (And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.)

What is it about? is not really the right question for Berlin Alexanderplatz. Instead: What is it?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a literary montage, a vicious collage, an explosion of colors, a carnival of noise and chaos and entropy, told by a narrator who occasionally tries to sort the pieces out for the reader, but usually is more content to drop a metaphorical bomb on us and then spend a dozen or so pages explaining how the bomb got there and who planted it and why the saboteur was so hellbent on destruction in the first place.

Our narrator is a ventriloquist, popping into the consciousnesses and throats of characters major, minor, and peripheral (at best) alike. There’s a cinematic orality to the novel, a shuffling, skipping, vamping voiceyness to Döblin’s prose that Hofmann’s translation renders as a kind of cackling cockney English. It sparks and hoots and howls.

Döblin’s narrator might wander around in Biberkopf’s brain, and then end up in the voice of his girlfriend Mitzi (whom he pimps), or his friend and enemy Reinhold, or just some random cafe sitter or beer drinker at a bar. Döblin’s camera goes anywhere it likes; indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz is crammed with flights into history, mythology, books of the Bible, math, industry, science. A riff on the First Newtonian Law? Sure. A lengthy treatise on industrial pork butchery? Why not. A retelling of the Book of Job? Of course. Ever wondered why berries sweeten in the cold of winter? Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is voluminous, exhausting, exhaustive, ecstatic. Döblin’s narrator grabs a hold of a subject, picks at it, puts it down, picks up later. Sometimes these threads coalesce (the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes became refrains); other riffs seem to be included for no reason other than Döblin’s narrator finds them interesting. He gleefully steals from newspapers, injecting the narrative with tangential-at-best stories of the day: murders and plane crashes and invasions and assassination attempts and failures and successes and crimes, large and small. Döblin’s novel aims to be about everything, about both the small and the big worlds his petty criminal antihero Franz Biberkopf is a citizen of. 

With its voracious, swirling, omnidirectional scope and undulating stylistic turns, Berlin Alexanderplatz readily recalls James Joyce’s big book Ulysses. Döblin’s novel seems less beholden to a series of correspondences than Joyce’s, however—it’s freer, more anarchic really, roiling around in its own entropy. Both novels are bawdy, smart, and very funny of course. With its celebratory attention to Berlin’s seedier side, Berlin Alexanderplatz also recalls the paintings of Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz (whose 1919 painting Panorama adorns the cover of my NYRB edition). There are also notes of Kubrick here—there’s something of both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to Berlin Alexanderplatz: the former’s energetic, horrific violence and pastiche-slang; the latter’s ironic and affecting treatment of the traditional bildungsroman. Döblin’s technique of stealing freely from newspapers also reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and segments of William Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions. (All of these work belong in what the protagonist of William Gass’s novel Middle C dubbed “The Inhumanity Museum.”)

General comparisons of other works to Döblin’s great big fat novel don’t really do Berlin Alexanderplatz justice of course. There is simply no substitute for reading it. It is a novel about itself; it is a novel that one doesn’t so much read for plot (or worse, to learn something); rather, it is a novel that produces waves of feelings, confusions, problems in its reader. It is a novel packed with grotesquerie and excess, yes, and the turbulent humor does not leaven the novel’s core meanness. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s spine is a spike of ice, but lots of wonderful juicy rich fat hangs from that icy spine.

And through its meanness, the novel pushes its hero to a strange redemption of sorts, announced on the novel’s very first page: “The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose.”

And do I spoil the final line?

Why not: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

I did not pay dearly for Berlin Alexanderplatz, either in my money or in my time. I was rewarded. Very highly recommended.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah, lujah, lujah, lujah, hallelujah, lujah, hallelujah.| From Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

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And there are mountains, and the old man gets up and says to his son: come with me. Come with me, says the old man to his son, and he goes and his son goes with him, and they walk together into the mountains, up and down, mountains and valleys. How much further, Father? I don’t know, we are walking uphill, downhill, into the mountains, come with me. Are you tired, son, don’t you want to come with me. Oh, I’m not tired, if you want me to come, I’ll come. Yes, come. Up, down, valleys, it’s a long way, it’s midday, we’ve arrived. Look about you, son, is that an altar. Father, I am afraid. Why are you afraid, son? You woke me, we went out early, and we forgot the sheep we meant to sacrifice. Yes, we forgot it. Up and down, the long valleys, we forgot it, the sheep is not with us, there is the altar, I am afraid. I must take off my coat, are you afraid, my son. Yes, Father, I am afraid. I am afraid too, son, come closer, don’t be afraid, we must do it. What must we do? Up and down, the long valleys, I got up so early. Fear not, son, do it willingly, come closer to me, I have taken off my coat, so as not to bloody the sleeves. I am afraid, because you have the knife. Yes, I have the knife, I must slaughter you, I must sacrifice you, the Lord commands it, do it gladly, my son.

No, I cannot do it, I will scream, don’t touch me, I don’t want to be slaughtered. Now you are on your knees, do not scream, my son. Yes, I am screaming. Do not scream; if you don’t want, then I can’t do it, you must want it. Up and down, why should I not go home again. What will you do at home, is not the Lord more than a home. I cannot, yes I can, no I cannot. Move closer, see, I have the knife here, look at it, it is very sharp, it will touch your throat. Will it cut my throat? Yes. Then the blood will bubble forth? Yes. The Lord wills it. Do you want it? I cannot yet, Father. Come quickly, I must not slay you; if I do it, then it must be as though you did it unto yourself. I unto myself? Ah. Yes, and be not afraid. Ah. And not live life, not live your life, because you will give it unto the Lord. Move closer. The Lord our God wills it? Up, down, I got up so early. You surely will not be cowardly. I know, I know, I know! What do you know, my son? Apply the knife to me, wait, let me turn down my collar so that my neck is open. You seem to know something. You must only will it, and I must will it, we will both do it, then the Lord will call, we will both hear Him call: yes, come here, give me your throat. There. I am not afraid, I do it willingly. Up and down, the long valleys, there put the knife to me, and cut, I will not scream.

And the son throws his head back, his father steps behind him, clasps his forehead, and shows him the butcher’s knife in his right hand. The son wills it. The Lord calls. They both fall on their faces.

What calls the voice of the Lord. Hallelujah. Through the mountains, through the valleys. You are obedient unto me, hallelujah. You shall live. Hallelujah. Stop, throw the knife away. Hallelujah. I am the Lord whom you obey, and whom alone you always must obey. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah, lujah, lujah, lujah, hallelujah, lujah, hallelujah.

From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

Come, you, I want to show you something | From Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz 

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Come, you, I want to show you something. The harlot Babylon, the great harlot, that sitteth upon many waters. I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints.

Franz Biberkopf drifts through the streets, trots his trot and doesn’t stop, he’s getting his strength back. It is warm summer weather, Franz schlepps himself from bar to bar.

He steers clear of the heat. In the bar they are just drawing the first beers.

The first beer says: I come from the cellar, from hops and malt. I am cool, how do I taste?

Franz says: Bitter, good, cool.

Yes, I’ll cool you down. I cool the men, then I make them warm, and then I take away their superfluous thoughts.

Superfluous thoughts?

Yes, most thoughts are superfluous. Am I right or am I right? – Right.

A small schnapps stands bright yellow before Franz. Where did you spring from? – They burnt me, man. – You have a bite to you, fellow, you’ve got claws. – Well, that’s what makes me a schnapps. Expect you haven’t seen one in a while. – No, I was almost dead, little schnapps, I was almost dead and done for. Gone without a return ticket. – You look like it too. – Look like it, cut the cackle. Let’s try you again, come here. Ah, you’re good, good and fiery. – The schnapps trickles down the back of his throat: fire.

The smoke from the fire rises in Franz, it scorches his throat, he needs another beer: you’re my second beer, I’ve already had one, what have you got to say to me? – Taste me first, fatso, then we can talk. – All right.

Then the beer says: now listen, you, if you drink another couple of beers, and another kummel, and another grog, then you’ll swell up like dried peas. – So? – Yes, then you’ll be fat again, and then what will that look like? Can you be seen among people like that? Have another swallow.

And Franz grabs his third: I’m swallowing. One after the other. All in nice order.

He asks the fourth: what do you know, darling? – She just growls back blissfully. Franz knocks her back: I believe yer. Whatever you say, my darling, I believe yer. You’re my little sheep, and you and me are going up to the meadow together.

From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

 

“Conversation with Job” — Alfred Döblin

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Conversation with Job, it’s up to you, Job, you don’t want to

After Job had lost everything, everything a man can possibly lose, not more and not less, he lay in the cabbage patch.

‘Job, you’re lying in the cabbage patch, just far enough away from the doghouse for the dog not to bite you. You hear him gnashing his teeth. The dog will bark if you take so much as a single step. If you turn round or make to get up, he will growl, rush at you, rattle his chain, jump out, drool and snap at you.

‘Job, there is your palace, and there are the gardens and fields that once were yours. This watchdog was not even known to you, and this cabbage patch where you have been thrown was not even known to you, any more than the goats they drove past you in the mornings that would take a mouthful of grass as they passed, and grind it between their teeth and fill their cheeks with it. They were yours.

‘Job, you have lost everything. You are allowed to shelter in the barn at night. Everyone is afraid of your contagion. You once rode in splendour over your estates, and people used to flock around you. Now you’ve got the wooden fence in front of you, and you can watch the snails creep up it. You can make a study of the earthworms. Those are the only creatures that aren’t afraid of you.

You hardly ever open your crusty eyes, you bundle of misery, you human swamp.

‘What is the worst torment, Job? The fact that you lost your sons and daughters, that you own nothing, that you’re cold at night, the boils on your throat, on your nose? Tell, Job.’

‘Who’s asking?’

‘I’m just a voice.’

A voice comes out of a throat.’

‘You mean I must be a human being.’

‘Yes, and therefore I don’t want to see you. Go away.’

‘I’m just a voice, Job, open your eyes as far as you can, and then you’ll see me.’

‘I’m raving. My head, my brains, now I’m being driven mad, now they’re taking my thoughts away from me.’

‘And if they were, would that matter?’

‘I don’t want them to.’

‘Even though you’re suffering so much, and suffering so much by your thoughts, you still don’t want to lose them?’

‘Don’t ask. Go away.’

‘But I’m not taking anything. I just want to know which torment is the worst.’

‘That’s nobody’s business.’

‘You mean, nobody but you?’

‘Yes. Yes. Certainly not yours!”

The dog barks, growls, snaps at the air. The voice returns after a while:

‘Is it your sons you are lamenting over?’

‘No one need pray for me when I’m dead. I’m poison to the earth. When I am gone, just spit. Forget Job.’

‘And your daughters?’

‘My daughters. Ah. They’re dead too. They’re fine. They were pictures of women. They would have given me grandchildren, and they were dashed from me. One after the other was dashed to the ground, as though God had taken her by the hair, and lifted her up and thrown her to the ground, broken.’

‘Job, you can’t open your eyes, they are gummed shut. You are lamenting because you are in the cabbage patch, and the doghouse is the least thing that is yours, that and your disease.’

‘The voice, you voice, whosesoever voice you are, and wherever you are hiding.’

‘I don’t know why you’re lamenting.’

‘Oh. Oh.’

‘You groan, and you don’t know either, Job.’

‘No, I have—’

‘You have?’

‘I have no strength. That’s it.’

‘So you’d like strength.’

‘No strength with which to hope or wish. I have no teeth. I am soft, I feel ashamed.’

‘So you say’

‘Yes, you must know. That’s the worst.’

‘So it’s already written on my brow. That’s what a rag I am.’

‘That’s what is causing you the most suffering, Job. You would like not to be weak, you would like to resist, or to be wholly riddled, your brains gone, your thoughts gone, just an animal. Make a wish.’

‘You’ve asked me so many things, voice, I think you must be allowed to ask. Heal me. If you can. Whether your name is Satan or God or angel or man, heal me.’

‘Will you accept healing from anyone?’

‘Heal me.’

‘Job, think carefully. You can’t see me. If you open your eyes, perhaps you will be shocked to see me. Perhaps I will charge a great and terrible price.’

‘All will be seen. You speak like someone who is serious.’

‘What if I am Satan or the Evil One?’

‘Heal me.’

‘I am Satan.’

‘Heal me.’

The voice withdrew, became weaker and ever weaker. The dog barked. Job listened fearfully: he is gone, I must be healed, or I must die. He squawked. A terrible night broke in. The voice came back once more:

“And if I am Satan, how will you deal with me?’

Job screamed: ‘You will not heal me. No one will help me, not God, not Satan, and no angel, and no human.’

‘And you yourself?’

‘What about me?’

‘You won’t.’

‘What.’

‘Who can help you when you don’t want to help yourself?’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job.

The voice in front of him: ‘God and Satan, angels and humans, all want to help you, but you will not help yourself – God out of love, Satan so as to control you later, the angels and men because they are helpers of God and Satan, but you don’t want to.’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job, and screamed, and flung himself to the ground.

He screamed all night long. The voice called uninterruptedly: ‘God and Satan, angels and men, all will help you, but you will not help yourself.’ Job uninterruptedly: ‘No, no.’ He tried to stifle the voice, it grew louder and ever louder, it was always a degree ahead of him. All night long. Towards morning, Job fell on his face.

Job lay there silent.

That day the first of his boils healed.


From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

Three Books

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Negrophobia by Darius James. Cover design by Katy Homans, employing All Cats Are Black in the Dark by Natasha Xavier. Trade paperback, NYRB, 2019.

Darius James’s Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence. I loved it and am too much of a coward to attempt a real review.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Cover photograph by W. Eugene Smith; designer uncredited. Penguin Classics US trade paperback, 2006.

Jackson’s spooky 1959 novel has some of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve read in recent years. Hills’ final section answers to its weird opening, dramatizing fraught consciousness in turmoil, disintegrating in a ping-pong free indirect style that leaves the reader stunned, puzzled, and wishing for an extra chapter against his better judgment.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. Book design by Katy Homans, featuring Georg Grosz’s painting Down with Liebknecht (1919). NRYB trade paperback, 2018.

I picked up Döblin’s 1929 Berlin Alexanderplatz on a whim a while ago at a bookstore and picked it up off the shelf today on a different whim and laughed in sympathy through the first two chapters. It’s a long book but I think I’ll keep going.

 

 

Blog about acquiring some books (Books acquired, 3 May 2019)

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Yesterday marked both my wedding anniversary and the end of my spring semester, so I celebrated by spending a spare hour browsing my beloved used bookshop. I had dropped by last week to drop off a box of trade books—mostly old instructor editions of textbooks no longer in use—but I didn’t pick anything up. I did, however, snap a few photographs of the covers of the old 1980s Latin American authors series that Avon Bard put out. I love these covers, and have bought a few over the years.

I ended up picking up two yesterday: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s In Evil Hour and Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro. The cover for Dom Casmurro is pretty bad, actually, but I want to read it.

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Near the Machado de Assis, I found a used copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, which I couldn’t resist. I also found a Grove edition of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote, which I haven’t read since college.

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I also got a book in the mail. I loved Ann Quin’s novel Berg so much that I had to get more Quin, so I ordered The Unmapped Country from publisher And Other Stories. Very excited for this one.

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