Book Review

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

is all modernism doomed to fail?

“Franz Biberkopf, with his loathing of the world and his disgust, boozes right into February.”

p. 114

Note: I read Berlin Alexanderplatz in a 2004 edition that was translated by Eugene Jolas and published by continuum. This is not a review of the new translation recently published by Penguin.

I don’t remember when I first learnt about Berlin Alexanderplatz or why I long ago decided it was something I should read. For it was a long time ago.

Döblin’s name is one I have been looking for in second hand bookshops for years, so when this novel was republished by Penguin, I thought my seeking would yield results more quickly. Alas, that affected nothing, for it was only when I moved to the New World and gained access to second hand bookshops filled with the discarded literature of a different continent that I finally found it, this 1929 German, modernist, picaresque classic.

Many years ago, I ordered a copy of this book from Amazon, but when it arrived it was in Döblin’ s original German, which was incompatible with my flowery Latinate soul. I mean, I couldn’t handle modernism in any language other than English even now, and my Spanish floats at the reading level where I get confused by anything non-representational, which is sad innit because I like poetry. (I know, I know, this will only be rectified by effort. Yayaya. I get it.)

Living for years in the library of my mind, I didn’t know what to expect when I came to read Berlin Alexanderplatz in the library of my eyes, only that it was meant to be good and was meant to be revolutionary. Unfortunately, I found it circuitous, vague and frustratingly dull for the first few days I was reading it, and though for the final hundred pages I found myself enjoying it a lot, Berlin Alexanderplatz made me reflect on the validity of the entire modernist project and wonder if, in hindsight, it was all bullshit.

One of the many reasons why Döblin’s novel is hard to enjoy is because of its anti-hero protagonist. Actually, that’s slandering anti-heroes, as Franz Biberkopf lacks the charm of those usually given that moniker.

Biberkopf is a career criminal who’s just been released from jail following a four year term for manslaughter after the death of his girlfriend, to whom he was physically abusive. Biberkopf decides to be well-behaved, but in Wiemar Germany (a couple of years before the Wall Street Crash but with all the factors in play that economic tragedy would exacerbate) he struggles to find “honest” work. He tries selling newspapers, but quickly ends up in a gang of thieves, though his cold feet midway through a job gets him pushed out of a moving car and he loses an arm as a result of the injuries. Once recovered, he becomes a pimp and a burglar again, but then the fellow burglar who earlier pushed him out of a car murders Biberkopf’s new girlfriend (who Biberkopf is also physically abusive to) and everything crumbles a little bit more.

The novel has tonal problems for a contemporary reader in its casual and forgiving presentation of male sexist violence, and it suffers too from a narrative directionlessness that is inevitable given its focus on a character who doesn’t have much going on.

Biberkopf is a flaneur whose thoughts are simple and boring, he is a nihilist who doesn’t intellectualise, he’s a pleasure seeker whose pleasures are no more complex than mine: his emotions and the emotions of his friends are curtailed by societal expectations and though Döblin may be accurately capturing the voices and behaviours of the criminal classes in 1920s Germany, these voices and behaviours aren’t especially engaging or revelatory. Isherwood it ain’t.

Of course, Berlin Alexanderplatz is not without merit, and the reason why I came to enjoy it by its end was the very reason that I struggled to enjoy it at the beginning: authorial digression.

Alfred Döblin – like his countryman Bertolt Brecht – loves a big fucking label telling you what’s happening, but he also loves quotation. This novel is a collage, whether incorporating “real” texts or not, it is a satisfying and believable evocation of the myriad texts and narratives that would have existed in Berlin at that time. There are excerpts from the bible and accompanying sermons, there are the lyrics of songs, there are adverts, newspaper articles, there are brief stories about peripheral characters, there are debates and dialogue, there are insights into the food and the drink and the nightlife and the sexlife of Weimar Germany. If the central characters and narrative of Berlin Alexanderplatz matched the vivid and electric realities of the novel’s form, it would have been a belter. If Döblin’s imaginative characterisation had been as sharp as his evocation (whether transposed or imagined) of experienced language, then this would have been one of the greatest modernist novels I’ve ever read. But Biberkopf and his friends weren’t interesting or charming enough to hold this reader. Every novelistic criminal doesn’t need to be a secret angel to be engaging, and nor do they need to be a psycho killer (qu’est-ce que c’est?), but they do need to have an arc OR a personality that can be swum within, especially in a book of this length. I didn’t care at all for Biberkopf.

///

Was Berlin Alexanderplatz – and all modernism – doomed to fail?

Was modernism based on a false premise, that it is possible to evoke, using language alone, the true, felt, lived experience of human life?

Modernism is inherently ambitious, but often overly so. Modernism gave us great works (obvs think of the best of Joyce and Woolf), but it also gave us some of the most turgid and dull bullshit I’ve ever had the misfortune to read (think of the worst of Joyce and Woolf).

It isn’t possible to put down on paper an objective depiction of subjective experience, but lots of modernist writers thought it was. There’s a lot of intellectual posturing, whether that comes from the moneyed parlour game tradition of Woolf or the self-conscious poorboy literary insecurity of Joyce, even those who are considered autodidacts of that period still had a fucking undergraduate degree from somewhere.

Döblin, like a lot of writers, was a medical doctor, and absolutely not of the class where he choose to set his most famous novel. He encountered people like Biberkopf: poor, desperate, mentally ill, maladjusted, in his professional life. Though these people aren’t depicted without sympathy, they are depicted as “other” from the voice of the narrator and the presumed ear of the reader. This is why, in my opinion, Döblin’s prolonged sections set amongst the criminal poor fail: he doesn’t know them as well as he thinks he does.

Berlin Alexanderplatz shines where it offers snapshots, because Döblin is good at reporting things he has seen, or things he could have seen. What he fails at is a knowable evocation of the interior lives of people completely different to himself. Even with these problems, if the book had been half its length I probably would’ve offered strong, though restrained, praise. As it is, it’s too long for its many faults to not to rub my readerly eye like a stone in a readerly shoe.

Modernists were intellectuals, committed to life lived in the mind as the only life that counts. DH Lawrence, my favourite writer of this period, wasn’t a posh fuck with intellectual insecurities, he was a lower middle class Midlander with insecurities about his body, which is much better for me to relate to lol. For obvious reasons.

This wasn’t worth waiting years to read, though maybe I’m being overly critical because I’m a bit bored. Lolololol. Going for something contemporary next.


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