“Berlin Alexanderplatz”, a German novel first translated in 1931, would be close to the top of any list of great European literature that remains largely unread in English-speaking countries. Until now…
The translator of the new edition, Michael Hofmann, is kind to his 1931 predecessor although he admits that the earlier version does sometimes get a little monotonous.
The challenge is the difficulty of translating a text that, notwithstanding shifts of linguistic register, is most at home with the proletarian patois of interwar Berlin. Hofmann deals with this by employing a working-class vernacular that drops in and out of cockney colloquialisms.
The result is a lively and easy-to-read narrative about sordid lives in Berlin set at a time when the Nazi party was beginning to attract attention.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz” works on a slow fuse – it’s difficult at first to get into the story and its jarring prose but both gather pace and escalate, becoming a page-turning descent into madness and social disintegration.
The anti-hero of Alfred Döblin’s novel is Franz Biberkopf – ‘transport worker, housebreaker, pimp, manslaughterer – just released from prison and trying to go straight by selling newspapers on the mean streets of Berlin.
He gets involved with some low-life criminals and pays for it by being thrown from a moving vehicle after being suckered into a burglary heist.
He develops a relationship with a young woman, Mitzi, whom he loves deeply while living off her income as a prostitute.
When a tragedy befalls Mitzi, Biberkopf temporarily loses his sanity and even when he returns to the semblance of a normal life his spirit has been broken. He becomes a wiser man at the end but pays dearly for it.
Alexanderplatz is the working-class area of Berlin that provides a setting not just for the bleak and unglamorous life and times of Franz Biberkopf but also for the evocation of the metropolis as a whole. With a prescient awareness on the author’s part, life in the city’s underbelly serves as a natural breeding ground for the incipient violence of Nazism.
This is a far cry from the glitzy allure of interwar Berlin being currently evoked in Netflix’s “Babylon Berlin”; a far more interesting rendition of the urban milieu was brought to television screens in 1980 when Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a serialization of the novel for German television.
Fassbinder was alert to the strange sadomasochistic element that characterizes Biberkopf’s dealings with the man who nearly kills him by hurling him out of a getaway car. Fassbinder’s own turbulent sexuality helps explain his awareness of what remains a troubling undercurrent in Döblin’s novel: the victim in thrall to the oppressor, submission and seduction as twin aspects of a search for grace.
It remains peripheral to the novel because it is Berlin itself that becomes the main character – its sounds, sights, ephemera, its politics and taken-for-granted sexism – and Döblin is not afraid to play with language in order to capture its complex identity. Verbal webs are spun from diatribes of all sorts – newspaper accounts, biblical tales, advertising, whatever – trapping people in voices not their own. The fate of Franz Biberkopf becomes emblematic of Germany hurtling towards mayhem.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz”, by Alfred Döblin, translated by Michael Hofmann, is published by Penguin Classics.