Overcoming a Literary Nemesis: Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Rob Packer

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Reading tics and habits develop over time, but a lot of mine came from studying German literature at university. Novels, plays, secondary literature, late-night essay-writing, rowing almost daily, college bar, going out, friends, drinks, procrastinating, you get the picture. Ten years ago the best place to cut corners seemed to be with short texts: plays and novellas were in, novels were out. This nascent fear was only confirmed when a bout of bad planning meant I read the 800-odd pages of Buddenbrooks one rainy weekend (don’t try this at home, kids!). Thomas Mann deserved more and—at a more leisurely pace—is now one of my absolute favourite writers. What hasn’t changed is the irrational fear of starting long, or “hard”, novels. I flick the book’s pages, wince at the number of pages, a commitment-phobe’s Pavlovian shudder runs down my spine, the book is back on the shelf, I’m reading something else before I know what’s happened and the tome sits on my bookshelf mocking me. One of these long-time nemeses is, or was, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz—admittedly, not that long, just with a reputation for being difficult. It is, in a word, incredible.

It tells the story of Franz Biberkopf’s release from prison, his attempts to become “respectable” and his (re-)involvement in the criminal underworld of late 1920’s Berlin. It seems an inevitable path: the poverty of the city’s underclass is hopeless, employment almost impossible and casual violence everywhere—even Biberkopf’s guardian angels ask themselves if they’re completely powerless.

But for me, the plot took a backseat to Döblin’s brilliant narrative montage that ranges over streams of consciousness, switching from perspective to perspective. Words and phrases are snatched from internal monologue, overheard conversations, adverts, newspaper headlines, the weather forecast. References fly around to the Garden of Eden, Job, Greek mythology and contemporary song lyrics—some obscure; others, like a parody of ‘O Tannenbaum!’, immediate. It is full of bad grammar and the Berlin dialect’s wat and dat and fuffzich (think ‘fifty’, ‘what’ and ‘that’ with a Cockney accent). There is a description of sexual arousal that could be from a medical dictionary that becomes pseudo-mechanical (‘brake springs’) before ending with a few lines on impotence. And in a masterstroke, Döblin slows the pace to the tick-tock of iambic prose at a book’s climax, like the coordinated music and action of a spaghetti western. It really is head-scratchingly good stuff.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is the best-known of Germany’s Großstadtromane, its urban novel genre, and its technique of montage captures the cacophony of walking down the street or taking the underground in any of today’s big cities—and in Döblin’s day, this was new. Just as fascinating are the glimpses into the area of Berlin around Alexanderplatz and Rosenthaler Platz that I know well, like the old Jewish quarter of the Scheunenviertel, or a yellow-brick market hall on Invalidenstraße that I did my shopping in last month (today it’s a supermarket).

A fear is overcome then and a classic has become a personal classic. But I’m left with a niggling though: would I have appreciated it so much at another time without Berlin so fresh in my mind?

Do you have any books with reputations to scare you? What did you think when you finally read them?

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag 1929

Translated as Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf in Continuum Impacts, 2004

Part of a tenement in the Scheunenviertel of today’s Berlin.

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9 Responses to Overcoming a Literary Nemesis: Berlin Alexanderplatz

  1. Hi Rob,
    Very interesting piece. My knowledge of German literature is pitiful, so one of my answers could be ‘any piece of German literature’. I am intimidated by the size of Mann’s novels and whether it is worth the effort – after all I am grown up now and don’t have to force myself to read stuff to be able to write essays (I read French and Russian at university). Life’s too to read books I don’t enjoy – and there are so many books out there! I recently read some of Hoffman’s short stories in translation and was pleasantly surprised at how good they were. Any suggestions for things I might be missing from German literature, other than Doblin?

    From my own experience, I was daunted at the prospect of reading Proust. But I did read him over about 6 months, for part of which time I was actually living in France. In the end it became addictive and quite life-changing. I started to look at the world in a different way, seeing the interpenetration of life and art, how unknowable other people are, the elusiveness of memory.The problem is that after Proust nobody else is quite as good and it turned me away from reading fiction for a very long time.

    There are many other writers that I just can’t face, a lot of English ones in particular. To name a few: Dickens. George Eliot, Hardy, Lawrence, Conrad, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Amis pere et fils, many modern American writers, etc. All probably my loss, but as I said, life is short and I have to read what interests me, rather than what I feel I ought to read for my education.

    Peter

    • Rob says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for commenting. So many books, so little time, right? German literature, except Kafka, often gets overlooked in the scheme of things, unjustly really, as it really does have some excellent stuff (and you can argue reasonably convincingly that Romanticism was dreamed up in Germany).

      I can get that everything seems like a disappointment after Proust. Thomas Mann is worth it though and after Proust, you’ll have no trouble. My personal favourite in “Doctor Faustus”, the moral decline of a composer as he and country descends into the nightmare of the Third Reich. It also includes some of the best descriptions of music I’ve seen. Other good places to start in no particular order are anything by Kafka, “The Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse, “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass or Heinrich von Kleist stories. He’s not to everyone’s taste, but I also really like Goethe: try the poetry, “Werther”, “Elective Affinities” or “Faust, Part One”.

      Rob

  2. Marissa says:

    I have one literary nemesis that I have tried (twice!) to read, but still haven’t yet managed. It’s Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read in it so far, but somehow it always ends up crawling back up onto the shelf.

    • Rob says:

      Oh yes, a 1000-page monster like “The Brothers Karamazov” is exactly the kind of tome that I’m talking about! It’s always looked amazing and everything else I’ve read by Dostoevsky is excellent, but it’s that commitment thing again. I guess the secret is probably advance planning (I’ve never done that): knowing when you’re going to have time (a long holiday, a lot of commuting, etc.) and only read it then?

  3. Informative post; these days I shy away from the huge volumes because of time.

    • Rob says:

      Thanks for the comment. The time thing puts me off long books too!

      But for a different perspective, here’s a (quite convincing) quotation from “2666” by Roberto Bolaño, an absolute monster of a book, but also one of the most incredible, majestic and disquieting ones I’ve ever read:

      “He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

  4. Rob,

    Thanks for your reply and suggestions. It’s a long time since I read Kafka, so perhaps I should give him another go. I could never understand that snippet of information (from Max Brod?) that when Kafka read his work out loud to his friends they used to fall about laughing. I suppose you had to be there…Is he funny in the original? Perhaps it’s full of in-jokes which we just can’t get.

    Of your other suggestions, I read Faust part 1 a long time ago and tried some of Goethe’s poetry in David Luke’s parallel translation. Though I’m not a German speaker I got a sort of inkling of the musicality of Goethe’s verse. Currently, Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories have been staring down reproachfully at me from the bookshelf since I bought them in January. Are they worth reading? Germanists seem to rave about Kleist, so there must be something about him.

    Perhaps I will also have a crack at Mann at some stage. I suppose I have been put off by the label ‘novelist of ideas’ that has somehow got attached to him in my mind – that and ‘Death in Venice’.

    So many books – so little time!

    Peter

    • Rob says:

      There a lots of really odd things about Kafka. He’s supposed to have laughed (hysterically?) at his own readings as well. This is funny (not funny, haha though): I did my university dissertation on Kafka and read a lot of his work. The most he ever got out of me were one or two wry smiles.

      It’s interesting that you saw the musicality of Goethe’s verse. That’s exactly what it’s like: sometimes it just feels so incredibly effortless. Quite amazing really.

      Kleist is great, by the way and Th. Mann’s real ideasy novel is “Magic Mountain”. If that’s not what you want, that’s the one to steer clear of.

      Rob

  5. leifhendrik says:

    I read both ‘Buddenbrooks’ and ‘Der Zauberberg’ during a blissful period when I had most evenings after dinner until bedtime totally free. Both novels, which had put me off because of their length until then, became addictions for me. More precisely, I suppose, they became refuges. ‘Der Zauberberg’, especially, became a place I found myself needing to retreat to periodically. On a visit to Zürich, I kept gazing across the lake toward the location of the sanatorium and wanting to head there forthwith for an extended stay–like Hans Castorp. Even now, I look forward to a time when I’ll have enough freedom to retreat to these books again. ‘Buddenbrooks’ I read four times, for example, in the space of a year or two. They are kind of like a drug. I keep having flashbacks. They serve me as mini time machines, perhaps, which transport me not only back to the novels and their concerns but to my own concerns considered during the period when I was reading them.

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