Overcoming a Literary Nemesis: Berlin Alexanderplatz
June 8, 2012 9 Comments
By Rob Packer
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