The Genius of Berlin - Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin’s great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, is pretty much untranslatable. Much of it is written in the working-class argot of pre-war Berlin. A translator can ignore this, of course, and use plain English, but then you lose the flavor of the original. Or he can go for an approximation, adopting a kind of Brooklynese, for example, but this would not evoke Döblin’s louche Berlin milieu so much as Damon Runyon’s New York.1 John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, set in eighteenth-century London, was successfully reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill into a Weimar Berlin masterpiece, but that wasn’t a translation; it was a transformation, of place and time. 

Franz Biberkopf, the hero of Döblin’s novel, is a pimp, not a bad sort, but given to sudden helpless rages. He whipped one of his girls, Ida, to death with an eggbeater. But that is not how Döblin’s epic tale begins. It begins when Biberkopf is released from Berlin’s Tegel prison, paralyzed with fear at having to pick up his life again in the infernal metropolis. He meets a poor bearded Jew, who tries to comfort him with some Yiddish wisdom. Biberkopf’s spirits are further revived by a rough sexual encounter with Ida’s sister. He quickly finds a new girl, called Polish Lina. This time, he vows, Franz Biberkopf will be a respectable man, ein anständiger Mensch; this time, he will stay away from crime. But he can’t. In Döblin’s words (my translation):
Although he does all right economically, he is at war with an outside force, unpredictable, something that looks like fate.
Biberkopf wants to believe in human goodness. But the part of the metropolis he knows, concentrated in the mean streets around the proletarian Alexanderplatz (“Alex”) in east Berlin, grinds him down. He is punished for his naive trust in others.

Biberkopf’s fate, a sorry succession of shabby deals, drunken brawls, petty crime, and murder, is the stuff of a pulp novel or B-movie. At key moments in the story, he is betrayed by men he regards as his closest friends. Otto Lüders, the uncle of Polish Lina, gives him a share in his business as a door-to-door salesman of shoelaces. Biberkopf has sex with one of his customers, a grieving widow, whose late husband he physically resembles. In exchange for her moment of consolation, she gives him a fat tip. After he tells Lüders about his good fortune, Lüders proceeds to rob her. When he hears about this, Biberkopf goes on a drunken binge. But he still trusts his friend Reinhold, a petty mobster, who can’t bear to stay with the same woman for more than a week or two and insists on passing on one after another to Biberkopf. Since he grows fond of the women, Biberkopf calls a halt to these sordid transactions. Reinhold feels insulted.

Soon after, Biberkopf is tricked into taking part in a heist, and Reinhold almost kills him by pushing him out of the get-away car, hoping he’ll be run over. Biberkopf survives minus one arm. A new girlfriend, Mieze, moves into his room, passing on to him the money she makes in the streets. Reinhold, out of malice, envy, and contempt, wants to take Mieze away from Biberkopf. When she resists Reinhold’s advances, he strangles her. Biberkopf, blamed for the murder, goes temporarily mad, but he is not prosecuted and he emerges a saner, more mediocre, less delusional man. He is offered a job as a security guard in a factory. In Döblin’s laconic words: “He accepts. There is nothing more to say about his life.”

The greatness of Döblin’s novel lies not in the plot but, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder observes in his essay on the book, in the telling.2 Franz Biberkopf is one of the modern world’s richest literary characters, as memorable as Woyzeck, Oblomov, or Madame Bovary. We get to know him not just from the outside, as a fat, muscular, working-class Berliner, a lover of schnapps, beer, and women, an “unpolitical” man, a fixture of the bars and cheap dance halls around the “Alex,” but from the inside too, in a constant stream of interior monologues filled with his dreams, anxieties, confusions, hopes, and illusions.

Döblin has often been compared to Joyce, and Ulysses is sometimes cited as his model. Döblin always denied this, however. He wrote:
Why should I imitate anybody? The living language I hear around me is enough, and my past gives me all the material I need.
But he read Joyce after he had begun writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and said that the Irishman’s work had “put the wind in my sails.”3 In fact, both writers, living in the age of Freud and Jung, were attempting to do something similar, to break down the barriers between conscious behavior and subconscious drives by delving into the churning magma of their heroes’ chaotic inner lives.

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