Originally published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin, has been newly translated by Michael Hoffman and published by the New York Review of Books press. This novel is a classic of German literature for its portrayal of Weimar-era Germany and its use of sound effects and other cutting edge (at the time) writing techniques. I marvel at Hoffman’s ability as a translator because he was able to translate a lot of the weirdness so that it made sense, while preserving Döblin verbal fireworks and the central tale of Franz Biberkopf’s trials and tribulations.
The novel opens when Biberkopf is released from Tegel Prison. He has just finished serving four years for beating his girlfriend so badly she died of her injuries. I was never able to forget this fact in spite of the novel’s attempts to get readers to sympathize with Biberkopf. And it certainly does try. Over the course of the novel, Biberkopf gets tangled up with criminals more dangerous and intelligent than he is, only to suffer the consequences (which include losing his right arm after his nemesis throws him out of a moving car). He wants to go straight but, in the late 1920s, there are few options for a man with no skills, a violent temper, and lacking in the brain department. It’s really just a matter of time before he ends up dead or in prison. The only mystery is how that happens.
There are frequent references to Job, the Whore of Babylon, and Death (who does make an appearance late in the novel) that reminded me of old medieval Everyman plays—though a lot dirtier. In the Everyman-type plays, an ordinary man seeks heaven or atonement while life and fate through everything they can at him to try and knock him off the straight and narrow. Without these references, Biberkopf’s story is rather sordid. I mean, it’s sordid anyway, but the references force us to take a step back and think about what we might have done in Biberkopf’s shoes. Would we have been able to go straight with a criminal record and no trade? The closest Biberkopf gets to making legitimate money is selling copies of Völkisher Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper.
I was entertained by the openings of the chapters that seemed to be taken straight from the front pages of the many newspapers referenced in Berlin Alexanderplatz. While Biberkopf gives us a view of his little corner of criminal Berlin, the excerpts give us a better look at a vibrant city with all sorts of ventures in the offing—they also show us many stories of people reinventing themselves only to be exposed, providing frequent doses of foreshadowing for Biberkopf. These snippets might have been my favorite part of Berlin Alexanderplatz, given my dislike of Biberkopf and the portrayal of the women as hysterical dupes who, for some reason, work to support men like Biberkopf who just mooch off of their earnings.
In translating the word salad that is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hoffman used low class London accents to try and capture the flavor of Biberkopf’s criminal acquaintances. In fact, there are parts that are translated as “Leave it aht.” I understand why. More English speakers are familiar with how low class Londoners sound—at least from the movies—than they would be with how low class Berliners would’ve sounded. But this struck me as odd more than once as I made my way through the book. I kept forgetting we were in Berlin in 1929 until someone mentioned marks or the litany of S-Bahn (tram) stops started up again. I can’t fault Hoffman too much; this book must have been a monster to translate.
Even though it was a challenge and I hated the protagonist, I’m glad I decided to read Berlin Alexanderplatz. It really does capture a time and a place that was definitively lost a few years after the book was published. More than that, the Weimar-era is a time and place that personally fascinates me because it gave rise to Hitler and National Socialism. There are hints of what’s coming in this book, but the sense I got was that everyone seemed like the party and the liberties would continue forever—except for the doomed Biberkopf, anyway.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.