Continuum Books 2004
Reviewed by Michael Murray
German GP and psychiatrist, Alfred
Doblin published this masterpiece in 1929, Berlin. It immediately made a large
impact as one of the greatest works of German Expressionism.
Don’t let that put you off, look on it as one of the earliest and probably best European Modernist novels.
Originally published in English in 1961, this is a new translation, and a very welcome republication.
We are used to reading classic
novels set quite a while in the past; this one is set at the time of
publication. Doblin would have known his world intimately, working as a doctor
in the poorest areas of 1920’s Berlin. He would have first hand knowledge of the
characters he wrote about.
In Germany this period was the time immediately following the collapse of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, and the disaster of the economic meltdown. Indeed it was a period of relative economic stability, in the book American tourists are once again becoming staple fare in Berlin. It was a period when political forces were still in their infancy.
Into this melee, the microcosm of
Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, steps Franz Biberkopf on his release from the very
strict regime of Tegel prison. Determined to go straight, but with still unpaid
dues from his past, he is totally fazed by the bustle of the platz. Finding
relief in the wells of apartment courtyards he once again discovers the sound of
his voice, denied expression in the imposed silence and isolation of prison; he
sings at the top of his voice in the echoey courtyards the first thing that
comes to mind, an old song from the war, stirring, full of memories, wakening
him emotionally again, ‘The Watch on the Rhine’. A prescient song, maybe. But
still he cannot cope, is taken in by an intrigued young jewish man until the
panic passes. The rich jewish life, poor, isolated, but hospitable, is drawn
sympathetically. Biberkopf returns to them later in the book, to thank them for
their solicitude. He does not, of course, express it that way, but the pains he
takes to visit are genuine.
Franz Biberkopf rebuilds his life; it was not stopped so much as been held in suspension. He is a simple joe who feels most at home in the lower levels amongst buskers, papersellers….
‘So once again, and once again lets
roll along, roll along, merrily we roll along, tidumtididddledee and
once again merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along.’
This is, indeed, the tale of a
simple man, but he is by no means a ‘blank sheet of paper upon which the world
may write’, he already has a past, and it impinges upon him, sometimes for the
worst, sometimes with unexpected good fortune.
This is the story of a time in Berlin, of an underclass, and of a country struggling and hustling for survival, loaded with War Debt, loss of confidence, and economic collapse. Those with money cling onto to. But there are always those with money spare, those who keep a mistress.
This turns out to be a measure of security for a period. If she is careful… but many things conspire against her. Do we call these Fate? To call them anything else would be to adhere to one political ideology or another, and the vying two, the communists with their mouthfuls of rhetoric and promises, and the Right with their armbands, funny symbols, marching songs, are new guys in town. Franz sells papers for the Right for a while, but he cannot argue their points, he doesn’t really have their ‘raison’. No, Franz is no politico, he sells magazines, papers for anyone:
‘Danger of a crisis in the
Reichstag, talk of March elections, probably
April elections, which direction, Joseph Wirth? The Central German
fight continues. They may appoint an arbitration commission. Man
attacked by bandits ……’
even for an underground gay community.
Franz travels around the platz;
Doblin gives the buses, where they stop, their routes; he is a Baedaeker of the
period and the place.
The narrative sweeps seamlessly from authorial voice, to first person, to tertiary character second and third person; Doblin brings in popular songs, they heighten the narrative. Speech becomes the classic American of ,say, John Dos Passos: local, colloquial, and colourful:
‘And when Franz reaches her house
and stands there before the door,
there is the bell. He tears his hat off with a jerk, pulls the bell, and who
opens the door, who do you think – tickle, tickle – bing: a man! Her man!
It’s Karl… but it doesn’t matter. Just go on looking glum, old boy. I don’t
“So it’s you, is it? Whassa matter…?”
The translator of this edition, Eugene Jolas, has done a masterful job, he can summon the former manner: close, personal, colourful, but also capture the disinterested tone of the medical profession when Franz ends up interned in an asylum for a period.
I am not giving too much away here:
Franz is a survivor, the cost is great, but he survives.
Franz loses an arm, involved in a robbery he wants no part of. For a man who lives by his strength this loss is catastrophic. But he rallies, finds happiness again. This incident also brings into the story characters from Franz’s past, and his life broadens. But, as the author continually tells us, Franz is doomed, life has it in for him. Remember, he is a survivor. What is it to survive? He is an antihero supreme, not through wiles, or underhand dealing, you understand, but through his simple forward motion, the physics of inertia, of taking one breath after another, placing one foot after another.
The book is cinematic: Fassbinder in 1980 turned it into a classic of German cinema, it is a classic on many levels. It is also a cracking good read.