Friday, 19 May 2017

Book Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin years of the Weimar Republic in Germany between 1919 and 1933 were a crucial period in European and world history. The political atmosphere after World War One and after the abdication of Emperor William II. was such that it prevented people both from coming to terms with the lost war and from developing trust in democracy and the parliamentary republic. Moreover, they were economically hard times that reduced many to poverty and left them in despair because life was only slowly getting better. Set in 1927/28 the German interwar classic Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin shows eighteen months in the life of Franz Biberkopf. He has just been released from prison and is determined to start a new, i.e. an honest life, but he’s a trusting kind of man and can’t understand why life puts obstacles into his way and everybody tries to drag him back into the world of petty crime.

Alfred Döblin was born in Stettin, German Empire, in August 1878, but the family moved to Berlin in 1888. After studies of medicine he worked as a doctor and published scientific articles, later short stories too. In 1913 The Murder of a Buttercup and Other Stories (Die Ermordung einer Butterblume und andere Erzählungen; two-volume English kindle edition: The Boat Trip and The Ballerina and the Body) came out and in 1916 followed his literary breakthrough with the novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun). As a military doctor in World War One, Alfred Döblin wrote the historical novel Wallenstein (1920) that marked the beginning of a prolific period with the novels Berge, Meere und Giganten (1924; Mountains, Seas and Giants) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) as much acclaimed highlights. In 1933 the Jewish author went into exile in France and the USA where he wrote several little noted novels, among them the four volumes of November 1918 (1949/50). He was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. After a short spell in Germany he lived in France until Parkinson disease urged him to seek relief in Black Forest clinics. Alfred Döblin died in Emmendingen, Federal Republic of Germany, in July 1957.

On a day in 1927 Franz Biberkopf returns to Berlin Alexanderplatz after four years in Tegel prison because in a jealous rage he had accidentally killed his mistress. Back in freedom he resolves to stay honest and becomes a street vendor of necktie clips, then newspapers. Before long he changes to selling shoelaces door-to-door and trustingly teams up with the uncle of his Polish mistress… only to be deceived by him. Completely shattered by such falsehood, Franz Biberkopf hides away and takes to drowning his disgust for the world in alcohol until a burglary in the cellars of his building rouses him from his stupor. Not wishing to get involved, he changes his lodgings and resumes selling newspapers. In a pub he meets Reinhold and impressed by his views he makes friends with him. He even agrees to “take over” Reinhold’s frequently changing mistresses and to later get rid of them although he doesn’t feel comfortable about it. Nonetheless, Franz Biberkopf has a good time. Then, on a Sunday in April, an acquaintance offers him a lucrative job and when he sees that he’ll be working with Reinhold he feels reassured. At night, however, he finds himself pushed into a dark hall and it dawns on him that despite him he is taking part in a burglary. On their flight from the scene Reinhold pushes him out of the driving car because he grudges him for having refused to relieve him of any more mistresses. Franz Biberkopf wakes up in a hospital bed without his right arm. Eva and Herbert, old friends from the time before his prison sentence, are there to help him back on his feet. Eva even introduces to him a lovely young girl whom he calls Mieze and who becomes his devoted mistress. Reinhold is afraid that he might betray him and he envies him Mieze…

The story of Franz Biberkopf is set in the German capital, more precisely in the typical working-class neighbourhood surrounding Berlin Alexanderplatz during the Interwar period. Although the novel focuses first of all on the psychological development of its protagonist from a self-sufficient and incredibly gullible ex-convict who feels pushed into underworld life against his will into a man who has learnt that he can’t go his own way without taking account of others, it also paints a striking portrait of German society in the late 1920s. There’s the all-pervading misery of the working class that followed World War One, killed mercy and forced or at least tempted scores of Germans into petty crime (including prostitution) because salaries, pensions and benefits hardly secured mere survival. Another topic that appears again and again in the background is the rise of the Nazi party that would bring Adolf Hitler to power in 1933. The main plot that is told from varying points of view is interspersed with newspaper articles, song lyrics, official announcements, a modernised tale of Job from the Old Testament, a rather shocking digression on the slaughterhouses of Berlin, and other montage texts. The language of the original German version is unpretentious and modern using (mitigated) Berliner dialect in direct speech.

Although Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin is one of the great and innovative German-language classics from the 1920s, the book didn’t send me into raptures. It certainly was a good, entertaining and also engaging novel that was more than just worthwhile my time, and yet, I never really got lost in the story, nor did I become particularly fond of the protagonist. Maybe it was its montage style that kicked me out of the flow ever again. Maybe I just don’t click with this author, at least not at this point of my life. Nonetheless, I profited from this admittedly rather long read because it added a few pieces to my knowledge about the hardships of life between the World Wars and how they paved the ground for National Socialism and the holocaust, notably in Germany and my own country Austria. All things considered, the book clearly deserves my recommendation.

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1 comment:

  1. I well know that mixed experience of reading an older book which does not thrill me but from which I learn some missing pieces of history.


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