Friday, March 12, 2021

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)

Here's a novel that you sometimes hear about.  It's considered one of the foremost texts of modernism, and it was very popular in its time, but it seems to be comparatively neglected these days.  I feel like it's probably better-known of late through Fassbender's 1980 miniseries adaptation.  So, why not check it out?

So the plot here concerns a man named Franz Biberkopf, who has just been released from prison, where he'd spent a few years on a charge of manslaughter after killing his girlfriend.  Out in the world, he is adrift and hapless, drifting from job to job.  He becomes involved with a gang of robbers, but he ends up in an incident where he loses an arm, which causes him more mental anguish.  Obviously.  He kind of pulls himself together and goes back to rejoin that selfsame gang, but everything goes to hell when one of the higher-ups therein murders his prostitute girlfriend, Mitzi.  When this crime is revealed, he has a complete mental meltdown and is put in a mental hospital where he tries and fails to starve himself to death.  This precipitates a kind of rebirth, and as the novel ends he's in a humble but relatively content position.

Of course, that's just the plot.  This makes use of modernist techniques in a very bracing, forward-thinking way.  Dialogue is presented in long, undifferentiated paragraphs.  There are frequent seemingly irrelevant asides to recount news of the day, technical information, or old Biblical stories.  And also, it features the names of actual products, which is something that was only just beginning to be a thing.  There are obvious aspects of this description that may make you think of Joyce or Dos Passos, but this really doesn't feel very stylistically similar to other novelists writing in the same milieu.

This is a new translation, by Michael Hofmann, published in 2017.  As always, it's hard for me to say exactly how good it is, but it certainly SEEMS adroit.  I won't claim it never feels like a translation, but Hofmann makes good use of English idiom to--I am willing to blindly trust--bring across the essence of Döblin's work.

I do feel that this is a very accomplished novel.  It's definitely not one of the easier books I've read; one must work at it.  And yet, there are rewards, and there are actually some very memorable scenes, the most, to me, being the incredibly hard-to-read section concerning Mitzi's murder, punctuated with the "there is a season" stuff from Ecclesiastes.  I'm not going to tell you I was absolutely riveted every single second, but it seems like a book that you've gotta read if you're interested in books.  Döblin is a one-hit wonder for sure, but he wrote a bunch of novels, and is probably worth pursuing.  This long science fiction novel, which is being published for the first time in English translation this summer, looks extremely interesting.


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