Notes from Untergrund

Berlin Alexanderplatz BY Alfred Doblin. edited by Michael Hofmann, Michael Hofmann. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 480 pages. $18.

The cover of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Some things can exist only on the verge of nonexistence. Like the novel, moribund since its inception—and like God, abidingly vulnerable to heresy and debunking—Berlin has always teetered toward death. It had died and died again by the time I moved there in 2012, when everyone said it was over.

But news of its demise hadn’t reached me, and my first weeks in the city were raw with stupid excitement. I seemed to live on trains: shuffling from one to the next, squinting at maps threaded with lines and knotted with stations, confused when the Strassenbahn, or street train, slouched under the Untergrundbahn, or underground train, which often ran overground. I lived, nominally, on the westernmost outskirts of the city, and I had to take a bus to the U-Bahn and then two U-Bahns to the S-Bahn to get to where the parties were, all the way in the east. I took the U2 train to Alexanderplatz, or the M48 bus to Alexanderplatz, or the S9 train to Alexanderplatz. Always Alexanderplatz, the central station where everything intersected, where old women cursed at tourists in croaking dialect and I once saw someone in leather walking a man on a leash.

The German Jewish writer Alfred Döblin arrived at Alexanderplatz a century before I did, but his 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz immortalizes a terminal as turbulent as the one where I waited so often, after those parties, for my train back home. The Weimar capital was a brief way station, a city preparing to rush off toward its next incarnation under the Third Reich. But Döblin’s chatty portrait endures: His essential novel, out in a new translation by Michael Hofmann, is a museum of fleeting speech, a polyphonic collage assembled from newspaper clippings, weather reports, and letters. Reading it is like listening in on a whole city at once.

It begins with the deceptive simplicity of a fairy tale or fable: “The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf.” But as soon as Franz reels out of Tegel Penitentiary, where he “did time for some stupid stuff”—that is, for bludgeoning his girlfriend Ida to death with an eggbeater—things get complicated. The “hurrying figures in trousers or flesh-colored stockings, all of them in a tearing rush,” are disorienting. The trams screech; the pedestrians push. In comparison, prison was calming.

When he recovers from his initial stupor, Franz vows to go straight—and this, too, proves complex. At first he takes odd jobs, selling everything from shoelaces to pornographic pamphlets, milling around in pubs and dance halls. He means well, but he’s criminally hapless: He has nothing against the Jews, but he peddles nationalist newspapers; he agrees to pimp out the woman he loves when she insists that her profitable infidelities are for his benefit; and, most naively of all, he falls in with Reinhold, a prolific womanizer who purports to deal in “fruit and veg”—a euphemism, it turns out, for armed robbery.

It isn’t long before Franz is sucked back into Berlin’s underworld, and he’s in for more terrible traumas before he alights at the end of the novel with hard-earned, jaded maturity (but without his right arm, severed around page 200). For him, as for Berlin, survival is a question of reincarnation: He lives because some version of him doesn’t.

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, 2017. Pxhere.
Alexanderplatz, Berlin, 2017. Pxhere.

The plot of Berlin Alexanderplatz is nothing to marvel over. More remarkable is the expansive generosity with which it transforms a life so small into a sprawling epic. Despite its tendency toward rhyme and riff, it’s less an heir to fairy tales than a text in the tradition of grand religious tracts. It careens between dramatically different scales of explanation: systemic exposition competes with molecular analysis, psychological speculation with myth. It may be the first novel of information, an early ancestor of anxiously encyclopedic tomes like The Recognitions and Infinite Jest. Döblin is endlessly interested, thus endlessly distracted.

Berlin Alexanderplatz flits and fumbles, whirling from one mind to another, seething from inner to outer. Its momentum is musical, and it returns again and again to the refrain of conductors chanting out train stops: “Mariendorf, Lichtenrader Chaussee, Tempelhof, Hallesches Tor, Hedwigskirche, Rosenthaler Platz.” Snatches of advertisements issue from nowhere, seemingly from the buildings. Litanies of statistics materialize on the screaming streets. Even inanimate objects have their say. A glass of beer snaps at Franz, insisting that he drink it.

The lines of the U-Bahn branch off like capillaries, and Döblin’s novel, a similarly divergent architecture, lends itself to offshoot and interlude. There are discursions on the anatomical mechanics of sexual potency, regional hunting law, and produce. There’s a lacerating excursus on slaughterhouses. The animals killed in Berlin abattoirs

come mooing and bleating down the ramps. The pigs grunt and snuffle, they can’t look where they’re going, the drovers are after them, swinging sticks. They lie down in the pens, tight together, white, fat, snoring, sleeping. They have been made to walk a long way, then shaken up in rail cars, now the ground under their feet is steady, only the flagstones are cold, they wake up, seek each other’s warmth. They are laid out in levels. Here’s two fighting, the bay leaves them enough room for that, they butt heads, snap at each other’s throats, turn in circles, gurgle, sometimes they are completely silent, gnashing in fear.

It’s impossible not to read this passage with an eye to what it presages. The cars cramped with terrified animals anticipate trains crammed with human cargo. But Döblin’s bumbling butcher, like the butchers to come, is not a deliberately bad sort. “He is only doing his job” when he carves “straight red slash[es]” across the pigs’ trembling throats.

Violence and ugliness quiver into quickening beauty without even pausing for breath. When Franz seduces Ida’s sister, she’s suddenly “softening as in a warm bath, do with me what you please, she dissolves like water.” A bald man on a walk in the park falls in love with a sweet young boy. A girl in an apartment complex keeps a secret diary: “I felt a bit better in the afternoon, but the good days are so few and far between. There is no one I can talk to as I’d like to.” Döblin’s sympathy is as exhaustive as his knowledge. He tumbles between lives and dialects and twitches between voices: His prose speaks over itself.

In 2008, Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Review of Books that “it is high time for [Berlin Alexanderplatz] to find a new translator brilliant and inventive enough to do justice to the text in English. Of course it is untranslatable, but that is no reason not to try.” Hofmann’s efforts may well be what Buruma was hoping for. An accomplished poet in his own right, Hofmann is acutely attuned to Döblin’s crass lyricism. At one point in the book, a woman rejoices that her husband, Otto, is not dead. Döblin rhymes the diminutive of “Otto” with a likewise diminutive version of the German phrase for “oh god,” Ach Gott: “Mein Ottochen, Achgottochen, ist aber gar nicht tot.” Hofmann’s ingenious rendering is: “My little Otto, oh God, my little Otto, he’s not dead a lot-to, or even a little-o.”

His language keeps pace with Döblin’s, which can barely keep pace with itself. No sooner has it burst into the pub, twirled off into the bedroom of a thieving caretaker conspiring with his wife, paid its respects to a fishmonger operating under an assumed identity, than it dashes off again.

“Ostring, Hermannsplatz, Wildenbruchplatz, Treptow Station, Warschauer Brücke, Baltenplatz, Kniprodestrasse, Schönhauser Allee . . .” Except during World War II, Döblin spent most of his life in Berlin. But even in a single city, he remained in febrile motion. He was a psychiatrist, then a physician, but he wrote in a newspaper questionnaire that Dr. Döblin was “only very distantly acquainted” with the writer who shared his name. He viewed his Judaism from a similar distance, as if he were a tourist there. His memoir Reise in Polen (Journey to Poland) was conceived as an answer to the question “Where do Jews exist?” He writes, “I was told: Poland. And so I went to Poland.”

Perhaps his firmest allegiance was to his class identity, and he once reported that he “belonged to this people, to this nation: the poor.” But his politics were as volatile as everything else about him. He was a vehement member of the Social Democratic Party until its members helped pass an anti-obscenity law in 1926, at which point he promptly defected. His Marxism was ambivalent. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, a carpenter tells Franz in the pub, “I don’t know the first thing about Marxism.” He continues,

If someone gives me a thrashing, I understand that. Or if I gotta job one day, and am out on my ear the next, there’s no orders, the foreman stays, the boss too, of course, but I’m on my bike. . . . I don’t need spectacles to understand all that. You’d have to be a camel in the zoo not to understand that. And you certainly don’t need Karl Marx.

Skeptical of theory and practice, opposed to poverty no less than effete communism, Döblin underwent conversions that were sudden and total. In his old age, he became what Günter Grass called a “Kierkegaardian Catholic” and renounced all his former writings. Early in his career he had ties with the Expressionists, but they soon faulted him for incorporating Futurist elements in his work. Of course, he rejected Futurism, too. In an impassioned letter to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, he concludes, “You tend to your Futurism. I’ll tend to my Döblinism!”And his Döblinism is absolutely his own, a peculiar traffic of jostlings and collision, always en route from one intensity to the next.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a beautiful, funny mess of a novel, a talking made text without losing any of its slangy jazz. Döblin, the Jewish Catholic, the Futurist Expressionist, the enigma, is the perfect chronicler of a place that is already another place. He bubbles and babbles “to Nordend, Schillerstrasse, Pankow, Breitestrasse, Bahnhof Schönhauser Allee, Stettiner Bahnhof, Potsdamer Bahnhof, Nollendorfplatz,” and onward. His prose can almost keep up with Berlin, which has never been what it used to be, which even now is on its way to something else.

Becca Rothfeld lives and reads in Somerville, MA.