Monday, November 25, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz and city literature

I’ve been spending my time in the 1920s, and the German Reading Month organizers kindly picked Alfred Döblin’s fragmented, jittery, pessimistic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) for a readalong.  It is a member of an odd genre, the “city novel,” where the city is not merely a setting for the novel but part of is “aboutness.”  The city infects everything in the book.  A number of writers in the 1920s worked on these creatures.

Find me a piece on Berlin Alexanderplatz that does not begin with a lot of other books.  This post will not be much more than a list of books.  Ulysses (1922), Manhattan Transfer (1925), Mrs Dalloway (1925), “The Waste Land” (1922), for example.  Most commonly Joyce’s novel, perhaps because we can be sure everyone subsequent read it, which helps when claiming “influence.”  Nobody reading in English or German was reading Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/16/etc.), which would have been an eye-opener.  Somebody writing about Berlin had read it – I’ll get to him.  Döblin actually read and reviewed Ulysses, in German, while writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and specific aspects of the one book pretty clearly infiltrated the other.  That helps.

Eliot aside, the poets are not given enough credit.  They were exploring the cities first.  Charles Baudelaire demonstrated, or created, the link between the city and the new, the modern, soon to become the Modern.  City people were restless and uprooted.  They were constantly moving.  The city was constantly changing.  How to capture any of that in writing, or notes, or paint?  Lots of experiments; lots of different ways.

Some of the great New York writers were Yiddish immigrant poets, read by no one else, like Moishe Leib Halpern’s In Nyu York (1919).  Or they were European visitors, like Federico García Lorca or Blaise Cendrars.  I should write about Cendrars later, too.

Something changed with the introduction of film, too, especially montage, leading to pure narrative-free “city film”’s like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  How to represent the city – how about a little of this, a little of that, just glimpses seen from the tram window?  Collage changed things – why invent an advertisement when you can just paste in a real one?  Karl Kraus, in Vienna, would sometimes “write” pieces that were little more than him pointing at an appalling ad or article that summed up the age.  Look at how the set, nominally London, of the first scene of G. W. Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera (1931) has so much text, just above the people.

Part of the fun of Modernism is enjoying the dense and rapid network of ideas and techniques, with Picasso leading to Stravinsky to Eliot to Eisenstein, perhaps through something identifiable as “influence,” perhaps not – it is so vague to say that ideas were “in the air,” but “influence” is inadequate, often even false.  Artists of all kinds are looking carefully at the world around them, and looking at their materials.  Sometimes they see the same thing.  Sometimes they represent it similarly.

Tomorrow I will try to write about books, although not Berlin Alexanderplatz, and not just arrange them, however fun that is.  The reader might think “Not sure this guy has that much to say about BA.”  The reader might be right.  The reader who has gotten this far should probably skip this post and come back tomorrow.


  1. I think painters were hugely influential. Futurism. And Georg Grosz and the likes. Interesting about Döblin and Ulysses. I never thought of Mrs Dalloway. I read Ulysses ages ago but seem to remember it was far more introspective. We’re always outside in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Like a camera.

  2. Some parts of Ulysses are purely interior or introspective, some minimally. That book does everything.

    Curiously, it is the introspection, the interior monologues, that are exactly what Döblin pumped up in BA after reading Ulysses. See this fascinating Breon Mitchell article for the evidence from the draft manuscripts.

    I guess I think that we're in Franz's head, and not just his, quite a lot. Sometimes he is the camera. The perspective moves around all the time.

    Otherwise much of the fragmented Ulysses-ness was already there in BA, pulled from movies and Grosz and that whole crazy Modernist mix. It's a reminder to me that that "influence" sometimes needs strong evidence. There is too much going on at the same time.

  3. Some BA trivia here. (Too bad I read the novel before the era of LH, so there's no general post on it.)

  4. It is a novel designed for internettin'. Minimally, looking at a map of Berlin.

    The Kleist reference I knew, I am happy to say, from reading Kleist. Prince Homburg spends much of his play fainting.