Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz - he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows - the hammer, the hammer comes down

The thing itself, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin as translated by Michael Hofmann.

Franz Biberkopf (BBK, Beaverhead) is an ex-con, just out of prison on the first page.  He has some typical adjustment issues.  He makes a half-hearted – sometimes perhaps three-quarters-hearted – attempt to go straight, but is pulled pack into his old world of gangsters and prostitutes.

So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9.  (Ch.9, 428)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a Bildungsroman, or perhaps a parody of a Bildungsroman, since Franz is pretty close to uneducable.  As in Wilhelm Meister or Green Henry, the hero develops by means of defeat, by the author stripping away the false layers.  In Goethe, the process is largely intellectual, but with Franz it is rather more physical.  He takes a beating.  Here is the summary of the seventh of the nine books of the novel:

Chapter Seven

In which the hammer, the hammer comes down on Franz Biberkopf.  (287)

Everything is taken away, including, possibly, Franz’s personality.  How else does Siddhartha become Buddha except by stripping away the worldly excesses?  Franz is pounded flat.

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it” (440, almost the last line).  The decadent end of the Bildungsroman tradition.

Much of Berlin Alexanderplatz has little to do with Franz directly.  Döblin inserts advertisements, songs, newspaper stories pretty much directly (collage via Kraus, “To return to the train accident on Heerstrasse, all the injured passengers were said to be improving in the hospital,” 179); he hops freely from subject to subject, spending lines or pages on rewriting Job (“You haven’t lost as much as Job from the land of Uz, Franz Biberkopf,” 366) or wandering through a slaughterhouse or interrogating the poster of some dumb comic play:

Deeper meaning must and can only stand alone.  Exuberant humor should be got rid of, the way Carthage was got rid of by the Romans…  (181)

This is not the narrator, of course, but his description of the attitudes of certain Berliners.  The narrator, he thinks deeper meaning should be buried under a junk heap.  He enjoys shifts of register, parody, ordinary speech, technical language, everything, all at once.  My arbitrarily favorite example is a couple of pages where the narrator ducks into the cafeteria at the Criminal Claims Court and watches some nobody (“A fat young man in horn-rims,” 291) enthusiastically eat his lunch:

His eyes rove about his plate, even though no one’s threatening to take anything away from him, no one is sitting anywhere near him, he is all alone at his table, but he is still worried, he slices and squashes and shovels, quick, one two, one, one, and while he works, one in, one out, one in, one out, while he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows, his eyes are wide open, his eyes are watching the diminishing quantity of food on his plate, guarding him like two Alsatians, alert to his surroundings.  (291)

That sentence is maybe more interesting than the norm – those dogs popping out of the eyes.  My one little bit of skepticism about Berlin Alexanderplatz is that the digressions and tone shifts don’t seem to make a more meaningful, artful pattern.  They mostly look like one thing after another, one thing piled on another.  Still, that’s what I found most exciting about Berlin Alexanderplatz – where will this nut go next?

Biblioklept’s review of Berlin Alexanderplatz points in many interesting directions, and describes pretty much how I read the novel.  I think I only borrowed one Döblin quotation from him.  A quote from Biblioklept himself: “Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you.”


  1. This has to be the only comparison in the known universe between Franz Biberkopf and Siddhartha. But it works.

  2. Hesse's novel was from 1922. It is something like the logical culmination of the Bildingsroman. After that, who can be anything but ironic, so you get Hans Castorp and Franz Biberkopf. How much "education" is really possible?

  3. Thanks for this. I googled Döblin and Cocaine while reading this, just to find out if some of it wasn’t written while he was high. A lot of it feels like improvisation. Some recurring quotes are used artfully, following a pattern but a lot feels just made up while writing. And so rushed, like a very quick stream. Are you saying you would have wished for the quotes, collage to be more rigorous?

  4. Yes, improvisation, exactly. Sometimes pretty high level improvisation, sometimes pure "Let's see where this goes!" And if whatever it is goes nowhere, who cares? It's the rush that matters.

    A more deliberately artful writer - let's say, antithetically, Flaubert - would kill the dead-ends and create patterns less blunt than repeating "Whore of Babylon" and the most famous bit of Ecclesiastes.

    There are likely other patterns that I missed completely, so in a sense I am totally wrong about this. But as you say, sometimes the novel at least felt like it was just spilling out. That may be an artful effect, itself.

  5. I suppose you noticed the more universally known like those taken from the Bible there were so many taken from German culture and popular culture, at times funny but not always clear why he used them. But used more subtly than the Whore of Babylon it Ecclesiastes. I suppose part of it was to capture the sound of the big city. It’s cacophony.

  6. The next English edition of this novel should be heavily annotated.