1.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was published in Germany in 1929. It was a novel bearing the name of a giant train station, and its immediate notoriety was due to its aura of metropolitan switchback and speed. No one, it seemed, had reproduced the wild cancan of a city with such meticulously wild techniques. In the nickelodeon theaters, audiences went to watch a quick-change succession of shorts—and now here, so argued its admirers, was the nickelodeon’s novelistic equivalent. Its author, Alfred Döblin, the son of a Jewish tailor from Stettin who practiced as a doctor, was a star of the Expressionist movement. His schtick was garish prose, tonal dissonance, and outlandish subjects: psychosis, suicide, lesbian murderers, anarchist revolution in eighteenth-century China. With Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin used his garish effects on his own drab neighborhood, the working-class environs of Alexanderplatz, and in the process created his most famous and influential work—praised by Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, and later made into a television miniseries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Museum of Modern Art, New York/© 2018 Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NYGeorge Grosz: Metropolis, 1917

Berlin in 1929 was the junk city, total modernity. It was so modern that no one knew how to live in it, let alone describe it. In the same year Franz Hessel concluded his flaneuring masterpiece Walking in Berlin with a dejected exhortation:

We Berliners must dwell in our city to a much greater degree. It’s not at all easy, neither the viewing nor the dwelling in a city that is incessantly on the go, always in the middle of becoming something different and never at rest in yesterday’s form.

Berlin was maelstrom, and Alexanderplatz was the city’s microcosm. Now it’s an abstract plaza dominated by the Fernsehturm—the TV tower left over from the GDR. In the 1920s it was a bureaucratic and commercial square, with the Police Presidium, the Tietz department store, and a railroad running down its side. Its atmosphere was hustle, in both legal and illegal forms. And then, toward the end of the decade, a decision was made to build a new and vast subway station under it, turning the square into a giant construction site: a concrete metaphor of the city’s whizzbang novelty, and bass line to Döblin’s novel.

The novel’s first appearance in English was suitably high-speed too. Just two years after its publication, in 1931, Eugene Jolas published a translation that was inventive and intermittently brilliant. Jolas, who was born in New Jersey to a French father and German mother, was the editor of transition, the haute magazine of international modernism, publishing Beckett, Stein, Joyce’s Work in Progress, Atget, Brancusi, Braque, Picasso, Desnos, Gide, and Rilke, as well as an early translation by Jolas of Kafka. Jolas’s poem “Express,” published in transition, gives the general high-speed vibe: “Wheels scream in fevered crash of speed.” No wonder he loved Berlin Alexanderplatz. Reading Jolas’s translation now, however, it’s not always easy to understand the reason for the zeitgeisty excitement, and this is partly due to his solution to the crucial problem of this novel: its saturation in a collage of multiple languages, including a clotted Berliner patois. Jolas decided to make his characters speak in a kind of Ring Lardner Americanese, which makes the novel unintentionally comical, an artifact of picturesque language, like some Sunday night movie on a nostalgia channel, not the torrential act of transcribing it aspired—and seemed—to be.

But thinking about this problem again, and reading the new—also brilliant, also flawed—translation by Michael Hofmann, I wonder if in fact Jolas’s problem wasn’t specific to his translation but exposed something strange about the original itself. What I mean is: you can’t consider this novel’s translations without first understanding its unique and unnerving structure.

The best contemporary essay on the book was Walter Benjamin’s “The Crisis of the Novel.” The review expanded, like an umbrella, from a single intuition: “The stylistic principle governing this book is that of montage.”

Petty-bourgeois printed matter, scandalmongering, stories of accidents, the sensational incidents of 1928, folk songs, and advertisements rain down in this text. The montage explodes the framework of the novel, bursts its limits both stylistically and structurally, and clears the way for new, epic possibilities.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz Benjamin saw a way out of nineteenth-century interiors into the full modern wilderness. Which also meant that he saw a way out of the nineteenth-century novel. Instead of the dead exploration of psychological ambiguity, wrote Benjamin, Döblin wanted to base his novel on an explosion of pure fact. It wasn’t a novel, therefore, it was an epic. Epic, for Benjamin, meant total objectivity. Its essence was montage because montage was an arrangement of brute matter. And the purest form of material a novelist could use was language. “The book is a monument to the dialect of Berlin,” wrote Benjamin. “He speaks from within Berlin. It is his megaphone.” Or also: “It is rare indeed for the waves of incident and reflection to sweep over the reader and destabilize his comfort to this degree, and the spray of actual spoken speech has never given him such a soaking as here.”

Benjamin was just redescribing with panache Döblin’s own stated theory. In his Berliner Programm, written in 1913, Döblin had first pursued a dream of a new novel, beyond the usual territory of desires and motivations. The future novel, he wrote, would exist independently, the way the world exists: “The book as a whole must not seem to be spoken, it must seem to be concretely there.” And it would do this by refusing any idea that a self possessed an interior: “I am not I, but the street, the lanterns, this and that event, nothing more.” Fifteen years later, in 1928, while he was immersed in the writing of Berlin Alexanderplatz, this theory had developed a mutation. A self wasn’t just its streets, its environment. It was also the language that surrounded it: “There is a productive power and a compulsive character inherent in every style of language.” The modern self was a side effect of vaster forces: architectural, biological, linguistic. And so, to be equal to the modern, a novel had to be equal to this panorama of crowds and power. It had to become a world.

And of course this Weimar theory is seductive and delightful. I love the idea of this novel. Who doesn’t want the world novel? The problem is the novel itself.

2.

For Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t total twentieth-century delirium. It is nineteenth-century, too. It has a basic story—and a hero, Franz Biberkopf. And its basic meaning is described in Döblin’s opening page, which offers an abstract of the novel to come:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

The story will end, writes Döblin, with our hero’s illumination (a bildungsroman!):

A radical cure has been performed on Franz Biberkopf. And in the end we see our man back on Alexanderplatz, greatly changed, considerably the worse for wear, but straightened out.

To see and hear this will be worthwhile for many readers who, like Franz Biberkopf, fill out a human skin, but, again like Franz Biberkopf, happen to want more from life than a piece of bread.

The novel describes a moral odyssey, and it opens on Biberkopf’s release from Tegel prison after a four-year sentence: “a man on whose arm a pretty girl from an engineer’s family once hung, whom he turned into a whore and finally beat up so badly that she died.” He may seem related to German modernism’s ferocious sex monsters, like Fritz Lang’s M or Robert Musil’s Moosbrugger, but for Döblin he’s an everyman—an outlier everyman. This figure of the ex-con has two uses for Döblin. His early stories were experiments in deranged perspective, and Biberkopf’s idea of reality is warped by an anxious semipsychotic paranoia: “The façades were never-ending. There were roofs on the buildings, floating on the buildings, his eyes bounced around. Heaven forbid the roofs should slip off, but no, the buildings were steadfast.”

ullstein bild/Getty ImagesAlfred Döblin, 1929

But maybe more important is the fact that he has been cocooned in Tegel prison. That time lag is the single mechanism controlling the novel’s teeming texture. Biberkopf goes out into the world and is overwhelmed. His release exposes modernity as the pure experience of shock. (Which is why Fassbinder wasn’t so wrong when, for his TV series, he turned the novel into a succession of snug interiors—bars and bedrooms—famously filmed with a silk stocking stretched over the lens, to make the light even more nostalgically soft. Those cocoons are the only places where Döblin’s characters feel safe, removed from the modern bombardment of words and images.)

The tram turned a corner, trees and buildings interposed themselves. The streets were full of bustle, Seestrasse, people got on and off. Something in him screamed: Watch out, watch out. The tip of his nose felt cold, something brushed his cheek. Zwölf Uhr Mittagszeitung, B.Z, Die neuste Illustrierte, Die Funkstunde. “Any more fares?” The police have blue uniforms now.

And what happens to Franz Biberkopf after his release is gradual, bewildering, implacable suffering. He meets a girl, gets a job selling newspapers, is befriended by a charismatic man called Reinhold, then gets himself involved in a gang robbery that goes wrong. In the escape, Reinhold pushes him out of the getaway car, and Biberkopf is run over so violently that his arm has to be amputated. He convalesces, meets a new girl called Mieze (called Mitzi in the translation), whom he loves, and becomes a fence and pimp. But this brief period of (criminal) happiness is thwarted again by Reinhold, who tries to rape Mieze and, when she resists, kills her. Initially, Biberkopf is suspected of the murder. The trauma of the accusation causes him to go mad, so he is kept in an insane asylum—where he eventually reaches a point of total self-knowledge and self-hatred, self-knowledge as self-hatred:

Franz howls and howls, I am guilty, I am not a human being, I am a beast, a monster.

At that hour of the evening, Franz Biberkopf, former transport worker, housebreaker, pimp, manslaughterer, died. Another lay in his bed. This other has the same papers as Franz, looks like Franz, but in another world he bears a different name.

Eventually Reinhold is arrested, tried, and found guilty of Mieze’s murder. And Biberkopf is released—just as he had been released at the novel’s opening. The novel ends with Biberkopf’s new chastened life: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.”

The novel’s armature, therefore, is wayward melodrama. It’s strange to see Hofmann in his afterword argue that the novel has “good bones”; and even stranger to see him argue that Franz’s story is “told in the little chapter summaries and episode titles.” For this novel’s plot is soggy, unconvincing—made out through the nebulae of Döblin’s minute and indirect narration. If its events are bones then they’re more like overcooked fish bones, gluey and deliquescent, while the exoskeleton of its episode titles and chapter summaries isn’t really concerned with plot description at all. What, for instance, is being told in Chapter 4’s intertitles?

A handful of people round the Alex

Biberkopf anaesthetized, Franz curls up, Franz doesn’t want to see anything

Franz, on the retreat, plays a farewell march for the Jews

For as with animals, so it is with man; the one must die, the other likewise

Conversation with Job, it’s up to you, Job, you don’t want to

And they all have one breath, and man has no more than the beasts

Franz’s window is open, sometimes amusing things happen in the world

Hopp, hopp, hopp, horsey does gallop

Sure, these paraphernalia are crucial, but not as plot notes. This novel is a parable. In an otherwise opaquely slow opening, Biberkopf meets two kindly Jewish men in the Scheunenviertel neighborhood. They give him shelter, advice, altruistic affection. They are a way station into the world of Berlin. But they’re really there, I think, not only to demonstrate the novel’s Ostjuden street smarts, but its allegorical meaning. Part of this novel’s collage is its high-culture allusions—to Orestes, Isaac, and in particular Job. The novel is an Old Testament parable, an investigation into the meaning of suffering. Biberkopf leaves prison and enters the metropolis of wild freedom. He believes that he will find meaning in this life, that happiness is something he can create. And he is taught that there is no way of controlling a life, or happiness—that there is no possibility of a plan. The world is an overwhelming system. What awaits us, in the novel’s final sentences, is utopia and war, a festival of slogans and nonsense:

The road is into freedom, into freedom, the old world is doomed, wake up, dawn air.

And link arms and right and left and right and left, and marching, marching, we’re marching into war, with us are 100 comrades, they drum and play, widdeboom widdeboom, one’s all right, the other’s all wrong, one stops still, the other falls down, one runs on, the other lies still, widdeboom, widdeboom.

Fassbinder gleefully picked up on the book’s muted political investigation, converting Biberkopf’s delirium in the asylum into a Nazi phantasmagoria. And it’s true that in the current neofascist era it would be possible to read the story of Franz Biberkopf as a lesson in the dangers of political apathy. But I think a more accurate interpretation can be found in Brecht’s later disillusion with Döblin—his impatience with Döblin’s theology. On August 14, 1943, Brecht recorded how the exiled German intelligentsia had given a sixty-fifth birthday party for Döblin in Los Angeles—featuring readings, Berlin songs, and a speech by Heinrich Mann. Döblin then got up to give a speech “against moral relativism and in favor of well-established norms, religious in character, wounding in this way the irreligious sentiments of the majority of the party’s guests”:

When D began to outline how he also had made himself complicit, along with many other writers, in the ascent to power of the Nazis… I naively thought for a few minutes that he was going to continue: “because I airbrushed the crimes of the powerful, discouraged the oppressed, fed the starving with songs, etc.,” but he was content to continue, stubborn, impenitent, without remorse: “because I did not search for God.”

But you don’t read this novel for Biberkopf or its wobbly ideological lessons. You read it for the neon signs and general hubbub—for the montage. The zigzagging panorama that Benjamin adored is what still makes this novel exciting. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one huge effort of incorporation, the novel creolized. Every page is a flamboyant improvisation of registers and discourses and linguistic codes, like this way of triply describing Franz’s fiasco with a prostitute, lurching paragraph by paragraph from comic scene to interior monologue to medical textbook:

“You do make me laugh. You can lie still a moment. I’m not bothered.” She laughed, extended her plump arms, pushed her stockinged feet out of the bed. “It’s not my fault.”

Out on the street! Air! It’s still raining. What can the matter be? I better find myself another one. Have a good sleep. Franz, my boy, what’s wrong with you?

Sexual potency in the male is produced by the following, working in concert: 1. the glandular system, 2. the nervous system and 3. the sexual organs.

There are weather reports, cinema posters, property prospectuses. And minutely, pervasively, there is the language of newspapers. Biberkopf’s first job is as a newspaper seller, and the newspaper—the machine for the production of ersatz language—is a central character in this novel’s psychodrama:

Travel supplement. When the bitter season has broken into our chilly northland, between snow-sparkling winter days and the first green of May, we feel drawn—an ancestral urge—to the sunny south beyond the Alps, to Italy….

Fatalistic speech from Marx, the Chancellor Marx: What lies ahead of us is according to my beliefs in Divine Providence. God has made His separate compacts with every nation. What individuals can do is strictly limited.

It’s this kind of montage that makes it very similar to other collage novels from the 1920s, especially Ulysses. Both Benjamin and Fassbinder rejected comparisons with Joyce, but the influence is undeniable. Just listen:

Franz Biberkopf steered his body in grey-green soldier’s coat through the crowd, little women standing at stalls buying vegetables, cheese, herring. Someone was flogging onions.

People do their best. Kids at home, hungry mouths, little beaks, open, shut, open, shut, click clack, just like that.

Locally, Döblin took from Joyce’s novel a method of interior monologue, and globally a perception that consciousness was constantly being invaded by dead bits and pieces of language: a zombie-collage aesthetic. Why deny it? For Döblin also invented two techniques specific to Berlin Alexanderplatz. The first is its gradually revealed anonymous narrator, a kind of cosmic explainer. It’s a voice that’s first heard in the jacket copy on Fischer Verlag’s first edition, and continues in its opening synopsis, then the chapter summaries and episode titles, until gradually Döblin claims this voice as his own and speaks directly to the reader: “This Berlin Alexanderplatz book of mine is about the fate of Franz Biberkopf and everything in it is correct, you will want to read and inwardly digest it, it has its palpable truth.”

In exposing even the novel’s construction, Döblin was following his basic crazed principle: every element of a novel should be pursued further than it had been before. And this led him to his second exaggeration of the art of montage: refusing to follow an innate logic of limited narrative perspective. Any small element could suddenly become the center of its own system. There’s a moment, for instance, when after a long scene in a bar, Biberkopf finally leaves. The classical novel would naturally leave the bar when its hero does—but instead this novel’s attention wanders back inside and contemplates the landlord:

The landlord props himself against a brass beer tap, his tongue prods a new filling in his lower jaw, it has a metallic taste, little Emilie needs to go out in the countryside this summer, or to Zinnowitz to summer camp, the girl’s ailing, his eyes encounter the green leaflet again, it’s lying a little slant, he straightens it, a touch of obsessiveness there, he can’t stand to see anything crooked.

It has a metallic taste! I love the way Döblin cannot help describing this landlord, and then his filling, and then the way this filling tastes—before continuing inside the landlord’s perspective for two or three more dense paragraphs. Just as I love this random description of a kid waiting at a tram stop, which suddenly fast-forwards through his entire future life:

The lad, Max Rüst…will work for Hallis Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five.

These are such destructions of the ordinary ideas of form, and they constitute the novel’s great beauty. At every point in this narrative, through wild switches in tone, or perspective, or conventional length, Döblin risks his novel’s teetering equilibrium.

3.

And that constant careering, I think, is why this novel’s translations are so uneven, too. Hofmann is a wonderful translator: a one-man Bibliothek. He has remastered the sardonic bleakness of Joseph Roth’s prose or Gottfried Benn’s late poems in uniquely precise recreations. And yet his afterword to this translation is oddly chastened and subdued. “It is one thing to be lost in an original,” he writes ruefully, “something else to be lost in a translation. A translation is unwilling, perhaps, to allow or stand up to the amount of interrogation from the reader that an original must expect.” This is the basic melancholy of translation. The logic of original and copy is so powerful that a translation is always in danger of losing its authority.

The problem with translating Berlin Alexanderplatz is that it is so careless with its authority already—a wildness that’s grounded in the novel’s scribbled Berlin dialogue, crisscrossed like an action painting. The patois is so specific that you either transpose it in translation to a specific equivalent—the way Jolas tried, and failed, in American—or instead deliberately, as Hofmann does, blur the locale. His solution, he writes, was to aim for “the regional unspecific”—to create an impossible Anglo-American slang specific to no single time or place. I understand the aim, but—as with Jolas—the practice is a problem. Characters who can talk of old school London “geezers” as well as supermodern New York “smarts” become weirdly opaque: pure literature, not pure fact. And their lowlife conversations resemble blocked linguistic contraptions, not fizzing audio transcriptions:

“A clever lad, as you see.” “How did he come to be with you?” “He will have tried a spot of fencing. We always used to stick together and watch him getting roughed up. But best give the others a wide berth. Let them go. Stay decent and keep yourself to yourself. That’s what I say.”

“I see,” said Mack and looked at him coldly. “Then we could all pack up, that’s pretty shabby of you, that puts the kibosh on everything.” “It’s only those who want to can pack up, we’re not worried.” “Franz, I’ll say it again, you’re a wet rag. You’ll get your comeuppance.”

I’m not really complaining. I can’t think who would be the ideal translator of this novel: Raymond Queneau, maybe, or Thomas Pynchon. It was already unbalanced, and the act of translating it makes it spin even more uncertainly and wildly. And in fact what’s wonderful about Hofmann’s translation is how many little eddies and atmospheres of overlooked material remain luminous in their English transposition. Hofmann rightly picks out a passage late in the novel where Döblin produces a prose poem out of Berlin’s flat suburbia:

Suffer them to approach, the lonely brick houses giving out a reddish light, suffer them to approach, the freezing travellers, the drivers of the carts bringing vegetables into the city, with the little horses pulling. The great, flat, mute plains that the suburban trains and the expresses rumble across, spilling white light in the darkness to either side.

Maybe the biggest aesthetic problem is always this problem of incorporation: of forcing a form to ingest moods or atmospheres that are considered to be unthinkable. And in Berlin Alexanderplatz, in any language, Döblin provides a helter-skelter model.