Berlin Transfer

November 9, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. 1929. French translation by Olivier Le Lay. (2008)

Doblin_BerlinMy good resolution for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy was to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. I’ve read 225 pages out of 625 and then decided that life was too short and my reading time too limited to force feed myself with more of Franz Biberkopf’s struggles in Berlin from the 1920s.

Here’s the story. Franz Biberkopf is freshly out of prison. He was condemned after killing his wife in a domestic fight. Now that he’s free, he determined to stay on the right side of law. But things aren’t easy outside when nobody is expecting you, when you’re alone in a metropolis and where you’re doomed to remain in the shady part of society.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a great novel. I’d say it echoes to Manhattan Transfer which was published in 1925 and in a way it resonates with No Beast So Fierce for its ex-convict theme.

Döblin and Dos Passos have the same sense of describing the bowels of a city, be it Berlin or New York. The form of their novel is similar with chapters describing the city and the people and their struggle to survive. Döblin concentrates on Franz Biberkopf while Do Passos creates a whole gallery of characters, giving a real feeling of the town. Manhattan Transfer pictures a wider range of social classes and this is where Döblin joins Bunker. Both show the city’s unsavoury neighbourhoods, in Berlin and in LA. Bunker describes wonderfully how difficult it is to go out of prison, have no one to welcome you and help you outside. Biberkopf wants to be honest now and turn over a new leaf but the economy is bad and he has trouble finding a job. I can’t tell more about the book since I’ve only read one third of it.

Döblin’s style is, I suppose, modernist or experimental, whatever that means. It’s not easy to read but Dos Passos isn’t easy either. I believe both brought something new to literature. My copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz is translated by Olivier Le Lay. It’s a new translation and he did an outstanding job. He translated the German into the French from the east of the country. For example, he wrote tu es schlass, which means you’re knackered. In common French, you’d say tu es crevé. Schlass is really a word we use in Alsace-Moselle. Sometimes, Le Lay also translated the German usage of putting a definite article before proper nouns. Like here: eh ben la Fölsch, elle est ben étalagiste, literally well, the Fölsch, she’s a window dresser, isn’t she? This use of the definite article before a proper noun is allowed in German and is used in popular French in Alsace-Moselle. In addition to these ways of germanising the French, he also translated accents to give a better idea of the atmosphere of the book. So the French reveals the German and you really feel like you’re in Germany and you forget it hasn’t been written in your language.

So after reading this, you wonder “If it’s that good, why did she abandon Berlin Alexanderplatz?” especially since I LOVED Manhattan Transfer and No Beast So Fierce. Why couldn’t I finish it? The reason I see is that Do Passos and Bunker instilled warmth and life in their work. Their characters are alive and human. Franz Biberkopf is cold. Döblin doesn’t explore his feelings enough. He’s a cog in a machine-city that crushes people. I couldn’t care less about him and what would become of him. I wanted to know what would become of the characters Dos Passos created and I wanted Bunker’s Max Dembo to escape his criminal fate. I rooted for them, I was interested.

The coldness I mentioned before prevented me from enjoying myself. I wasn’t willing to put more energy in this long novel. I was confronted again to the same experience with German literature that I’ve had before. I haven’t read many German books but each time I was dissatisfied. They were cold, the characters aloof. As a reader, I’m in a position of looking insects into a microscope, not of sharing a human experience. The writer doesn’t manage to reach out to me. Please, leave recommendations in the comments about German books that aren’t heavy and stuffy. Introduce me to let’s say, the German Nick Hornby or Alberto Moravia or Richard Russo or Philippe Besson. Otherwise, I’m going to think I need to stick to Austrian writers when German language literature month arrives.

For a review of Berlin Alexanderplatz by someone who’s read the entire book, read Max’s review here. Despite my poor experience with Döblin, I still recommend Berlin Alexanderplatz.

  1. November 9, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    I have this and I considered it for GLM but it’s currently packed away in a box somewhere. I doubt I could find it if I tried.
    I will read this one day due to the Fassbinder connection. Fassbinder is my favourite director, and he made the 15 1/2 hr film of this.

    For German lit month, I think you would enjoy Silence which I just read by Jan Costin Wagner (set in Finland), and I also just read Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night which I’ll be reviewing soon.

    It has that coldness you mentioned, but it was a really good novel IMO.


    • November 9, 2014 at 10:10 pm

      Someday you’ll have time to sort out and tidy all your books! 🙂

      I’ll try Lune de glace by Jan Costin Wagner. I think it comes before Silence. Peter Stamm is Swiss but I have to try him someday.


      • November 9, 2014 at 11:31 pm

        My Stamm review is going up tomorrow.


        • November 10, 2014 at 9:09 am

          I’ll read it, as usual.


        • November 11, 2014 at 12:05 am

          I’m waiting for the German-language paperback to come out (start of December) – already pre-ordered, so I’m just counting the days 🙂


  2. November 9, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I really liked this, but for me it had a lot in common with German cinema of the period and I think consciously used cinematic techniques.

    Still, “insects into a microscope” is pretty fair. This is a cold novel. It’s a dissection of a society more than a character study, and I agree it doesn’t aim for the warmth of the Dos Passos. Perhaps that reflects Berlin against New York, or perhaps just the two authors, I don’t know.

    Anyway, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it but at least you bailed at a sensible point. Frankly if it’s not working for you at page 225 I don’t believe it would have been any better for you at 325.

    Nice notes on the translation by the way. There’s a huge amount of slang in this novel, it must be a nightmare to translate.


    • November 9, 2014 at 9:50 pm

      I think it reflects more the authors than the cities. Berlin was pretty wild at the time and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel is warm as well and set in Berlin at the same time.

      The translation is worth mentionning, really.


      • November 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm

        Those few examples you metion made me shudder to be honest. One regions’ dialect doesn’t equal the other and in this case they are far too different. Döblin uses a big city dialect. If the translator had used argot it would have worked better.


        • November 10, 2014 at 6:43 pm

          The English translation uses period US slang. It reads very oddly now, but I suspect it got the sense fairly well.

          My impression was it wasn’t so much a question of dialect as heavy use of slang. Is that wrong?


          • November 10, 2014 at 8:48 pm

            No, that’s correct, that’s why i would have used the argot.


        • November 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm

          This is not a dialect.

          The local dialect is called platt and its an old type of German. These are regionalisms and to me it sounds good for a book translated from the German.

          It’s not argot either. It’s colloquial French in this region. It’s more like people switching from one language to the other and they imported words and turns of sentences. People will say things like “ça spritze” or “aller au schlaff” or “J’attends sur toi” or “boire un petit schluck”


  3. Jonathan
    November 9, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Yes, you’ve got to know when to abort a book!

    You still made it sound like an interesting book though. I think there’s an English translation available so I may be tempted to give it a go. Thanks!


    • November 9, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      It’s an interesting book. You can check the English translation on Max’s blog. There’s a link to his review.


  4. lizzysiddal
    November 9, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Try Theodor Storm from the C19th or read Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – nothing cold about that at all.


    • November 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations.

      Theodor Storm has only one collection of short stories translated into French. That’s my problem. Caroline listed a lot of recommendations but it’s often not available in French or if they are, they exist only in hard copies.

      I’ve found the Bronsky but that’s a bit too chick lit for me, at least according to the French cover and the blurb.


      • lizzysiddal
        November 11, 2014 at 8:57 am

        I’d call that inappropriate packaging … While it’s funny, the Bronsky is anything but a romantic comedy.


        • November 11, 2014 at 8:33 pm

          Thanks for letting me know. I hate when covers are misleading. Sometimes I think the best ones are the ones without any pictures.


  5. November 9, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    I haven’t read it, and my propensity to do so has just declined considerably ;). A German book that I really enjoyed was Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick, which has been translated into English as “Why we took the car” (not sure if there’s a French translation). I hope the translation is decent.


    • November 10, 2014 at 9:10 am

      It’s a great book, really. Don’t be deterred by my review, it was just not the right book for me. It doesn’t mean you won’t like it.

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check it out.


  6. November 10, 2014 at 12:16 am

    Loved this, but I agree that it’s not the easiest novel to read 😉 My review was slightly more positive, though…


    • November 10, 2014 at 9:11 am

      I think my review is very positive for a book I abandoned. 🙂
      I can understand why you loved it (it’s definitely a masterpiece) but it didn’t work for me.


  7. November 10, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Yes, Herrndorf – I mentioned your recommendation to meine Frau and right away she said “Tschick.” For some reason the French translation’s title is Good Bye Berlin.


    • November 10, 2014 at 9:15 am

      Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds fun.

      PS : Say hi to your wife


  8. November 10, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Sorry to hear that this book didn’t work for you, but it sounds as if you bailed at the right point. I know what you mean about needing some warmth or a sense or sharing a human experience in a book. With books like this, there has to be a hook, some kernel of emotion to pull me into someone’s story. Even if that person has committed terrible atrocities, I need something to cling to or empathise with.

    Have you read Remarque’s All Quiet on the German Front? It doesn’t hold back on the atrocities of war, but I found it very affecting and full of human emotion. There’s a review at mine if you’re interested. Also, I’ve just finished Transit by Anna Seghers, which I liked very much, and it shows a different side of the WW2 story. I just need to write it up…


    • November 10, 2014 at 11:00 am

      I really had that emotional connection in Manhattan Transfer and in No Beast So Fierce. Even if Max Dembo, the character in No Beast So Fierce is no saint, there was this sharing of thoughts and experience. Here, I thought it was lacking, or it didn’t reach out to me.

      I’ve read Remarque a long long time ago. It’s a book I’d like to re-read now that I’m older.
      I have all the emails of your reviews in my in-box, waiting for me to find time to read them properly. 🙂
      Guy’s written a memorable review of Transit and I have in my radar since that time. I’m a bit fed up with WWII books but this one gives another perspective, one I’ve never read about.


      • November 10, 2014 at 11:20 am

        I hadn’t read the Remarque before, but quite a few people seem to have found something new in it or come away with a different perspective on rereading.

        Oh, I’m glad you mentioned Guy’s Transit review as I was wondering if anyone else had covered it (I bought it last year on a bookseller’s recommendation). I try to avoid reading other reviews if I’m about to write my own, so once I’ve captured my thoughts I’ll take a look at Guy’s and add a link just before I post. Cheers!


        • November 10, 2014 at 11:28 am

          I do exactly as you do: I write my billet first and then I go and see what the others have written. It’s so interesting to discover their thoughts and sometimes realise they’ve picked the same quotes!


        • November 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm

          I also reviewed ‘Transit’ last week 😉


          • November 10, 2014 at 1:49 pm

            Thanks, Tony. I’ll include a link to yours.


  9. Sarah Wiss
    November 10, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Emma, this was a very measured review given you abandoned the book. The comments about the French translation are interesting.

    For more humane German writers, I’d second the suggestion of Remarque (after All Quiet, try The Road Back, Three Comrades or Flotsam) and also suggest Theodore Fontaine, Irmgard Keun, Hans Fallada and Julia Franck. And of course there’s always the Grimms and Hoffmann!


    • November 10, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Hello Sarah,

      thanks for the recommendations.
      I’ve read Remarque but I think a re-read could be good.

      I’ve heard about Fallada several times, I’d like to try him provided I can find a book in French that is not about WWII or the Weimar Republic.

      After checking, the only book by Keun available in French (at least on my usual online bookstore) is After Midnight…again the Weimar Republic.

      By Julia Franck, there’s La femme de midi, Again Berlin in the 1920s and in 1945.

      It seems like there are no German book about marriages going sour, crazy families, everyday life in Germany. They exist, of course, but they don’t seem to make it into French.


  10. November 10, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Emma, the Hoffmann you read is perhaps the most realistic thing he ever wrote. Almost everything else is crazy fantasy – dream-like stuff, people transforming into animals and lots of Romantic symbolism. Maybe not your kind of writer, although who knows.

    He is humane and even warm, though, so in that sense Sarah’s recommendation is very good. But he is not a logical writer, rather the opposite.


    • November 10, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      You know me too well. I wasn’t going to read Hoffmann, although I’m sure he’s a great writer. He’s just not for me.


  11. November 10, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Sometimes it’s just not the right moment. Or the wrong book. I can’t force myself to finish books anymore either. I still want to read this though. But not right now. I might have aproblem with the “insect-treatment” of the characters. But maybe not.


    • November 10, 2014 at 7:18 pm

      Sadly it’s more a question of wrong book..we can’t like them all!


  12. November 11, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Wonderful review, Emma. Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ as much as you had hoped too. It is difficult to like or persevere with a book when we are not able to empathize with any of the characters. There needs to be some ray of sunlight there. I love German books though some of them can be less emotional and more intellectual making us less empathetic to the characters. Some of the books I can recommend (for their warm portrayals of characters) are ‘The Wall’ by Marlen Haushofer (she is Austrian though), ‘Unformed Landscape’ by Peter Stamm (he is Swiss), ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm, ‘Three Bags Full’ by Leonie Swann and ‘Mrs.Sartoris’ by Elke Schmitter.


    • November 11, 2014 at 8:34 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations, Vishy. I’ll check them out.


  13. November 12, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Interesting review. I liked Berlin Alexanderplatz but I can see why it is difficult for most readers. Tucholsky said about Ulysses that it is like Liebig’s Meat extract (a very popular food condiment during that time) – you can’t eat it, but it will be used for many soups…With this book it is more or less the same: many later authors took inspiration from Doeblin (especially Wolfgang Koeppen and Guenter Grass), but Alexanderplatz itself is difficult to digest.
    Btw, I think the translator found a rather ingenious solution to bring the dialect parts into French.


    • November 13, 2014 at 12:06 am

      I can see how Berlin Alexanderplatz influenced other books and other writers. It’s an excellent piece of literature, not my taste but with high literary merit, undoubtedly.


  1. December 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm
  2. November 16, 2019 at 5:19 pm

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