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Berlin Transfer

November 9, 2014 41 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.

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