Puzzled over Berlin

Upon finishing Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion, I was convinced that I urgently needed to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin, because Grass praised the book so much and found it very influential for his own work. I must say I felt sort of shy when Wikipedia taught me that, first, it was supposed to be reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysse (scary!), and, second, that the book had been adapted by Fassbinder (very scary!) into a movie that runs for no less than 15 ½ hours in length (ooh!). I even wasn’t deterred when I had to make a special request at the central library to get it (apparently it’s not that often that someone wants to read this book). 

It’s been 2 weeks since I’ve started to carry it around during my commute, but, let’s face it, despite my efforts I haven’t reached the page 100 yet. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been so challenged by a book. I can’t even start to tell you the story of this book. 

As far as I understand, the principle is that the book is built on a collage to replicate the impression of a vibrant city life. Dialogues, pieces of science books, description of random people within a crowd, ads, street shouts, songs, everything gets mingled, only juxtaposed without explanation. While the book is addressed to a reader, one is never sure who does the talking, as Doblin uses (overuses?) multiple points of view. Yesterday night I even read a page written from the point of view of cigarette smoke that is let out of a café onto the street, looking from above at the people drinking and partying, and this morning the focal point was just a ray of light! I’ve never read anything like that. 

In Wikipedia, Doblin is classified as an expressionist, and somewhere else I read he was a futurist. From what I gather, the working-class and petty criminal underworld he describes reminds me of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, and of paintings by Otto Dix (especially low-life, prostitutes and crippled war veterans), but the writing makes it very difficult for me to understand what’s really going on. 

Among this continuous crowd (Alexanderplatz hardly ever gets quiet), there is a main character, Franz Biberkopf, just released from prison. He seems to be a loser. He had this resolution of becoming an honest man after his release, but we can already tell it will be difficult for him to. As for the rest of the cast, they come in and out of the set like in a very populated soap opera, so I can’t really tell yet who is who. 

If Internet didn’t exist, I guess I would have abandoned this book already a while ago. But instead, I’ll try to hang on a little longer, with the help of whatever online information is available. Any reader of Doblin out there?

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2 thoughts on “Puzzled over Berlin

  1. Had not heard of this book before. Sounds intriguing…and frustrating. I like writers that try to bring a new texture to literature but it can be quite a challenge to adapt my reading comfort zone to fit their aesthetic. Sounds like this book would be a particularly difficult one to get inside.

  2. I’d never heard of this author before either; I think I would struggle too — it sounds like an interesting idea, but one that’s not a whole lot of fun. But I admire you for sticking with it!

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