I have said earlier my difficulties with Alfred Doblin’s German classics, Berlin Alexanderplatz. But I also have abandonment issues, just about as deep as those Stefanie described recently: I just can’t give up on a book, especially when it has been deemed an “important” book, or a classics. I even have the impression that blogging made my problem more serious. Some might call it plain stubbornness or snobbery, but if I don’t read such a book to the end, I feel guilty and I forever keep the bitter feeling that I missed something, or at least, didn’t give it a fair chance.
That said, Berlin Alexanderplatz didn’t become any easier. The first few books (out of 8 ) were a mismatch, a collage of city impressions, a bit like an expressionist movie by Fritz Lang. When Franz Biberkopf comes out of prison and back to Berlin, it’s not the Roaring Twenties in Germany after the defeat, but a city where prostitution, petty crime and latent political subversions (both from anarchists, communists and Nazis) go hand in hand with the modern urban development: department stores, media frenzy, tramways and crowds all day round.
But after a while, the very innovative construction of the novel is replaced by a more linear plot, inspired by mythology, both Christian and Greek. Biberkopf wants to redeem himself after his crime (he killed his girlfriend with an eggbeater in a violent frenzy), but will he yield to temptation? Three times he fails and falls back into violence and crime. Eventually he changes, and the end is kind of hopeful, but knowing what awaited German people in the next few years after the book publication, I wouldn’t be so sure.
Biberkopf is a character you can’t pretend to like. He’s a bit slow-headed, naïve, and devoid of evil intentions, but he’s a brute at heart. The only way he felt better about himself when he came back to Berlin was by raping his former victim’s sister (then offering her meat as a present). It took me a while to understand what was going on in this scene and even longer to come to terms with it (sex scenes aren’t explicit, even if they surely have shocked the 1930s reader). I also have problems with all the women depicted in the novel. They’re prostitutes who gladly give money to their pimp (Biberkopf is one too). Their character is purer than the male characters, but they participate to the moral corruption of this whole world. They’re essentially victims, but they keep coming back to the men and call their relationships “love”. Maybe I’m too much of a 21C woman to read such a book.
I was also very surprised to see the difference between Doblin’s Berlin and, say, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, what both are supposed to happen around the same period. I can’t really push my comparison very far, but to me, Doblin’s Berlin is all noise, despite the collage. It’s mostly rendered with dialogue in working-class slang, something that makes translations always difficult. Isherwood’s Berlin is mostly visual (maybe because Isherwood didn’t completely master German?). Isherwood’s Berlin is also more romanticized, and even if it may be less real, I still prefer it to the darker, Doblin version.
On a lighter note, check out this website to see how a designer worked with Fassbinder’s movie Berlin Alexanderplatz to create the DVD graphic cover.