Throwing In the Towel or Throwing Down the Gauntlet?

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.

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4 thoughts on “Throwing In the Towel or Throwing Down the Gauntlet?

  1. Too bad you didn’t like the book. I had volume one from the library for over a month and loved the opening but was so busy I could never get past it and so returned it to the library hoping to try again another time. But you know, even if a book is a classic it is no guarantee a person will like it and I think it’s perfectly ok to give up on it instead of struggling on to the bitter end. But then you already know I have abandonment issues and it’s much easier to tell someone else to quit a book than it is to actually do it 🙂

  2. I probably would have stuck it out too — it’s so very, very hard to give up on a book, and it gets harder the further into it you are (at least for me). It’s like you’ve made an investment and you don’t want to “lose” the time you’ve invested by not finishing. Anyway, this book sounds interesting, even if not highly pleasurable.

  3. I struggle with this as well – whether to put a book down or just limp along through it and hope to find some worthy feature. I commend you for keeping with this one as it sounds particularly difficult.

  4. Stefanie, I didn’t like the story but I will definitely remember it, because it’s such a different reading experience. I’m glad I tried it.

    Dorothy – I like your investment idea. I should try and reap the benefits of this investment by reading other books from that period, or other books on Berlin.

    Verbivore – there were some worthy feature (I forgot to mention memorable scene at a slaughterhouse, that will stay with me for a while), so it was well worth it!

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