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Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Four

I can’t quite believe I made it to the end of the book after such an unpromising start but I did. Marking it as read on Goodreads (for the English translation, at least) felt pretty satisfying.

“Chapters” 8/9

  1. Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying? At one point.I was afraid that Reinhold might escape any justice but that administered by Franz’s friends, rather than the authorities, so I did like how he was brought in by the police, after all.He was one of the biggest villain’s in Franz’s story, for certain, but he certainly wasn’t alone in his villainy.

    But FRanz himself was his own worst enemy. And certainly no angel. He’d already served his time for murdering a girlfriend and had badly beaten another in this book.

  1. The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective? I found it an effective way of grounding the narrative and allowing me pause for thought but I’m not sure how much more effect it had on me. I don’t think I particularly enjoyed it being rolled out at certain intervals or the tone it invoked jarred with me a little.
  1. Were you surprised by the ending? Yes, I was, although it felt as if was overshadowed by Mitzi’s exit from the story. I was still reeling from that storyline, but it was a surprise that the ending when it came wasn’t as bleak as I’d been led to expect.
  1. Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?I really enjoyed the scenes where Franz was moving around the city or people were talking; there was a real sense of energy and movement in those scenes.I loved the rhythm of the dialect and how it felt as if people’s emotions were very near the surface; conversation always felt fraught with danger and full of passionate fury and tightly-coiled aggression.

    I grew to enjoy the use of montage once I was more accustomed to it interrupting the narrative and seemingly taking us off at a tangent. It gave me a different view of life in Berlin for a certain section of society at this time, and how they felt about the political changes happening.

    I didn’t like the portrayal of women in this book one bit, especially how they were handed around, pimped out, battered and beaten, and shown such disregard.

  1. Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz? I was trying to read it in the original German and the English translation when I started off but soon found that time constraints made this difficult for me to keep up. I dropped the German version at about the halfway point and continued with the English translation to try and ensure I finished the reading in time and posted this last set of answers on the actual day we were supposed to.So… I intend to go back and pick up the original German version again next week. (Probably still relying on both the text and the audiobook, because that was so helpful to my understanding.) Does that count as a re-read? I think so!

    And yes, I am glad I’ve read it. I’d be interested in reading some commentary on it, both contemporaneous with its publication and up to the present time. I think that would be useful to my understanding and appreciation of the novel and preferably done prior to any re-read.

Thanks so much to Lizzy and Caroline for organising this readalong as part of #GermanLitMonth – your questions definitely helped direct my thoughts on the book and gave me a more focused reading of Berlin Alexanderplatz than I might have had on my own.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Three #GermanLitMonth

Week three and the reading was easier, although I’m further behind in the German original than I am with the English translation. More of a time issue than anything else.

“Chapters” 6/7

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this? It didn’t really bother me that there was this difference. I thought the use of Books in the original German made sense when you view Berlin Alexanderplatz as a collection of writing on this section of Berlin society, their customs and beliefs and practices. Something akin to a religious text, with the quotes from scripture, religious imagery and references to characters and stories in the Bible only serving to underline this.
  2. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation? Yes, I was surprised when Reinhold did what he did.. I think because things happened so rapidly once he was in Magdeburg. Almost as if his arm was whipped off.Well, Döblin did warn us that Franz would be put through the ringer! A slow recovery wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting as the shock of Franz suffering life-changing injuries. It’s what writers do to their characters – put obstacles in their way to see how they react. The more shocking and larger the obstacle, the more dramatic the resulting narrative.
  3. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?I think he explores to what extent we can or do self-define ourselves and to what extent our choices and the environment we live in help or hinder that. Do we have free will or are we a product of our upbringing, life experiences and whatever fate brings our way?
  4. Do you have a favourite character so far?Not really. I’m quite enjoying the bar scenes and the rambunctious energy of those, but I’m having a hard time finding anyone I really like that much.
  5. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?I thought these were fascinating, not only to see how what was happening was discussed, but what ordinary people felt about it all.I know that Franz’s friends were concerned for his welfare and what he might be sucked into, but I did feel that they discouraged him too quickly from getting involved. He needed a new interest and needed to form new friendships, something to keep him occupied, so he didn’t fall back in with the Pums’ gang.
  6. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?I wouldn’t say I felt compelled and I didn’t want to find out anything about him until after I’d finished it.Reading the book has made me curious about its author but I wanted to come to the readalong free of any notions as to what extent the author drew from his own life experiences and how much of the book was a product of his research and imagination.

One week left and I might actually manage to make it to the end. But I’ve been frustrated with how little time I’ve had to read what others taking part have to say about the book.

If I do another readalong, I need to start the book sooner, read it and draft the blog post earlier and take part on others’ posts. I didn’t plan well enough to fit in with this one.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Two #GermanLitMonth

I made it to the end of week two but this was not without its challenges, either. Read on to find out why.

Chapters 3 – 5

  1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel?  The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique? Initially, I wasn’t a fan of the short summaries at the beginning of each chapter. I’d much rather not know what’s coming when I’m reading than have an expectation and for it not to be delivered in the way I expect or for the surprise to be taken away from me.As I mentioned in my previous post on the first two chapters, I also struggled to understand what was happening with Döblin’s use of montages because there was no clear demarcation between these and the narrative. But by this point in my reading of the text, I was more used to them and found them as interesting in some cases as the story of Franz and his companions. They all go to give a better sense of the city which Franz moves around in and helped me to build up a better picture of Berlin at this time.
  2. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss. Ha! How long have you got?! I think this has to be an aspect of the novel which is particularly problematic for anyone reading it in 2019, especially if you’re a woman. But I did try my best to put aside my feminist outrage and read it as a novel of its time and about this section of society. That’s not to say that it didn’t colour my impression of the novel and I have to admit that I did consider abandoning the book at times.Even though we know why Franz was in prison, it still came as a shock to see that none of the women in this book are treated well. The men use the language of normal, loving relationships to describe the women but they’re acting as their pimps and living off the proceeds of the women’s relationships with other wealthier men, each side is aware of the other and seem okay with sharing their women, and the women appear to enjoy having the opportunity to be the providers for their men.

    The way that Reinhold and Franz agree that one passes off his cast-offs to the other when he becomes bored of them is digusting, and I disliked both men for entering into this arrangement with each other.

    They’re bizarre relationships to get my head around and I would have liked to have seen one good, more relatable relationship included which balanced this out a little.

  3. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist.  What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold? I think because Biberkopf’s life is taking a turn for the better and he is more sorted than he ever thought he would be on release day, this makes him blind to Reinhold’s potential dangers or faults.He also believes himself to be smarter than Reinhold and is too cocky about this. He seems almost over-ebullient about doing him a favour and thinks it a great lark, a game. He lets his defences down and Reinhold manages to quickly gain Franz’s confidence, as a result.

    I worried that Franz was too open with him but I genuinely think that he felt so happy about the way things were going, he didn’t look for warning signs and only looked at the positives. And some people are very good at charming their way into our confidence and lives, as Reinhold does with Franz’s here.

  4. What was the highlight of this section for you?  What the lowlight? What I enjoyed most about this section was Franz’s wanders around the city and the time spent in bars, the conversations he overheard or took part in. I was getting into the writing style and not finding the montages so much of a surprise, and this all helped to give me a feel for life in Berlin, and build up a picture of the city at this time.There were two low points and I can’t decide between them because they both made for difficult reading.

    One was the treatment of women in this novel, as mentioned above in response to question two, and the protracted, excruciating description of the slaughterhouse. That was tortuous to get through and I still don’t understand why it was included, unless it’s a metaphor for how people come in from surrounding areas to the big city and have the life beaten out of them in the process. Either that, or it’s to foreshadow something that’s coming later in the book, possibly?

  5. Do you have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? Well, as I said above, I want to see what purpose that lengthy description of the slaughterhouse serves, and whether it’s picked up and alluded to later in the novel.I can’t see that Franz taking on Reinhold’s cast-offs is going to end well, but I’m also interested to see what additional role Reinhold plays in Franz’s story.

    I’m not sure I like Franz any better at this stage but I am getting more of a feel for his character and am starting to enjoy the dialogue; it’s ranty, opinionated, belligerent, but it has a real energy about it which I’m especially enjoying.

I’m getting into the novel now and am not finding its idiosyncracies so off-putting, so I think I’m going to keep going and find out how things turn out for Herr Biberkopf.

Book Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier takes a young medical student far from Vienna and into the makeshift world of being a wartime medic in the Galician mountains on the Poland-Ukraine border.

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, only to find himself posted to a remote field-hospital ravaged by typhus. Supplies have all but run out, the other doctors have fled, and only a single nurse remains, from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine.

Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the course of his life.

The Winter Soldier almost feels like a coming-of-age tale in many ways, as we trace Lucius’ journey from a privileged Viennese home life and university education to a remote field-hospital.

Lucius is more interesting than his privileged background might at first suggest. He has “an unusual aptitude for the perception of things beneath the skin,” and is socially awkward, struggling to see beyond the symptoms and cases he handles to the human beings affected, namely his patients and their families. It takes him a long way into the novel to even begin to realise this, and crucially for him, it will help to shape his story.

I started to warm to Lucius after he followed Sister Margarete’s lead initially because the assured, if mysterious, sole nurse on site is far more practical than Lucius in almost every way imaginable. (This isn’t entirely his fault; by the time he enlists, the nature of his medical training means that he’s only ever handled four patients – and one of those was for earwax, so he’s sorely under-equipped for what’s ahead of him.)

I was as intrigued by Margarete as Lucius is and wanted to know what had brought her to this isolated spot to nurse soldiers in a conflict zone. I also admired her strength of character and her strategies for coping in such a male-dominated world. Read more

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week One #GermanLitMonth

As part of #GermanLitMonth, I’m taking part in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong. Week One was not a happy one at the Nut Press, which is why I’m posting this so very late in the month. I’ll let my answers to the discussion questions Lizzy set tell you why that was.

Chapters 1-2.

  1. Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us? It’s one of those books which comes up quite often in lists of German classics or novels you need to read, Berlin novels you need to read, etc, and I must have succumbed to one of those at some point because I bought it and it’s been sitting on my German bookshelf since last year for the German original, and earlier this year for the English translation.

    Now seemed as good a time as any to tackle it, what with the focus on Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and having this fantastic opportunity to read it together with others. I thought that I’d get more out of it by doing that, especially with the discussion points each week and seeing other reader responses to those.

  2. Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met? I was interested in seeing if it lived up to being one of the great city novels, and what it told me about Berlin at this time; also why it was considered a classic and a must read. Once I heard that it had been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, which I’ve read, I didn’t expect to like or understand all of it, especially in the original German, but hoped there would be at least a few sections I enjoyed reading!At this point, I didn’t like the book very much, and couldn’t see why it was considered to be a classic.

    I found Chapter One a real struggle to read and it took a while to work out what Döblin was doing by including things such as prison regulations and advertisements in his text with no line breaks from the rest of the narrative. He kept going off at tangents for no good reason and it felt like ending up in a cul de sac and having to find my own way back to Alexanderplatz, without any directions to help.

    I had a really hard time getting into the story and working out what was going on, above and beyond the fact that Franz has just been released from prison and seems to be scared of being back in the outside world. It took me a while to work out that he was actually taken in by the Jews and it wasn’t a drink or drug-induced hallucination of Franz’s. It seemed so other-worldly at the time I read it.

    The Berlin dialect didn’t help me any, either and slowed me down. I didn’t finish reading the chapters in time to post this on the first Saturday. But I decided to give it another go, downloaded the German audiobook from Audible and listened to that, while reading the German text, which helped so much. And I was back up and running!

  3. Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language? I’m reading the Fischer Klassik edition (ISBN: 978-3-596-90458-7) for the German version and listening to the audiobook narrated by Hannes Messemer, downloaded from Audible UK. It’s supposed to be an unabridged version but it does skip some passages here and there. The English version I have is the the Penguin Modern Classics edition (ISBN: 978-0-141-19162-1. They’re both pictured above.

    I think Michael Hofman does a good job of translating the text while also giving you a feel here and there for the way the characters speak to each other, without using a corresponding English or American dialect. Not that I’m entirely sure what that would have been, or if it would have worked and captured the energy and rhythm of the Berlin dialect, had he done that. But it’s definitely something you miss out on, if you don’t read it in the original German or listen to the audiobook narration.

  4. What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf? Berlin seems to be busy and chaotic, more of a building site than a city, but with all of this development work, it also seems to have an energy and dynamic that gives its people more opportunities to graft or hustle and scrape a living in all the turmoil. There’s a real buzz about it.

    Released from prison, Franz Biberkopf appears scared of being outside once more; he sees his release as more of a punishment than being in prison where he felt safe and more secure. He’s worried about straying too far from the red walls of Tegel which are all he’s known for the past four years as he ventures out into a world where he has to make his own way, instead of complying with prison regulations. He seems afraid of being out of control again and this is a city in flux, full of temptation, which could so easily lead him astray and feels more dangerous to him than being cooped up in a cell block with other criminals.

  5. Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence.  Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way? How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2? I think because it’s easier for the reader to have an individual to focus on and whose story you follow over the course of the novel; it allows the reader to get to know that character, while seeing the impact which Berlin has on him and his life at this time, as well as those people he encounters along the way.It’s perhaps better than having a myriad of stories centred around a place, which might feel less like a novel and more as if it’s a collection of vignettes about people whose lives intersect with each other and the square. This approach of focusing on one character and the people he meets tells the story of the city in microcosm, and enables you to see the larger picture emerging of the city around him, while also being told this individual’s own experiences during this period.
  6. Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? I’m hoping that I’ll feel more at home with the writing style and use of dialect, so that I can focus on the story more. And I’m interested in understanding why Döblin settled on Franz as his central character; perhaps it’s because Franz has been away for a while, and is having a hard time adjusting to being back in Berlin in the midst of so much disorienting change and upheaval. He’s landed in Berlin just as the reader is, and it takes us – and him – a while to find his feet and find our way into the story of this place.

Not a great start for week one. It took me longer to read the two chapters than I imagined it would, and I found it difficult to get into. I’m hoping that improves over the next week. Stay tuned to find out!

German Literature Month 2019

November is a busy month in the blogosphere with Novella Month, Non-Fiction November and German Literature Month all competing for the attention of bloggers who are up for a challenge. And while I’m tempted to do a couple of posts about the first two, it’s German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, that interested me the most.

I’ve never taken part before because I’m usually caught up in the madness that is NaNoWriMo but, as I’m not doing that this year, I’m free to take part in #GermanLitMonth for the first time. I’m hoping it’ll kick start a more regular German reading habit and help me salvage some of my dwindling language skills. I’ve a trip to Frankfurt coming up at the end of the month, which is just the incentive I need to give it a shot.

It’s already the middle of the month and I hadn’t posted about my book choices, so here they are in both English and German editions:

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fischer / Penguin Modern Classics) – Alfred Döblin. This is Lizzy’s choice for the month-long group read-along. It’s been languishing unread on my bookshelf for far too long, so I’m excited to take part and finally tackle this beast. Read more

Book Review: The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Writing under the very Brontë-esque pen name of Bella Ellis, Rowan Coleman has come up with a delicious premise for a new series featuring the Brontë sisters before they became published authors. The Vanished Bride is their first outing as detectors.

Yorkshire, 1845. A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

I’m always a little wary when someone reimagines or writes a mashup of a classic novel but when they’re done well, as in the case of Jo Baker’s Longbourn or Alison Case’s Nelly Dean, they can add a new dimension to the world and characters of the original, as well as being enjoyable in their own right. Happily, given how deftly she achieves both these things in the first of her Brontë Mysteries series, I can now add Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride to this list.

Bella Ellis writes the landscape so well and breathes life into the parsonage at Haworth that I had little difficulty in accepting her version of the sisters at work and leisure, and from there, it wasn’t too much of a leap to follow them into these new roles as detectors. I had fun spotting landmarks from their real and imagined geography and personal items I either remember reading about or having seen at the museum in Haworth. I also liked how some scenes in The Vanished Bride suggest where the inspiration for key scenes in the sisters’ own books might have come from.

I think The Vanished Bride works so well because its author doesn’t skimp on any of the elements that go to make up the story, so one doesn’t suffer at the expense of another or ever feel flimsy. Both the central mystery and the depiction of the sisters and the world they inhabit are equally satisfying and strong strands that each hold their own throughout. Read more

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