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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!