by Alfred Döblin
translated by Michael Hofmann
NYRB Classics, 458 pages
reviewed by Tyson Duffy
A thought experiment: imagine that back during the peak prosperity years of the Obama Administration, with optimism at a high and unemployment dropping, that the good Dr. Oliver Sacks had unexpectedly published a despairing novel featuring a one-armed murdering pimp with white-supremacist leanings named Frank Beaverbrains.
This dull petty criminal wanders Manhattan—or some gentrifying urban center of high culture and national pride—selling tie stands and alt-right newsletters, roughing up prostitutes, shooting up bars, and volunteering for a number of disastrous heists before winding up a diminished nobody, an assistant porter at a small company with less than nothing left to him. The reading public, scandalized, intrigued, mystified, lines up at bookstores nationwide to make this strange novel a bestseller. Some years later, Trump rides a surge of white nationalism to the White House, earning the author a reputation as a kind of literary-political clairvoyant.
This, more or less, is the trick that Alfred Döblin, a doctor, writer, and German public figure, pulled off in 1929 with his publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz, released at the height of the so-called “Golden Years” of the Weimar Republic. Sometimes known as the “Stresemann era,” those too-few years in Germany before the dramatic rise of the Nazis were, for many Germans, seen as politically uneventful and even optimistic. When they weren’t swept up in a national sports craze, many had the time again to focus on family and work while German artists and scientists received a batch of major international awards that cemented the nation’s reputation as the cultural center of Europe.
Sebastian Haffner writes in Defying Hitler that between 1924 and 1929 “all was quiet, all was orderly; events took a tranquil course. […] There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food, and a little political boredom.” Many middle-class Germans watched as the humiliations of the Great War and the political unrest of the early 1920s seemed to recede into the past. Although the thugs of the Nationalsozialistische had by then raised their ugly cries of blood and soil, the events of the Reichstag fire, the rise of Hitler, and the Anschluss were still years off and, to most, entirely unimaginable.
In this unique historical moment, Döblin’s story of Franz Biberkopf crashes into the scene, dripping with blood and rage. Released from Tegel prison in 1928 after serving four years for murdering his girlfriend, disoriented Biberkopf, representative of the forgotten underclasses, is thrown like a pipe bomb back into a Berlin society he barely understands. Although largely plotless, the tale centers on Biberkopf’s failed attempts to “go straight,” to give up his life of crime and redeem himself. He falls victim again and again to his own degeneracy, involving himself in the schemes of the duplicitous Reinhold, the criminal mastermind who becomes Biberkopf’s foe and foil. Filtering the story through a choppy literary expressionism—a German offshoot of modernism—Döblin presses the reader’s nose into the chaos of Berlin in 1928:
The police have blue uniforms now. He made his way off the tram unnoticed, mingled with the crowd. What was wrong? Nothing. Watch where you’re going or I’ll whop you. The crowds, the crowds. My skull needs grease, it must have dried out. All that stuff. Shoe shops, hat shops, electric lights, bars. People will need shoes to run around in, we had a shoe shop too, once, let’s not forget that. Hundreds of shiny windows, let them flash away at you, they’re nothing to be afraid of, it’s just that they’ve been cleaned, you can always smash them if you want. They were taking up the road at Rosenthaler Platz, he was walking on duckboards along with everyone else. You just mingle with the crowd, man, that’ll make everything better, then you won’t suffer.
The novel is a hyper-surreal fable, a fever dream replete with strange soliloquies, rotating points of view, shotgun blasts of violence, throes of eroticism, and dislocated intellectual ponderings. Images rise up and vanish; strange mini-dissertations on economics, science, and religion flash and reappear, virtually unchanged, dozens or hundreds of pages later. Discomfiting chunks of life—buildings, bar scenes, odd characters, scientific data—take shape awkwardly in the reader’s imagination as if coughed up from the haze of forgotten history. There is much repetition of ugly or seemingly unneeded nonsense words—widdeboom, chingdaradada, HOI HO HATZ—all of which is more or less the defining characteristic of Expressionism. “The book as a whole must not seem to be spoken,” Döblin once argued in his “Berlin Manifesto.” “It must seem to be concretely there” [emphasis mine]. In some sense, this book is not for mere reading but experiencing, confronting, combatting.
Like some other writers of his era, Döblin was attempting to break away from what was perceived to be the overly stylized, realistic literature of the nineteenth century, seen by some as ill equipped for an alienating, urbanizing, post-Great War society. (Werner Fassbinder’s mesmerizing fifteen-hour miniseries based on the book capitalizes on this aspect, with every rust-toned frame of the world’s longest German film crowded with ugly industrial machinery, seedy flashing lights, or some form of urban misery.) Along with Joyce, Musil, Woolf, Proust, and Dos Passos, Döblin sought to reshape literature itself. Yet unlike those writers, and despite the popularity of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin never achieved the status some, such as Gunter Grass, felt he deserved. “Why then is this book today so little known, even in Germany?” laments Chris Godwin in an introduction to Döblin’s first novel, The Three Leaps of Wang Lun. Others also in awe of Döblin have asked similar questions, but even with this beautiful reissue by NYRB Classics, in a captivating translation by superstar Michael Hofmann, the stubborn fact of his continued underappreciation lingers on.
But in truth, it’s no big mystery. The literary mode of Expressionism, or what the author preferred to call “Döblinism” in literature simply doesn’t age well. Despite many good qualities, it feels like an antique, an oddly shaped tintype curio that, though it once caused a stir in its day, now sits on a museum shelf gathering dust. And since stories in books can never, of course, really be “concretely there,” as Döblin insisted—they can only be imagined—the reader is left to contend with a flood of contradictions, roving points of view, spurts of linguistic energy, and scenes of abject disgust that can make the book something of a challenge.
Watch yourself, Franz Biberkopf, you boozehound! Lying around in your room, nothing but sleeping and drinking and more sleeping!
Who cares what I get up to. If I feel like it, I can sleep in all day and not get up.—He bites his nails, groans, tosses his head from side to side on the sweaty pillow, blows his nose.—I can lie here till Doomsday if I like. If only the facking landlady would turn on the heat. Lazy cow, only thinks of herself.
His head turns away from the wall, on the floor by the bed is gruel, a puddle.—Spew. Must have been me. Stuff a man carries around in his stomach. Yuck. Spiders’ webs in the corners, you could catch mice in them. I want a drink of water. Who gives a shit. My back hurts. Come on in, Frau Schmidt. Between the spiders’ webs at the top of the picture (black dress, long in the tooth). She’s a witch (coming out of the ceiling like that). Yuck.
But in the final analysis, Döblin doesn’t belong to the company of Joyce and Dos Passos, nor the other German expressionists of his time, but with a strain of writing that can be called Superfluous Literature. In fiction, this mode originates with Turgenev’s defining Diary of a Superfluous Man and carries on through Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller—all of these stories of uneducated dullards who are emotionally and psychically disfigured by the absurd circumstances of a cannibalistic capitalism and a brutal modern context. In response, these Biberkopfs become cowards, adulterers, thieves, liars, murderers, criminals—lost souls of one kind or another. They reflect the horror of society back at you, begging readers to pay attention to a set of social realities that may have escaped notice. And perhaps if those middle-class Germans, lulled into docility by a brief period of political uneventfulness, had really heard Döblin’s message in 1929, Nazism may have had more difficulty sinking its claws into the heart Europe.
The final meaning of Superfluous Literature goes back to how we choose to shape our world, politically, socially, culturally. A man or woman who is not valued, never given opportunity, love, community, but simply made to scramble and stumble about in an attempt to survive and nothing more will become, as the Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith warned in 1776, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
The final meaning of Superfluous Literature goes back to how we choose to shape our world, politically, socially, culturally. A man or woman who is not valued, never given opportunity, love, community, but simply made to scramble and stumble about in an attempt to survive and nothing more will become, as the Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith warned in 1776, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving of any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.” This is Biberkopf in a nutshell—misunderstanding life, misunderstanding himself, ignorant of generosity, nobility, unable to see any connection between himself and others.
Finally, as lost as he is, at the novel’s conclusion, our Biberkopf is not even allowed the relief of death. He is left a lonesome menial laborer and a lost soul. A superfluous modern man, wandering about, scratching his head at the meaninglessness of his fate.
Tyson Duffy is writer and editor who lives in Atlanta with his wife.