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The Book of No Despair

Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, in a new translation, makes (human) animals of us all

Look, any honest estimation of the new translation, by Michael Hofmann, of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz from NYRB Classics is bound to begin with duteous piety, lauding it, since it is a one-and-done masterpiece that’s basically impossible to oversell, as (why not) the single biggest event in publishing in a lifetime, a crucial refurbishment of something English-language readers have been missing out on for a century, and a long-missing piece of Modernism’s ponderous jigsaw. All of which is the case of course. But when we’re talking about a dense, all-but-untranslatable Weimar-era novel, whose only point of reference for Anglophone audiences until now has been Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s meticulous fifteen-hour adaptation from 1980 (one heck of a tease) it feels important to attempt a slight rescue from its own forbidding reputation, because Alexanderplatz is less a book than a living thing, and one that joyously resists the dust heap of bourgeois literary scholarship with its every line.

Berlin Alexanderplatz’s most famous feature is also the cause of the quandary that’s vexed translators all these years, as it is written in a highly site-specific argot—that of the low-rent and seedy districts surrounding 1920s Alexanderplatz—and the narrative is itself festooned with interludes from noisome modernity and ancient myth. An incomplete list of these includes transcriptions of newspapers, Bible passages, train schedules, travel supplements, radio broadcasts, scientific breakthroughs, references to Orestes, ominous political rumblings, advertisements, weather reports, popular melodies, screeds by revolutionary agitators, angelic interlocutors, and dreams. Here’s how the historical crash of an airship in June 1928 registers amid Döblin’s breezy by-the-by news roundup: “Lots of things are happening in the world. The blimp Italia crashed with General Nobile on board, and wired its inaccessible position somewhere north-east of Spitzbergen. Another airplane was more fortunate, in seventy-seven hours it flew non-stop from San Francisco to Australia and landed safely. Then the king of Spain has fallen out with his dictator Primo, well, let’s hope they can sort out their differences.” It’s safe they won’t, but how could Döblin have so accurately glimpsed the way the wind was blowing five full years before Fascism exploded across Europe? Only Moby-Dick is more digressive, but Döblin had the incredible luck, whether good or bad is impossible to say, to be writing in 1928, meaning that we wind up with a consummately detailed, up-to-the-minute record of a vanished world on the cusp of its extinction. Who knows if a contemporary novel, taking as its documents tweets, The Onion articles, and celebrity scandals, would buck frivolousness for the same whiff of inevitability? Maybe one Alexanderplatz is enough, given that its style looks forward to a dizzy modernity impossible to drown out, one that sneaks out from behind every petty personal drama to drag us down into history.

Into this mélange of urban and historical detritus comes our hero Franz Bieberkopf, a WWI veteran, pimp, petty criminal and all-purpose blockhead.

And what a drama it is. Into this mélange of urban and historical detritus comes our hero Franz Biberkopf, a WWI veteran, pimp, petty criminal and all-purpose blockhead who we first meet upon his release from the Tegel Penitentiary, where he has just finished serving a sentence for the murder of his prostitute girlfriend. Determined to go straight, Biberkopf’s doom is never in doubt, as we know from the first pages that “His real punishment was just beginning.” In the meantime, he tries his hand at a variety of trades—tie-holder salesman, newspaper seller, propagandist for National Socialism, pornographer, socialist, cement worker, door-to-door shoelace salesman—Homer Simpsoning his way across the city, from disaster to disaster, before winding up pulled disastrously back into crime. Besides the constant lamentations over Biberkopf’s unfolding misfortune (around the halfway mark, the author throws up his hands, remarking “There’s really not much to say about Franz Biberkopf, we know the fellow already. We can predict what a pig will do when it reaches the sty.”), Döblin chides his hero in chapter headings that read like Brechtian broadsheets even as they elevate this consummate schmuck to the status of an epic hero: “Franz is a man of some scale, he knows what’s what,” “Biberkopf anaesthetized, Franz curls up, Franz doesn’t want to see anything,”Franz notices nothing, and the world goes on its way,” “And now Franz hears the slow song of death.The book’s almost jingoistic tone precludes trenchant psychological storytelling; Biberkopf is a human animal who smells of Schnapps and for whom salvation is a no-go, cheekily compared to Job and the weeping prophet Jeremiah, a mere puppet carved with mortal likeness and jerked around by his strings, flailing from lofty ambition and empty talk to lie consigned in the gutter. Same as anybody really, and the great paradox of Döblin’s book is that we identify with, fear for, and weep with Franz (notwithstanding that we’re talking about a murderer, occasional Nazi, gangster, and serial beater of women) as he spirals toward his doom despite a prose style that mostly mocks and prods its hero from the safety of a showman’s sly and faux-evangelical omniscience:

Who is this on Alexanderstrasse, very slowly pushing one foot after the other? His name is Franz Biberkopf, and you know his story. A ponce, a grave criminal, a poor man, a beaten man, his time has come. Damn the fists that beat him! The terrible fist that grabbed hold of him! The other fists hit him and let him go, there was a wound, an opening, it healed, Franz stayed the way he was, and hurried on his way. But this fist won’t let him go, this fist is incredibly big, it shakes him body and soul, Franz is walking along with little tiny steps, and he knows: my life is no longer mine. I don’t know what I have to do now, but Franz Biberkopf is finished.   

After two-hundred pages of recidivism, failed schemes in the straight world, and betrayals, Berlin Alexanderplatz gradually acquires a plot through the introduction of the two characters that will shape Franz’s destiny: heart-of-gold hooker Mitzi, whom Biberkopf both abuses and adores, and the snaky, stuttering lowlife Reinhold, an insecure womanizer with a tattoo of an anvil on his chest. After a botched robbery with Reinhold leaves him with one arm, Biberkopf gamely returns to the criminal circle, baffling both Reinhold and their boss, criminal mastermind Pums. It seems Biberkopf can’t endure love without violence and engineers his own destruction through his devotion to Reinhold, who will soon murder Mitzi, leaving her strangled in the woods outside the city, after which the book tapers off into wailings, visions, and endless court proceedings where the holy fool Franz fails to fully indict Reinhold when called as a witness. In the end, Biberkopf does not die but simply returns to life as a hollowed-out man, “his head full of holes,” purged of feeling, and working as a porter in a factory, where it is easy to imagine him becoming putty in the hands of the Third Reich.

The previous English-language translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, by the American Modernist critic Eugene Jolas (from 1931), has been shat on for the hundred years since its publication, as Jolas managed to get himself shot by both sides: the prudes who objected to the overt Weimar sexuality and the sticklers who found fault with the substitution of Berlinerisch with American slang (“Now I getcha, wait a minute, m’boy,” etc.) Hofmann has opted for cockney in his translation, so Meck is Mack, a movie is a “flicker,” and swears are occasionally transcribed as the John Lydon-esque “Cor!” But cinephiles have long known that the real translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 miniseries, made cheaply for German television, the director’s magnum opus and a holy grail of cinema. The novel was clearly central to Fassbinder’s life and even his conception of himself—he named the protagonist of his 1975 film Fox and His Friends Franz Biberkopf, a role the director played himself, and his first film, 1969’s Love is Colder Than Death, is largely a dry-run for Alexanderplatz, with many of its themes explored expressionistically. But for his ultimate film treatment, Fassbinder opted for realism, treating the text as gospel: every line of the novel exists here in some form, with Fassbinder reading Döblin’s narration at the beginning of each episode, as the camera pans over scenes of Teutonic squalor. The doughy and looming actor Günter Lamprecht is an ideal Biberkopf and skinny-bodied Fassbinder regular Gottfried John—he of the sensually perverse lips and bulbous nose—is a terrifying and pathetic Reinhold. Long takes of Biberkopf alone with Mitzi often chart the movement of ecstasy into violence and crowd scenes, notably those of a carnivalesque, not-quite-earthly alley of forbidden pleasures that Biberkopf frequents, are modeled on the paintings of Max Beckman and George Grosz (whose Panorama [Down with Liebknecht] supplies the cover of the NYRB edition). The usual compromises a film is forced to make when adapting a masterpiece don’t apply here and Fassbinder even solves a problem in the text by imbuing Biberkopf and Reinhold’s inexplicable hold on each other with a vicious and unspoken sexuality.

For all its angels, Jobs, and devils, Berlin Alexanderplatz wants us to remember that this happens every day as, Biberkopf-like, we seek the resources to undo ourselves.

Fassbinder’s film famously ends with a hallucinogenic, feature-length epilogue where Biberkopf’s collapse into madness possibly one-ups Döblin, if only because the kinky Boschean netherworld into which our hero descends has the advantage of being scored by Lou Reed and Kraftwerk songs. And yet, for all its operatic tragicomedy and Modernist fusing of the way the personal inscribes the historical on the flesh, for all its angels, Jobs, and devils, neither Fassbinder or Döblin want us to forget that this happens every day as, Biberkopf-like, we find ourselves adrift and seek the resources to undo ourselves, making hash of our aspirations, however humble they may be, because we are small and the city is the sturdier lifeform. There is, therefore, “no grounds for despair,” as Döblin writes in an aside:

There are no grounds for despair. As I continue my story, and follow it through to its rough, awful, bitter conclusion, I will often have cause to repeat: there are no grounds for despair. For while the man whose story I am telling is no ordinary man, he is at least ordinary inasmuch as we exactly understand him, and sometimes tell ourselves: we would have done the same as he did at each point and put ourselves through what he did. I promise, although this is not customary, not to keep silent during the story.