Döblin’s novel is one I have known about, it seems, forever. The very title has an emblematic quality. It has been waiting to be read for decades. It’s not the easiest book to get hold of. But finally, it has tracked me down.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is a long novel, which consists of 9 dense chapters. It tells the tragic tale of Franz Bieberkopf. His story actually takes place over the course of a year, but the narrative sprawls, giving the sense of a lifetime. Bieberkopf is a fully-fledged anti-hero. We first meet him coming out of prison having served his time for beating his girlfriend to death. He’s obtuse, violent, disloyal, lacking intelligence, and yet… and yet, he becomes, with all the alchemy a novel can bestow on a character, strangely loveable. If there’s another figure he resembles it’s Slothrop, from Gravity’s Rainbow. A lumbering oddball whom the fates have decided not to befriend. The connections between Pynchon’s novel and Döblin feel marked. Döblin’s imagination is vivacious, frequently on the edge of control. The narrative is like a river in full spate. The whole city courses through the novel, which has no qualms in detouring for half a dozen pages to show us the city abattoir; or just jotting down the current events of the day. The book is full of anecdotes and loose ends. It’s a baggy read, driven by Franz’s doomed mission to make a go of things. He goes straight and that doesn’t work. He turns to crime and that doesn’t work. He falls in love and that doesn’t work. But onwards he ploughs, like an untameable ox.
Apparently comparisons have also been made to Joyce. They might have something in common. But it seems to me that Döblin has something rawer, edgier, more indicative of the times. Written in 1929, when the Nazis were incipient and the Communists were still a force, the book captures a sense of transcendent insecurity. People’s lives mean little. Politics offers no solutions. A man (or woman) can only put their heads down and keep going, secure in the knowledge that it’s not going to turn out alright in the end. I’ve been reading this book over the course of a couple of months, during which time my country has left Europe, changed its leaders, and appears to have decided to teeter on the brink of economic oblivion. Meanwhile, across the channel, random acts of violence have become the norm. The world of Franz Beiberkopf and the present day feel far closer than they ought to. In the end of the book, Franz just about survives. But what lay around the corner was even more terrible.