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Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Published in Issue 53
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (tr. Michael Hofmann). NYRB Classics. 480 pp, $18.95.
In the tempest-plagued teapot of English translation, Michael Hofmann’s dust-ups are notorious: he compared Stefan Zweig’s suicide note to an Oscar acceptance speech, eviscerated James Reidel’s translations of Thomas Bernhard’s poems, brushed off George Konrad’s A Feast in the Garden as “dire… export-quality horseshit.” Critics seem generally pleased with his translations, but then, critics like Toril Moi, Tim Parks, or Hofmann himself—that is to say, those willing and able to scrutinize the changes a text in translation undergoes, and the details of what is gained and lost alone the way—are rare, and the newspaper reviewer’s “cleverly translated,” “serviceably translated,” and suchlike don’t count for too much. Readers I know are not of one mind about his work: some are unqualified fans, particularly of Angina Days, his selected poetry of Günter Eich. What seems to grate on the less enthusiastic are his translations’ motley surfaces, the “occasional rhinestones or bits of jet,” as he has it in one interview, which mark them, not as the pellucid transmigration of the author’s inspiration from source language into target, but as a patent contrivance in the latter.
Hofmann’s translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, long rumored to be in the works, has the feel of a literary event. In his afterword, while writing appreciatively of Eugene Jolas, who first translated the book into English in 1931, he notes that many readers must have “felt at sea” in the book’s “bitty, yeasty collage.” The differences between their approaches (per Hofmann, “this is the only book I’ve translated that seems to have demanded anything like an ‘approach’ from me”) are evident on the first page: where Jolas is expository, Hofmann opts often for the expediency of metaphor. The impression is quicker, more lively and engaging:
Jolas: This book reports the story of Franz Biberkopf, an erstwhile cement-and transport-worker in Berlin. He has just been discharged from prison where he has been doing time because of former incidents, and is now back in Berlin, determined to lead a decent life.
Hofmann: The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.
Years ago, I skimmed the Eugene Jolas translation—enough to say I’d read it, but not enough to do it justice. It was something of a chore, and made me think of the story Gore Vidal tells in Palimpsest about how he beat out Sir Alec Guinness for the role of Harvard professor in With Honors. Joe Pesci, one of the stars, asked the director: “Why do we always have to go for an English asshole for this sort of part when we have one of our own?” Berlin Alexanderplatz overflows with innovations—gimmickry for its detractors—made familiar by English-language modernists like Dos Passos and Joyce and belabored by their long line of legatees. Hofmann finds Döblin’s frequent comparison to these two authors in particular unhelpful, but it is hard to dismiss entirely. Tracing a direct influence from Dos Passos is difficult: S. Fischer, Döblin’s own publisher, brought out Manhattan Transfer in German in 1927; he may well have read it, but there are no mentions of it in his correspondence. Joyce is a different matter. Döblin had admired of Ulysses and reviewed it in German translation while he was at work on Berlin Alexanderplatz; Breon Mitchell, in James Joyce and the German Novel, alleges he revised it radically after encountering Joyce’s work. Scholars remain divided, and it is perhaps best to see Berlin Alexanderplatz as a product of its time, of a piece not only with Ulysses but also with Gide’s Counterfeiters, Hamsun’s Hunger, even his admirer Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project.
A clue as to how to read the book lies in the title, the economy of which Hofmann has restored. Döblin wanted no adornments or elucidations: for him, the novel’s protagonist was self-evidently the city itself. His publisher objected—Berlin Alexanderplatz was nothing more than a train stop, in his words—and appended the legend, “The Story of Franz Biberkopf.” Franz’s charms as a character are not few—washed-up malefactor, foul-mouthed sentimentalist, perpetual under-underdog, he inspires as much halfhearted rooting as you can muster for a roughneck who shatters his girlfriend’s ribs with an egg beater—but to place him at the novel’s center is to transform its lyrical vignettes, onomatopoeia, scientific apercus, and pastiches sacred and profane into stuffing.
Döblin gives a thumbnail portrait of Franz’s life on the first page. It follows, depending on whether you count his imprisonment prior to the novel’s action, either the Oedipus (fall-rise-fall) or Man in the Hole (fall-rise) narrative that researchers from the University of Vermont claim to have identified as among the six possible “emotional arcs.” Once out of the pen, Biberkopf (sounds like Bieber-kopf or “beaver-head: fun fact for any Beliebers who might be reading) meets with a redheaded Jew who tells him the fantastical tale of one Zannovich, a canny Albanian who slick-talks the populace into taking him for the nobleman Prince Castriota. When things go south, Zannovich flees to Germany, where he befriends Austria’s Empress Theresa and the Crown Prince of Prussia. Though it transpires, through the intervention of a second Jew, this one with a brown beard, that Zannovich committed suicide in prison, the anecdote gives Biberkopf something to think over as he trundles off in search of a drink and a fistfight.
After an invigorating sexual and physical assault visited on the sister of his ex-girlfriend, whose death is what landed him behind bars, Biberkopf thinks triumphantly, “Franz is back!”, and resolves to stick to the straight and narrow. He finds work hawking tie-holders, then shoestrings, then newspapers. Hyperinflation is over, infrastructure works are underway, but despite the industrial and cultural ferment that made Berlin a world capital in the 1920s, Biberkopf can barely scrape by. He gets double-crossed by his friend Lüders, rubs elbows with Nazis and communists, but is too dense, too impassive, or too skeptical to break bread with either; eventually he meets a goon by the name of Reinhold who initiates him into the vocation of popcorn pimp—if I may resort to this lovely bit of argot for the description a book so abundant in the same. Reinhold is a womanizer, but he tires of his victims quickly; fobbing them off on Franz allows him to get back to playing the field, while Franz can loiter in the bars, talk bullshit, and enjoy the dividends.
But Franz wants to work, and soon Reinhold brings him into the fold of Pums, a gangster and ostensible fruit seller who asks Franz to help him out of a bind. The price is right, and Franz goes along cheerfully until he realizes, partway through the job, that he’s been fooled into standing lookout for a burglary. He airs his misgivings, earns a few blows from a stick, and is finally thrown out of the getaway car and run over by a second vehicle in hot pursuit.
The moral injury suffered, plus the loss of his right arm, plunges Franz into “an exhaustion that is like a living death.” He doesn’t thirst for revenge, he even goes to great lengths to meet with his malefactors and convince them he harbors no rancor. He lives off the charity of a friend and an old flame until meeting his true love, Emilie, a “prime piece” from the countryside who turns tricks under the name of Sonia, but whom Biberkopf dubs Mitzi, because “he can’t get along with foreign names.” Döblin steps in to warn Franz he’s going down the wrong road: “You had a squalid life, you got under the wheels, before that you killed Ida and did time for it, all that was terrible. And now? You’re in the same situation, for Ida read Mitzi, you’ve lost an arm, careful you don’t stop drinking.” Franz, evidently, doesn’t listen, most likely can’t.
There’s not really much to say about Franz Bieberkopf, we know the fellow already. We can predict what a pig will do when it reaches the sty. Only, a pig is better off than a human being, because it’s put together from meat and lard and not much more can happen to it as long as it gets enough to eat: at most it might throw another litter, and at the end of it’s life there’s the knife, which isn’t particularly bad or upsetting either: before it notices anything—and what does an animal notice anyway—it’s already kaput. Whereas a man, he’s got eyes, and there’s a lot going on inside him, and all of it mixed up together: he’s capable of thinking God knows what and he will think (his head is terrible) about what will happen to him.
Beyond the noise of the S-Bahn, neon lights, advertising jingles, and newspaper headlines, two metaphors predominate in Berlin Alexanderplatz: the trials of Job and the cattle and hogs meeting their deaths at the municipal abattoir. Franz has a bit of both in him, and Döblin torments him for another two hundred pages after he loses his arm. There are double-crosses, lovelornness, a bout of electroshock therapy, and an extent, if not happy, ever-after so distinct from the vicissitudes Franz has been through before that Döblin pronounces him dead and declares him a new man.
In some ways, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a response to the shortcomings of futurism, which Döblin had been grappling with for more than a decade. In an open letter to Tommasso Marinetti, Döblin declared himself a “naturalist,” and railed against the “hegemony of the author.” At the same time, he criticized Marinetti’s presumption that “reality is materiality” and condemned his error of identifying the world with “automobiles, airplanes, and machine guns.” Intoxicated by the sights and sounds, especially the sounds, of Berlin, Döblin saw them not as facts, but as experiential data inseparable from subjective life. That their possible interpretations exceeded the capacities of any given reader or author required not a retreat into the posture of objectivity, but the injection of life into every object and setting.
“A masterpiece is always a mixed blessing,” Hofmann writes, and Döblin suffered at the shadow Berlin Alexanderplatz cast on his other work. But six decades after his death, matters don’t seem poised to change, and a memorable translation of a single magnum opus seems preferable to consignment to oblivion. Reading Hofmann against Jolas, I find the older man gets short shrift: his Americanisms are congenial to me, whereas Hofmann’s British and more miscellaneous lingo demands constant, frequently futile recourse to the dictionary. Jolas, too, is capable of wit and beauty, though Hofmann leaves more fingerprints, in line with his “anti-depletionist” principle of doing “the kinds of things my originals do.” My former antipathy toward Jolas—and I suspect this may be true of others—was less a reflection on his work than a symptom of an erroneous approach to Döblin himself: an unwillingness to de-categorize his work and let it unfold according to its own devices.
As much as anything, the importance of Hofmann’s translation is the stature of Hofmann himself: if so discerning a critic, poet, and translator throws his weight behind something, it is hard to justify ignoring it. What Hofmann certainly gets right, compared to his predecessor, is the book’s jagged, clangorous feel: his extensive vocabulary, his poet’s feel for the dimensions of words, draws attention to the gaps, the places where the film has been cut and spliced, in a way Jolas often smooths over. Then again, the reasons no longer matter much: the Jolas translation flopped, it was time to try again, and the new version is a compelling argument for revisiting this never-quite-forgotten, never-quite-remembered classic.
Adrian Nathan West is author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of numerous works of European literature, including Marianne Fritz’s Weight of Things and Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny. He lives between the United States and Spain with cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
Published in Issue 53

"Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research. "
Wilson Mizner

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