The antiheroes of modernist literature are typically too weak or languid to be at risk of acquiring a rap-sheet. Prufrock won’t dare eat a peach; Leopold Bloom’s self-effacing cuckoldom is of a piece with his graceful sociability; Céline’s soldier Bardamu cowers in the Great War. Compared to this humble ensemble, Franz Biberkopf, the blundering, ex-con at the heart of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (first published in 1929, and now reinvigorated in a crisp and playful translation by Michael Hofmann), is a volcanic brute. We follow his violent antics with dread, at what he has done and what he might do.
When we meet Biberkopf, he has just completed his sentence in the Tegel Penitentiary for the heinous murder of his lover (a bludgeoning with an egg-whisk that Döblin recounts with a mocking Newtonian precision). Biberkopf is on the mend but never gets very far: Döblin’s novel is one of hapless backsliding and halfway rehabilitations. It also doubles as a treatise on inequality. A life of middle-class respectability is never in the offing for Biberkopf; a nervy war-veteran haunted by his time in the trenches, he has, through and through, a life from below. After a spate of odd jobs, which serve only to sap his minimal investment in the gospel of work (“My time’s not my own” he protests), he falls in with a pack of two-bit gangsters. A series of betrayals—a friend-turned-archrival hurls Biberkopf from a moving car, leaving him an invalid, and later murders Biberkopf’s lover in a jealous rage in the woods outside Berlin—lead to a final mental breakdown.
Even in relative health, Biberkopf is a case study in psychic pains and embattled longings. The only solution he finds for the woes of the big C, capitalism, is the little c, cognac—not for him an overheated anarchist speech in the streets calling for destruction of the state and the militant “refusal of labour.” Meanwhile, his sexual assertiveness bears the undercurrents of an explosive violence he cannot transcend. And he is caught oscillating between a wry sense of his own independence and a crushing powerlessness before larger social structures whose dominance leaves him feeling something less than a man.
Berlin Alexanderplatz teems with the subversive energies befitting a work of precocious iconoclasm, but in fact was a novel of middle-age breakthrough and synthesis. When it was published, Döblin was a fifty-one-year-old man of medicine with a short list of prolix novels—including Orientalist, science-fiction, and historical epics—to his name. He worked in private psychiatric practice, treating a steady stream of lower-class workers, sifting their agonized stories for eventual use.
As an epicist of the margin and of the city’s frenetic pace, as a psychiatrist for the indigent who wrote novels of immense scope, Döblin can seem a straddler, caught between the worlds of the gutter and the monumental. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, devotion to capturing the lives of the maladjusted and to the creation of ambitious artistic sprawl merge.
Biberkopf is a poster-child for social ills, and a handy mechanism for the novelist’s extravagant raid on urban velocity, chatter, and tension. He has been novelized without being rarified: his sorrows are simple, their aesthetic shape is not. Without the palliative of liqueur or a new infatuation, Biberkopf experiences his life largely as a registration of distresses. These are brought on by his wartime chapter—he still has his brain and even his “midbrain,” he quips, but in what form we cannot always be sure; by his romantic misdeeds (Eros in the novel often seeming a mere disguise that Ares wears, with dalliances turning into clashes between lovers or rival suitors); by an oppressive economic order; and by the backstabbing conmen with whom he throws in his lot. Their conning, we gather, is a microcosm, and not an outlier, of a wider social world defined by infinite aggressions and expropriations.
The setting for that social world has perhaps been too easily treated as a Joycean tribute to a place, a love letter to Berlin. And certainly when, for example, Döblin launches into a full recitation of the tramline stops—a counterpart to the Homeric list of ships—it is possible to hear an unbridled civic gusto. Yet the “whirlpool metropolis” Döblin designs for Biberkopf’s roving is often a materialist nightmare, all eavesdropped misfortunes and clattering trains. It is the anti-Platonic city, and stripped of the promise that infuses urban spaces in modern literature: as a place of readymade pleasures and individual metamorphosis. Döblin’s Berlin makes for a far sparser stage. Its truer energies are those of verbal compilation rather than of granular urban portraiture, ravished or otherwise. To plunge into the novel is to lose and recover one’s way in the play of unnamed voices, which press a case, a lament, a story, for a few lines and then disappear.
Some of these voices come from scenes Biberkopf participates in, but many are part of a vast collage. These voices are not merely incidental pieces in a city soundscape; rather, the lion’s share form a tragic chorus—the babel of the unlucky. They tell of soured marriages, front-page calamities, firings, workplace accidents, political agitation, wizened barroom advice from elders to youngers—not to succumb to false hopes, not to mistake the way the world is for the way it ought to be (the law-courts, as one opines, for true justice), to play a little pool if it helps, to take some rum in one’s tea. Döblin condenses the drama of human life to taut episode. Here, for instance, a grieving father confronts the young doctor whose oversight, he believes, may have caused his four-year-old son’s death the day before:
‘You kept us waiting the whole of Wednesday, from early till six a night. We sent for you twice. You didn’t come.’ ‘Of course I came.’ The man starts yelling again: ‘I’m a war cripple, we gave our blood in the trenches, and now we’re at the back of the queue, you think you can do what you like with us.’ ‘Sit down, sir, calm yourself. Your child didn’t die of diphtheria. Cross-infections in hospital are a fact of life.’ ‘Fact of life, sure,’ he goes on yelling. ‘But we’re left waiting, we’re last in line. It’s fine for our children to die, same as it was fine for us to die.’
Such are the facts of life with which Döblin’s Berlin residents have to make their difficult peace. Elsewhere, it is not loss but eruptive jealousy, or insolvency, or acts of aggression, that provide the bitter incitement to tragic knowledge. Whatever the malaise, Döblin’s dire narratives tend to arc towards a fractured resilience. The young doctor, the bereaved man tells his wife when he gets home, with a fair-mindedness hard to distinguish in the context from an ingrained helplessness, is “not a bad man, but he needs to be told.” He is already resigned to tautology: “if something goes wrong, it goes wrong.” Trembling, he drinks his coffee while his wife sobs. After a bit of small talk—the coffee is good—the curtain falls.
Or take, as another example, this dizzying monologue from a man in a barroom:
‘I used to be a schoolmaster. Before the War. When the War started, I was already the way I am now. The bar was like it is now. They didn’t enroll me. They’ve got no use for people like me, addicts. Or rather: they did enroll me, and I thought, fuck, I’ve had it. They took my needle away, and the morphine as well. And I joined up. I stuck it out for two days, that’s how long my reserves lasted, and then so long, Prussia, and it was the loony bin for me. . . . A woman and a kid. It feels like the whole world. I wasn’t sorry, I don’t feel guilty; you have to find a level for things, and for yourself as well. Don’t make a cult of destiny. I’m not a believer in fate. I live in Berlin, not ancient Greece. . . . When I found my wife and kid not at home, just a note, gone to Mum in West Prussia and so on, botched life, failed husband, the humiliation and all, I cut myself, here in my arm, it looked like an attempted suicide. . . . You know, all that pain and remorse, it was so much bullshit, I was alive, my wife was alive, the kid was alive, she even went on to have a couple more, in West Prussia, I like to think it was remote control. Anyway, we’re all alive. This place here makes me happy, the cop on the corner makes me happy, pool makes me happy. I’d like to hear someone say his life was better, and that I didn’t know anything about women.’
Regaining his humor, in the story and in its telling, the unnamed confessionalist shows us the crucibles through which any cheer and tenderness have to pass in Döblin’s world. The man’s sense of contingency, his refusal, as he sees it, to play the Greek fatalist, has survived his harsh denouement, but mirth, on the given terms, would seem to require a special inventiveness, or irony.
The miniature sagas Döblin culls are not the grace notes of Berlin. As a rule, Döblin is interested in mining the points where the lives of individuals have gone wrong, whether as a consequence of collective failures and neglects or entirely apart from them. If as a city-writer he shows us the great web of dramas that create a vanishing sense of place—a place that is in the voices and perhaps nowhere else—Döblin also leaves us with a stark sense of the deep isolation of the characters whose lives are brought to the surface for an instant, then scattered back into the city’s hum. We are treated to glimpses, no doubt deceptive in their dramatic intensity and significance. The bit-players remain mysterious.
Döblin brought to the novel his psychoanalytic background, with its companionable attunement to the dimensions of individual disorder under severe social stresses. Döblin received a doctoral degree in clinical psychiatry and subsequently trained under Ernst Simmel at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, a pioneering clinic devoted to the poor. His trade primed him to explore, in literature’s freer terms, the specters of war trauma, mental disorder, and aggression. As a military doctor on the Western front, Döblin quipped that he fought the Battle of Verdun with his ears. In the post-war years—having tired of being an institution-man at large Berlin hospitals—he opened up his own practice in a seedy district, catering to lower-class patients. His patients’ sufferings left Döblin with an acute sense of his own relative powerlessness to set things right. As a psychiatrist, Döblin appears to have experienced the typical disappointment of the social actor who aspires towards a transformative influence and ends up feeling hamstrung. “We are all just private social workers with medical experience,” he remarked in a 1928 article, lamenting of his patients that “I cannot give them coal or get them another apartment or another wife or a job.”
But the impact of Döblin’s patients also ran outward—his encounters with society’s lower-rung and their own forms of spirited opportunism and transgression left Döblin suspicious of ordinary moral distinctions: “When I encountered these people . . .,” he would recall, “I had a strange image of our society: how there is no strictly definable line between criminals and noncriminals, how at all possible points society—or rather that part of it which I could see—is undermined with criminality.” This capacious vision of criminality was accompanied by an aesthetic chip on his shoulder. His trade may have intensified, if it did not altogether create, a posture of aesthetic contrarianism, and Döblin sounded Rousseauvian notes of opprobrium against those elites of the age—writers, critics, consumers—who might look out, at best, with ambivalence on an insurgent mass culture. “I am disgusted,” he wrote in 1930, “by ‘refinement,’ by affluence with its made-up, satiated people; I loathe the socializing of the rich, their impudent and revolting way of abusing art as evening entertainment.” “My books,” Döblin declared, don’t “have anything to do with art in today’s sense.”
These fighting words help make sense of Döblin’s frequently brusque and unpolished style, or anti-style—one handled with verve by Michael Hofmann’s forays into the demotic, recasting the novel’s easy profanity and rivulets of pontification with a bit of British flair. There is no preciousness, or elaborate syntax, in this novel. The writing is all quick, no-nonsense declarative, and reads as though jotted out with abandon by a man who had little notion of entering the pantheon of forbidding modernist maestros. There is no imaginable line to be drawn between Berlin Alexanderplatz and Finnegan’s Wake. But Döblin’s standoffish disavowal of anything to do with “art in today’s sense” did not translate into a cramped and abstemious realism, and in places Berlin Alexanderplatz is striking because of just how far he was willing to go.
The book’s greatest achievement may be an extraordinary description, running five or so pages, of Berlin’s two-hundred acre slaughterhouse, with troops of pigs brought on to the killing bays, their skulls cratered by a faceless axe-man just, it is said, following orders. The voice behind the scene offers a disarming mixture of mordant documentation, panoramic staging, and pulpy violence. Döblin’s description of the abattoir recalls Melville on the harpooners’ cutting of the whale—the viscera and gore and the air of an at once frenzied and disciplined rite, albeit with less jaunty intimations of an incongruous pleasure on the part of the killer. The scene is often seized on as having premonitory, historical power; a fictive barometer for a society on the edge. But within the texture of the novel its violence requires no further conflagration. Rather, its carnival of hurts refers to cruelties in the mundane world, to which Biberkopf (who at times, from this scene on, will imagine himself among the swine) and his ilk are already captive. In the scene, as in the rest of his novel, Döblin presents a grim parable for the sacrifice required for the sustenance of human culture.
At the back of its dispersed stories of individual mischance and anguish, Berlin Alexanderplatz reckons with forms of suffering and harm that are irremediable. They are in the way we live and in what we are. To vandalize the Platonic analogy, they are in our cities as in ourselves, and may never find adequate redress in the good works of the psychiatrist, the politician, or the idealizing author. Against any such dream of redress, this cynical, worldly novelist—who lived “in Berlin, not ancient Greece”—wrote.
Francisco Unger practices law in Boston.