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Monday, September 08, 2014

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin


Book Review
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
by Alfred Döblin

   Berlin Alexanderplatz is either a "lost modernist classic" or "one of the most important German novels written during the Weimar Republic" or both, I suppose.   The book jacket of the translation I read compared it to James Joyce's Ulysses...the cover of the book jacket made that comparison.  That often made comparison combined with the 630 page length made me hesitate for months but like so many other books in the 1001 Books Project, once I actually buckled down and read the darn thing I enjoyed it.

  Franz Bierkopf is not what you would call a hero, existing somewhere between the hard drinking miners of mid 19th century Zola and the seedy underworld of the detective novel.  In the first chapter he walks out of German Prison near Berlin after doing four years for accidentally murdering his wife/girlfriend.

  Out on the streets, he tries to "go straight" but is unsurprisingly lured back into a criminal lifestyle after losing his arm at the tail end of his inaugural heist after release.   After losing his arm he reinvents himself as a pimp, a transformation that is glossed over considering much of the other events are documented in excruciating "stream of consciousness" style detail.  The disorienting impact of the modernist technique is mitigated by the use of little explanatory paragraphs at the beginning of each of the sections (every 75 pages or so.)  Doblin also shies away from unexplained movements between different narrators and shifts back and forth in time, making Berlin Alexanderplatz less experimental but still very modern.

  Doblin also crafts a compelling ending that again belies the "modernist classic" tag- since usually "modernist classic" means either an ambivalent finish or even no ending at all.  The gritty criminal class world of Weimar Era Berlin should appeal to early 20th century fetishists at fans of crime fiction, but it is way too dark for readers of more genteel literature from the mid 19th and early 20th century.  

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