Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Doeblin translated by Michael Hofmann- German Readalong

I was drawn to taking part in this Readalong because I got a huge amount out of reading The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth with the German Readalong in Spring 2019- and Berlin Alexanderplatz was one of those novels in the 20th century literature course I took at university which I didn’t read then but has been hovering around on the edge of my consciousness ever since. In fact, I noticed Michael Hofmann’s new translation on display in Foyles shortly after it came out last year with a mixture of curiosity and irritation- oh they’ve decided to bring out another translation of that old novel have they- in preference to a novel by a contemporary German writer like Ursula Krechel or Natascha Wodin. But I do like Michael Hofmann’s translations and appreciate the translator’s note he often includes in his translations-so after some deliberation I decided to give the Readalong a go.

I didn’t have any particular expectations about the book, other than it being about  a working class milieu in Berlin in the 1920s. Michael Hofmann’s Afterword flagged up that the novel contains a range of text types and is typical of its time in focusing on the city in all its modernity, speed, variety, vice and amorality- he draws parallels with Brecht’s Mahagonny. From this Afterword and, a helpful reader’s review on Amazon, I knew that the novel starts with Franz Biberkopf coming out of prison. What I didn’t know, and this might have stopped me from taking part in the Readalong at all, was that he was inside for murdering his wife-which comes out early on in the brutal comment: Who’s to blame for everything? Ida, always Ida. Who else. I broke her fucking ribs, that’s why they put me in clink. Now she’s got what she wanted, she’s dead, and I’m standing here. So he’s a wife murderer with no insight or remorse. At that point I almost stopped reading. Why would I want to spend any more time in the company of this violent misogynist? For some reason I did carry on, but after that we have the account of him abusing Ida’s sister and, later, a more detailed account of Ida’s death. I stopped there.

Now, these first two chapters do portray the working class milieu of 1920s Berlin in some detail: the political discussions in the pub, the casual anti- semitism of Franz Biberkopf, the details of transport and street life. But they are all from a male narrator point of view. Where are the women? Their absence, combined with the violence and misogyny of the main character, means that I’m not going to read any further. In fact, as a sort of antidote and immediately on putting down the book, I picked up and read Meena Kandasamy’s book When I hit you, about domestic violence in the Indian context, to get some feedback from the women, to read a woman’s experience of male violence and abuse.

So I’m not going on with Berlin Alexanderplatz and I’d love it if we could read a book next time by a woman.

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7 Responses to Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Doeblin translated by Michael Hofmann- German Readalong

  1. Pingback: Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week 1 (Chapters 1 and 2) – Lizzy's Literary Life

  2. lizzysiddal says:

    I quite understand – Franz Biberkopf is a nasty little man in the nasty criminal underbelly of 1920s Berlin. And if I hadn’t been hosting a readalong, I doubt I’d have continued either. But as it is, I hope that it will give back … something at least.

    NYRB Classics have published Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier Takes Berlin – same era, female author – which I’ll be getting to early in the New Year.

  3. Readers differ of course in their tastes and also in what they are looking for in a book. A certain percentage of the novels I like have main characters that are unlikeable or sometimes even repelling. Does this say anything about if it is a good book or not? The answer is: of course not! And why should we expect that literature is painting a picture of society or life that is different from reality? Don’t get me wrong, I understand and respect why you didn’t finish the book, it is just that for many other readers the “likeability” of a central character is not a criterion for judging a book, nor is the question if the narrator is male or female. Berlin Alexanderplatz is indeed a multi-layered book that deserves close reading.

  4. mandywight says:

    Hello, the question of likeability of the main character is a theme readers are often grappling with. I’m not saying that the likeability of a central character determines the quality of a work of literature. It’s simply about spending time with that person, which it feels like you’re doing with the narrator, or narrative voice. I’m more interested in the experience of the women and would like to hear their voices. I can of course see why this novel in its depiction of the city and the working class milieu,was feted in its time and I did really enjoy both these aspects.

  5. I cannot get on with any of Michael Hoffman’s translations.
    I first read this book in the Eugene Jolas translation, and there’s no profanity there. This makes the storyline more nuanced and less confrontational, I find. I’m not excusing FB nor his later semi-rape; this is all part of the author’s attempt to portray a wide canvas of behaviour/people.

  6. mandywight says:

    That’s interesting about the two translations. It would be an interesting exercise to analyse and compare the two- to see if the different nuances in one particular scene is consistent throughout the book and affects the characterisation of FB. Are MH’s translation choices a function of the contemporary audience he’s addressing?

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