Wir sind alle Berliner, We Are All Berliners: A Review of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’

Courtesy of New York Review Books

By D.A. Dellechiaie
BU News Service

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” is not a simple novel about a man in a city during a specific year. It is a story of Life at its dirtiest, when it is riddled with discontent, and full of hope for a new day.

Franz Bibikoff is a man in search of a change in post WW1 Germany after being freed from prison. Franz transforms from a bumbling ex-con to a smutty newspaper salesman, a fascist newspaper salesman, a pimp, and a simple thief, with a few tangents on the way. One of his first conversations when he gets back shows his determination and sets the style for the rest of the novel: “‘I’m going to call the police.’ ‘Minna, Minna, sweetheart, do, I’m so happy, I’m a human being again.’ ‘Christ, mad is what you are, they really messed with your head in Tegel.’…  ‘And who’s going to pay for my apron, look at it, it’s nothing better than a rag now.’ ‘Franz will take care of it, leave it to Franz! Franz is back among the living!’”

We never directly follow Franz. Instead, we see the world around him. You can’t read “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” you have to experience it actively to keep up with the locomotive train speed of the novel. The story is told through newspaper headlines, weather reports, religious sermons, mythology, drinking songs, sales pitches, propositions, political speeches and the stories Franz’s acquaintances such as Reinhold, a serial womanizer, and Eva, a caring and smart escort.

The narrative jumps around like you are on a tour bus but you never feel like a tourist. Instead because of the humanness of the characters and the expert description of the settings, you feel like you are a citizen of Berlin. We take Franz’s first steps in Berlin with him, “He made his way off the tram unnoticed, mingled with the crowd. What was wrong? Nothing. Hey watch where you’re going or I’ll whop you. The crowds, the crowds. My skull needs grease, it must have dried out. All that stuff. Shoe shops, hat shops, electrical lights, bars…Hundreds of shiny windows, let them flash away at you, they’re nothing to be afraid of…Just mingle with the crowd, man, that’ll make everything better, then you won’t suffer.”

The scenes in “Berlin Alexanderplatz” are written like one long, beautiful sentence and are interrupted by thoughts, newspaper articles, advertisements and the general chaos surrounding the speakers. The effect does not jar you but instead causes you to get swept away and absorbed into the novel. “And who will beam at [Reinhold] from the back wall…not Dr Luppe, Mayor of Nuremberg, because he is giving the opening address today on Durer Day…Wrigley P.R. chewing gum promotes healthy teeth, sweet breath and improved digestion. It’s only Franz Bibikoff, grinning all over his face.”

Some of the references, such as the tongue in cheek re-writing of the story of Abraham and Isaac, flow with the text; but others such as the countless references to dated poetry and mythology, feel out of place and contrived. While I do believe that most novels should be read without an academic pedant lecturing over your shoulder via the footnotes, for a modernist novel that uses philosophy, mythology, and theology to set the mood of the story, explanatory footnotes would have been helpful.

The comparisons to “Ulysses” are warranted; but “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is not a mere copycat. It has the focus on one city and its inhabitants in common with “Ulysses” but unlike Joyce, Döblin spends less time focusing on cheeky word play and recasting mythological heroes as characters, and devotes more time to describing the reality his Berliners are living in: “Then the whole merry crowd will leave the house, the guests will go dancing out, a tumult, and no more lovely meadows, warm shed, fragrant hay, gone, all gone, a void, an empty hole, darkness, here comes a new picture of the world.”

Cynicism and the banality of tragedy are an undercurrent in the novel. World War 1 has dulled the ability of the characters to feel for tragedies. The characters often laugh at this tragedy so they don’t cry.  In one particularly gruesome scene, the story of a father drowning his children after his wife kills herself, is responded to with, “If you saw something like that in the theatre or read about it in a book, you’d cry over…You might, Max. But you shouldn’t…I just think it’s…hilarious the way they fall out till the very end.”

What makes “Berlin Alexanderplatz” freakishly prescient is how Döblin understood that the discontent that all Berliners felt ends up causing an openness to fascism. One particularly inspired and moving political speech is ended with the chilling portent: “All we have to offer this state is our opposition—spontaneity and lawlessness.”

You can never tell the whole story. Whether it’s statistical analyses or war histories, we settle for synecdoche, but we want Life. Döblin tells us, “They are men, women and children…To list them all and describe their destinies would be daunting, only a few instances would be possible…What is going on in them, who could write it, a monstrous chapter. And if someone did, then what? New books?” Döblin did not give us another slice-of-life novel; he gave us a new book about life to remind us that we are all Berliners.

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