An Explosion of Pure Fact

Berlin Alexanderplatz

by Alfred Döblin, translated from the German and with an afterword by Michael Hofmann
New York Review Books, 458 pp., $18.95 (paper)


Berlin Alexanderplatz was published in Germany in 1929. It was a novel bearing the name of a giant train station, and its immediate notoriety was due to its aura of metropolitan switchback and speed. No one, it seemed, had reproduced the wild cancan of a city with such meticulously wild techniques. In the nickelodeon theaters, audiences went to watch a quick-change succession of shorts—and now here, so argued its admirers, was the nickelodeon’s novelistic equivalent. Its author, Alfred Döblin, the son of a Jewish tailor from Stettin who practiced as a doctor, was a star of the Expressionist movement. His schtick was garish prose, tonal dissonance, and outlandish subjects: psychosis, suicide, lesbian murderers, anarchist revolution in eighteenth-century China. With Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin used his garish effects on his own drab neighborhood, the working-class environs of Alexanderplatz, and in the process created his most famous and influential work—praised by Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, and later made into a television miniseries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Museum of Modern Art, New York/© 2018 Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
George Grosz: Metropolis, 1917

Berlin in 1929 was the junk city, total modernity. It was so modern that no one knew how to live in it, let alone describe it. In the same year Franz Hessel concluded his flaneuring masterpiece Walking in Berlin with a dejected exhortation:

We Berliners must dwell in our city to a much greater degree. It’s not at all easy, neither the viewing nor the dwelling in a city that is incessantly on the go, always in the middle of becoming something different and never at rest in yesterday’s form.

Berlin was maelstrom, and Alexanderplatz was the city’s microcosm. Now it’s an abstract plaza dominated by the Fernsehturm—the TV tower left over from the GDR. In the 1920s it was a bureaucratic and commercial square, with the Police Presidium, the Tietz department store, and a railroad running down its side. Its atmosphere was hustle, in both legal and illegal forms. And then, toward the end of the decade, a decision was made to build a new and vast subway station under it, turning the square into a giant construction site: a concrete metaphor of the city’s whizzbang novelty, and bass line to Döblin’s novel.

The novel’s first appearance in English was suitably high-speed too. Just two years after its publication, in 1931, Eugene Jolas published a translation that was inventive and intermittently brilliant. Jolas, who was born in New Jersey to a French father and German mother, was the editor of transition, the haute magazine of international modernism, publishing Beckett, Stein, Joyce’s Work in Progress, Atget, Brancusi, Braque, Picasso, Desnos, Gide, and Rilke, as well as an early translation by Jolas of Kafka. Jolas’s poem “Express,” published in transition, gives the general high-speed vibe: “Wheels scream in…

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