Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 1

Due to some time constraints this and next week, my post is very short.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

When I buy a book in a bookshop, I sometimes keep the receipt. I did so in this case and that’s how I know that the book has been on my shelves for 19 years. I bought it in September 2000. I know that when I bought it, I was extremely keen on reading it. But for some reason I didn’t and because I always felt it was a book that had to be read during autumn – possibly because I visited Berlin in autumn – I postponed it from year to year. When Lizzy mentioned she wanted to read it during this GLM, I decided that the time had finally come.

Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

It’s pretty much how I expected it. Highly readable in some places, and more experimental in others. I struggled more reading the first book than I thought I would. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but once I made more time for reading it and saw certain patterns in the storytelling emerge, I was captivated.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I’m reading the German original and am constantly thinking that it’s almost impossible to translate this adequately because of the extensive use of Berlin vernacular. But since Döblin uses a collage/montage technique there are other challenges. He uses bits from songs, slogans, poetry, and many other sources. Occasionally he uses them verbatim, quite often though, he changes words. Of course, you can translate them, but they won’t mean the same to a foreign reader. With the changes, they might even be more unrecognizable. I was also wondering, if the translators really caught all the allusions and quotes. They would have to be extremely knowledgeable about German culture and literature

The more descriptive passages, especially those in which the narrator/author are present are very beautiful. There’s a rhythm and sound to his sentences that’s unique. The choice of words is very careful.

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Because of the way Döblin chose to tell this story, I think of Franz as a guinea pig or a marionette. I feel like I see the threads, the author is using to make him move. I can’t think of him as a real person at all. Interestingly, I feel very differently about Berlin. The city comes across as more of person than Franz. The city comes to life. One has the feeling of experiencing a particular moment in a very particular place.

10 thoughts on “Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 1

  1. Interesting observations about the translation; I can imagine similar problems translating Ulysses, to which BA is sometimes compared. Good point too about the character of FB; you helped me recollect some of my own ambivalence about him and the novel when I read it a while back, and expressed it better than my fading memory was able to.

    • Goodness, yes. Ulysses must have been terrible to translate. Maybe the same goes for Manhattan Transfer which is also compared to Berlin Alexanderplatz.
      You’re too kind, thanks. He really does feel like a marionette doing his authors bidding.

  2. I also have books that have been sitting on my shelf for decades. It is kind of neat to read one.

    The issue of translation as it relates to the Berlin vernacular. I always wonder about such issues when it comes to translations.

    • It’s fun to know how long a book was on the piles and satisfying to finally read it.
      I think it’s impossible to translate but a good translator can transmit the flavor.

  3. If you want “extremely knowledgeable about German culture and literature,” I don’t know how you’re going to do better, with that level of English as well, than Hofmann. He mostly leaves the song lyrics in German and gives a little description in an endnote – e.g., “a popular Weimar song.” You are right, those associations are just about impossible to keep. I wonder how many German readers even have them, if it’s not a Comedian Harmonists song or something else that has kept some fame.

    A couple of times, such as for the poem about walking in Chapter 2, Hofmann just uses the Jolas translation! With attribution. He thinks Jolas was a better poet.

    • I will use a specific quote once it’s my turn to provide the questions. Chapters 6 – end. I got it but I seriously wonder how many English readers would. Or even how many Germans as it uses a poem (and changes it) that’s very probably not taught anymore. One would have to reread it to keep track. It’s quite amusing. I’m sure I’m missing many too. It helps that he’s such a musical writer. One can heartwarming he quotes as the rhythm of the sentence changes suddenly. It sounds like Hofmann did a good job.

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

  5. Well I bought the book (The Hofmann translation) specifically for this readalong so it hasn’t been sitting around. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and the picture it provides of Berlin in the 1920s. I agree that Berlin comes across more beguilingly than the main character. It’s hihly readable so far and I’ve up to chapter 2.

    • I’m so pleased to hear you’re reading along with us and very glad you like it. The depiction of 1820s Berlin is wonderful. We can already see the rise of National Socialism.

  6. Pingback: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin – Readalong – Part 1 | Vishy's Blog

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