Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 4

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 8/9

 

  1. Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying?

 

I found him the biggest villain because he seems so harmless at first. Almost helpless. He really tricked Franz, making him help him, trusting him. But even without that, the Mieze story shows his cruelty and viciousness and then, on top of everything else, trying to frame his “friend” shows the extent of his depravity. In light of this, no, I don’t think his punishment was satisfying.

 

  1. The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective?

 

I found it downright creepy. Especially how it was used in the Mieze section, but also later on. Like an echo of evilness. It’s obviously not used in context. It’s one of those instances that made me want to read up on the book.

 

  1. Were you surprised by the ending?

 

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. I’m not entirely sure what I expected but not this. First the episode in which Franz is catatonic, and at a mental institution and then picking up work, like everything that happened before didn’t take place. Possibly, Döblin wanted to tell us he redeemed himself. His love for Mieze, is certainly a redeeming factor.

 

  1. Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?

 

At times I read it like a puzzle. Not the story itself, but the way Döblin used collage technique. Quoted songs, poems, the bible . . . It was fascinating to hunt them. Unfortunately, those were also the elements that I found annoying at times. There’s just too much and while it’s interesting to see what quotes he chose and how he changed parts of them, it made the book frustrating at times. It’s a book that requires close reading and I didn’t have the time to do that.

 

  1. Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz?

 

My answer is a resounding no. I will definitely not read it again. I’m glad I read it. as I always felt I was missing out because I hadn’t read it yet. I found it intellectually stimulating but not exactly enjoyable. At other times in my life, the stimulating part would have been enough. Not so now. I didn’t realize before starting it that it’s so long. My edition has just 400 pages, but they are densely packed. The copies in translation showed that it was closer to 600.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 3

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 6/7

 

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this?

 

I feel it’s a problematic omission. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m pretty sure that in writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin referenced Simplicissimus, which is also divided in books, not chapters, uses a similar structure with short summaries at the beginning of each chapter (there are chapters with long titles in the books). One of Döblin’s later works, the over 1000 pages long historical novel Wallenstein (maybe an excellent choice for next year’s readalong? – just kidding) deals with the 30-year war, the same era during which Grimmelshausen’s famous work takes place. By the time he wrote Wallenstein, he most certainly knew Simplicissimus, but looking at BA’s structure he already knew it then.

But even if these intertextual links wouldn’t exist, I’m not sure why a translator has to change “book” to “chapter”. It seems a bit shoddy.

 

  1. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation?

 

It was a bit of a shocker and reinforced my earlier assumptions that Döblin likes to emphasize what a strong hold he has on his creature. Poor Franzeken is at his mercy.

 

  1. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?

 

I find his concept of man very pessimistic. Not only does it seem that people can’t better themselves, they are also puppets on strings without any freedom. They are driven and things happen to them. Once the “machine infernale” is set into motion, there’s no stopping it. Fate will get you, no matter what. At the time when he wrote this novel, Döblin was an atheist. He’d been army doctor during WWI, and I assume that might have shaken his faith. When he was writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, he was “Nervendoktor”, – psychiatrist. He must have seen his share of tragedy and depravity. All this seems to come into play in his work.

 

  1. Do you have a favourite character so far?

 

I really like Herbert and Eva. Even crooks have a certain code of honour and while Reinhold is a character that doesn’t know any loyalty or honour, both Herbert and Eva are representative of this roguish code of honour, as I would call it and I like them for that. Yes, Herbert is a criminal and Eva a type of prostitute, or kept woman, but they are loyal to Franz and genuinely care. They help with anything they can.

 

  1. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?

 

I thought the reactions were extreme. I can only assume they didn’t like him exposing himself like this and drawing too much attention. The meetings he attends are meetings of the communist party. Franz isn’t even a communist, he’s far closer to national Socialist thinking. I read these sections as criticism of communism. I don’t know anything about Döblin’s political convictions, but maybe anti-communism was his own position.

 

  1. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?

 

I find it always helps to know a bit about the author but often it’s not necessary. Not so in this case. I read up quite a bit. I was particularly interested in Döblin’s religion. For someone like me, who grew up in a Catholic environment, this was peculiar to read. While it’s very pessimistic, I also felt it had so many Catholic elements. It was interesting to me to know, while he was born into a Jewish family, Döblin converted to Catholicism. I could already sense it here and it helped me understand some passages and the use of some quotes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 2

I don’t think I’ve ever been this inactive during a German Literature Month and I’m sorry about that. I had made plans but now I even struggle to keep up with our readalong. It’s like everything that is annoying and time-consuming came at the same time, robbing me of what precious little time I had to begin with.

  1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel?  The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique? 

I think the structuring works well in this context, as it breaks up the narrative and, in doing so, moves away from traditional storytelling techniques. Since Franz is pretty much a guinea pig for Döblin to demonstrate his world view, identification with the protagonist was never his aim. The short summaries convey an ironic tone but also mirror older books, that had a similar approach. I’m thinking of Candide, or Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. Both have tragic heroes the authors use to illustrate their philosophy and world view. Obviously, the older protagonists are very different from Franz. They aren’t criminals or depraved people, but, just like him, victims of the circumstances.

  1. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss.

This is such an interesting question. So far, we haven’t seen any positive depictions of women. There will be one in the next book but so far, I’m constantly shaking my head and would like to talk some sense into them. Why do they fall for these men? I can only assume it’s mostly about sex. Many of these relationships are between a pimp and his women, and those can be very complicated. Dependency and addiction come into play. Seeing how so many women are attracted to Franz, I was wondering what he looked like. I don’t seem to remember reading a description. The way Döblin depicts women made me wonder what relationships he had with women. But then again, one can’t say that the men are described in a more positive way.

  1. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist.  What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold?

Unfortunately, underestimating Reinhold is quite typical for Franz who is anything but astute. In some ways, one could say, the author wanted to show that Franz is, despite what he does, not a totally bad person and he doesn’t immediately think bad of people or situations. You can’t be entirely bad, if you’re this naïve. One could also say, that Franz triggers something dark in Reinhold.

  1. What was the highlight of this section for you? What the lowlight?

The last scenes were the highlight and the lowlight. I had a hard time believing that Franz didn’t realise was he was signing up for when he joined Pums, Reinhold and the others. I’m not entirely sure what Döblin wanted to tell us. That Franz really meant to become a better man, but was stupid enough not to see what was coming? Franz is decidedly not a very intelligent man, but I think Döblin’s intention was another one.  Once more, Döblin shows us that Franz is a construct. An invention he uses to make us see certain things. He deliberately places him in harm’s way and then pushes him even further down, to illustrate how unfree Franz is. Franz can decide to become better as much as he likes, it won’t work because it’s not up to him. Society and fate are against him. And, most of all, his author who won’t stop before he has destroyed him completely. At least, that’s how it feels at this point.

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.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – German Literature Month 2019

In order to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Weimar Republic, Lizzy and I are hosting a readalong of Berlin Alexanderplatz  during German Literature Month 2019. Döblin’s tale is one the seminal novels (if not the seminal novel) of that era.

We will discuss the novel over 4 weeks and we are intending to send out discussion questions a week in advance of each date. You can answer these or post your own thoughts, entirely as you please. If you’re intending to participate, please leave a comment and your email below.

The schedule is as follows.  (Each section is circa 100-140 pages in the NYRB classics edition.)

Saturday 9.11.2019 Chapters 1-2

Saturday 16.11.2019 Chapters 3-5

Saturday 23.11.2019 Chapters 6-7

Saturday 30.11.2019 Chapters 8-9

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?

Will and Testament (Arv og miljø) by Vigdis Hjorth (2016) – Norwegian Literature

From the blurb: “Four siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. To what degree should the horrors of the past be allowed to shake the present? Stalked by the darkest of shadows from her childhood, a woman struggles against the tide dragging her back to the family she fled years ago. This emotionally searing novel is at once a wrenching look at a family fractured and a meditation on the nature of trauma and memory.”

Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s is very well known in her home country. She has written over twelve novels and won many prestigious Scandinavian prizes. I came across her name in a Swiss newspaper where she was mentioned as one of Norway’s most notable authors. Since it’s still Women in Translation Month, I thought she’d be a good choice. 

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Bergljot, our fifty-something first-person narrator, hasn’t seen her parents for twenty-three years, when she’s informed that her father has died. Already before his death, her siblings tried to involve her in their dispute about their parent’s will. Even though, their parents had promised, they would evenly divide their possessions among the four siblings, they clearly changed their mind as the two coveted holiday homes on the Norwegian seaside go to Bergljot’s younger sisters. Bergljot’s older brother is very upset about this and tries to convince Bergljot to take his side. While she too, is sad that her children won’t have the opportunity to spend their summers in one of the homes, she understands why her parents decided to act as they did. After their father’s death, the discussion is renewed and gets even more heated.

Jumping back and forth in time, Bergljot tells the story of her life and reveals, bit by bit, why she chose to break with her parents. When the two younger sisters were only babies, but the older ones seven and ten respectively, something terrible happened. Something that both parents wished the children had forgotten. Unfortunately, Bergljot’s’ turbulent love life leads her start a therapy and, so, the distant memory resurfaces. She confronts her parents, but they both deny anything has happened. To keep her own sanity, she breaks with them.

The secret, which is finally revealed, isn’t very surprising. Most readers will guess it from the beginning. And if that was all the book had to offer, I wouldn’t have been as impressed with it as I was. But it has so much more to offer. The character portraits, especially those of Bergljot and her mother are fantastic. The mother is one of those crazy, dysfunctional, larger-than-life mothers that populate so many books about dysfunctional families. For me she was especially chilling because she did and said a few things that sounded so much like my own mother that it made me shiver. She doesn’t live her life, she performs it. She lies and manipulates, is cruel and mean and distorts the truth to her own advantage.

The book reveals the intricate family dynamics in a truly admirable way. It also shows that when there are several siblings, each one of them might see the parents completely differently, have a totally different relationship with them. In Will and Testament it’s Bergljot’s tragedy, that her parents know very well that they treated Bergljot and her brother badly. Because they knew this and because they wanted to repress the memories, they treated the younger girls differently. By the time Bergljot accuses her parents, and drops the bomb, as she says, the younger sisters are firmly on the parent’s side.

I can imagine how painful it must be, to see a repressed memory resurface and then be told, you made it up. I could imagine that, for the longest time, one would doubt oneself. The reasons why Bergljot knows she’s remembering correctly is because she’s so damaged. She drinks far too much, falls for the wrong men. But she’s a terrific mother and her children are behind her all the time. Not for one second do they doubt her.

It took me a few pages to get into this book because it isn’t told chronologically, but once I got the structure, I liked it very much. I was impressed by the intricate way the family dynamics are described and by the subtle psychological insights. And while some of it is dark, it’s never depressing. Bergljot may be damaged but she’s true to herself and courageous. It’s not easy to face a hostile family front.

Will and Testament will be out in English in September. If you like stories about dysfunctional families, you shouldn’t miss this.