Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin
The context behind Berlin Alexanderplatz, according to Döblin, was that there isn’t much difference between a criminal and an average person. The former usually is the latter, and the latter can become the former without very much variation in routine. And so Döblin gives us the story of Franz Biberkopf, an average man who is a criminal without ever marking the conscious decision to be so. The novel begins with his release from prison after serving time for accidentally killing an ex-girlfriend in an argument. Instead of the moment making a new beginning for Franz, Döblin lets us know in the first paragraph that his life will continue down the same road: “Now the punishment begins.”
Franz’s “punishment” is simply living in Berlin in 1928, which gives an average man like Franz ample opportunity to stumble into trouble, which he certainly does. Although he appears on the surface to have some direction–gaining a job selling far-right newspapers and shacking up with a new girl–he soon falls in with the wrong crowd, drinks too much, becomes the unwitting accomplice in a crime, and loses him arm when his criminal “friends” throw him from a get-away car. So begins the long, slow downfall, as he is forced to become a one-armed pimp, never escaping the life of crime into which he was born.
Who is standing in the Alexanderstrasse, very slowly moving one leg after the other? It’s Franz Biberkopf. What’s he done? Well, you know all that, don’t you? A pimp, a hardened criminal, a poor fool, he’s been beaten, and how–he’s in for it now. That cursed fist that beat him. That terrible fist that gripped him. The other fists hammered at him, but he escaped. A blow fell and the red wound gaped. But it healed one day. Franz didn’t change and went on his way. Now the fist keeps up the fight, it is terrible in its might, it ravages him, body and soul, Franz advances with timid steps, he has learned his role: my life no longer belongs to me, I don’t know what to set about. Franz Biberkopf is down and out.
And yet, the reader is always sympathetic to Franz. He is a product of his time, culture, and upbringing, whose poor decisions seem clear to those of us observing from the outside, but never so clear to Franz himself. And this is Döblin’s point: we all blindly stumble through life, carried along by Fate, and are forced to learn our lessons in the darkness before we can ever reach a light of understanding. The path that seems so clear to others observing from the outside will seem unknown to us on the path.
Images of sacrifice run throughout the narrative, from a harrowing and realistic description of a slaughterhouse to a reenactment of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his son, with each interlude coming at moments when Franz is in Berlin and about to have a transformative encounter that will crush him even lower. He is both criminal and victim. Döblin tells us from the very beginning that he has no chance: he is defeated before he even begins. But it is a defeat that is ultimately redeeming, for it brings about a new self-awareness and knowledge about one’s place in the world.
Döblin’s structure is obviously indebted to Joyce: the fractured narrative, the non-chronological temporality, the multiple shifting perspectives, and the simultaneity of thoughts/actions are all hallmarks of Ulysses. (We even get a Blazes Boylan-type character, Reinhold, who is a kind of evil doppelgänger for Franz. But unlike Franz, Reinhold doesn’t transform, and his static state leads to his downfall, which is not redeeming, as it is for Franz.) The book also seems to be structured on Dante’s Inferno with nine books, corresponding to the nine circles of hell, and a “ride to Hell” in the final fifty pages. I haven’t seen any mention of that connection to Dante in any reading I’ve done on Döblin, but this connection seems fairly concrete.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)
The message behind the novel is bleak, but with a spark of hope at the end: people have little recourse when it comes to the social and economic position of their birth. Even when they try to rise above, they don’t realize that they are defeated from the very beginning by systemic circumstances beyond their control. Like animals to the slaughter — or wounded men with only one arm — they march to their inevitable disastrous destinies, largely ignorant of their own sad fate until it’s too late. (Ironically, Franz’s downfall is for a crime he didn’t commit, but that matters not in the poverty-stricken world: all are criminals in such a system.)
And yet, this is the path that each of us must take if we are ever to learn any lessons in life. Salvation does lie at the end of suffering, but only for those who first go through the painful moments. For those at the lower end of the social rung, those moments will be longer, deeper, and more intense than for those who have more resources. In that sense, Döblin’s novel is very much in line with Dostoevsky’s fiction, which posits suffering as the necessary path by which one might achieve deliverance. Döblin suggests that we must sacrifice our old selves if we are to be reborn as more insightful people. It will be painful — and, like Franz’s lost arm, the scars will remain with us — and it won’t necessarily make us happy, but the trials will transform us, for better or worse. In the slang of contemporary social justice, it’s the only way to be woke.