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One of the great novels of the 20th century: "Berlin Alexanderplatz" by Alfred Döblin, which has just been republished in a new translation


What does Standpoint stand for? That’s easy: Western civilisation. But what is that? Harder to say. Judaeo-Christian values; high culture; freedom and democracy; the rule of law; the nation state. All of these, certainly. Yet “civilisation” implies so much more — so much that defies definition, but is instantly recognisable. So here is an attempt to illustrate by a literary example what seems to us to be worth defending.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin is one of the great novels of the last century. It has just been retranslated for Penguin Classics by Michael Hofmann. It tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, whose ordeal transforms him from a loveable rogue, an ex-con determined to go straight, into a tragic anti-hero. He loses his arm when he is thrown out of a car and run over; later the prostitute he loves, Mieze (“Mitzi” in Hofmann’s version), is murdered. The same sadist, Reinhold, is responsible for both crimes, yet Franz is too crushed even to seek revenge. He hits rock bottom, longs for death, but survives and gets an honest job. The coda is ambivalent: freedom beckons, the old world is doomed, but drums beat: “We’re marching into war . . .”

Döblin’s epic is justly celebrated as a portrait of Berlin, the most protean of modern European capitals, and as a journey into the belly of the modern Babylon. Published in 1929, a few years after Joyce’s Ulysses, with which it is often compared, Berlin Alexanderplatz is written as a delta of streams of consciousness, the narrative fluctuating between past and present tenses, interrupted by all manner of ephemera culled from the press, from letters and diaries, advertisements and popular music: a photomontage of urban existence. Mieze’s murder is a surreal sequence that reminds us of the Jack the Ripper scene in Alban Berg’s Lulu, also begun in 1929; her killer, Reinhold, is reminiscent of Mack the Knife in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928).

In the background is Döblin. A doctor and psychiatrist in a poor neighbourhood, his literary ambitions thwarted by his publisher Samuel Fischer, struggling to support a wife and four children on his meagre earnings, but a man possessed by his mission to record the sights and sounds of the city, and especially the underworld of prostitution and crime. A passionate supporter of the Weimar Republic, he resigned from the Social Democratic Party, disillusioned by corruption, injustice and the increasingly obvious German love affair with Hitler. There were too few Biberkopfs to stop the Nazis.
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