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Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – Week 2

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OK – we’re into week two of the readalong of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and it’s time to share my thoughts on chapters 3 – 5. Again, this is a section of around 100 pages (well, slightly more) in my edition, and so theoretically quite manageable, though I have to say I think I read 350-odd pages of Golden Age crime more rapidly than this… Anyway, onto the questions from Lizzy and here’s what I’m thinking so far,

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?

The structure of the novel is interesting, and as I’ve mentioned, reading Dos Passos recently has meant I’ve coped quite well. I like the little summaries at the beginning of the chapters, and the descriptions of the sections; however the montage technique is a little different. In Dos Passos, the main narrative was split into sections relating to specific characters which was fairly linear. This was interspersed with montage and news sections as contrast. However, Doblin’s narrative often has these elements mixed together, and the montage is less fragmented than Dos Passos but perhaps more invasive in respect of the main narrative. So the techniques are different but equally interesting and not too difficult for me to read. What *is* difficult to deal with is the next question…

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

Frankly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a women in Weimar Berlin – or at least in this book. They’re beaten, raped, murdered, manipulated and generally badly treated. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of the period or just of the particular milieu Doblin wants to capture I don’t know, but I’m not liking that aspect. I don’t think I’ve come across one positive portrayal of a woman so far, and I find that a struggle. Franz is a bit of a bastard, frankly, and if he *does* have a happy ending in the book he certainly doesn’t deserve it. I won’t say what he deserves… And Reinhold, who comes up in the next question, is just vile. Women are treated as things to be used, abused, passed on and discarded. Not a good situation really.

A problematic book because of the subject matter….

3. 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?

Franz is a very arrogant and stupid man tbh. He completely fails to grasp what Reinhold is actually like, tries to take control of the man and his lovelife, and this section ends with Reinhold being revealed as completely unlike Franz had perceived him. As well as being a pig towards women, he’s also a nasty and hardened criminal. It seems that Franz in many ways has met his match, and it’s also odd that Franz is so blind regarding the reality of the criminal activities going on around him. As I said, he’s a bit stupid…

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

The highlight of the section (and in fact the book so far) has been the vivid picture of the city. Doblin really captures Berlin in a state of flux, being rebuilt after the defeat of the First World War (something of a touchstone, and an event that recurs in the narrative). The montage parts of the prose capture the modern, bustling world with adverts and signs and people constantly trying to sell something new. That part of the book is very successful. The low point is of course the treatment of women; if I’m honest, I might have abandoned the book already because of that if it wasn’t for the readalong.

I also have to confess to having skimmed a chunk of this section as it was all about slaughterhouses. I’m sorry, but as a vegan I just couldn’t… I imagine this means I’m missing something, as I’m presuming this was meant to represent the treatment the humans are receiving in the Germany of the time, but so be it.

5. Do you have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage?

There’s a *lot* of religious imagery and tbh I don’t get that. It may all become clear later on, or maybe not. I mentioned this before, and I’m probably missing stuff; but frankly I don’t have the energy to try to work that out at the moment! If I’m truly honest, I’m not sure as yet what Doblin is trying to *say* with the book, but that may reveal itself as I continue to read – or mabye not!

*****

So, there you go. I guess I must be almost half way through and I *will* try to make it to the end. The book is not always an easy read because of the elements I’ve mentioned, and yet I do like Doblin’s prose style (in this particular translation). Hope the next section will bring more enlightenment… 😉

 

 

 

Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – Week 1

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November is a month of many challenges, it seems; amongst other things, readers are encouraged to spend time with novellas, non-fiction and with the works of Margaret Atwood! One particularly enjoyable event is German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, and I’ve been happy to take part in this before.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to join in this time round; however, there is a readalong taking place, and it happens to be a book that I’ve had lurking on the TBR for a long, long time….

The book in question is “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Doblin, and at just under 500 pages it was perhaps a bit intimidating, till I had a look at the schedule. And as the book is split into chunks of about 100 or so pages at a time I figured it might be manageable. So here goes – let’s see if I can stick to *any* kind of reading schedule.

Lizzy and Caroline have provided some questions for each weekly post, and so here are those which focus on Chapters 1 and 2 of the book! 😀

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

I’ve had the book on the TBR for ages, and like so many enthusiastic purchases it’s ended up sitting there unread while shiny new volumes get picked up sooner. I’ve been reading a bit more off the TBR recently, and I guess I just wanted the impetus and discipline to pick it up and read it!

2. Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

I had few expectations, except that it was regarded as a Modernist text which painted a picture of Weimar Berlin. That’s certainly what I’m encountering and I’m enjoying that very much. I also picked up the impression that the book was difficult, but I’m finding it surprisingly readable…

3. 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?

Penguin Modern Classics edition from 1982, translated by Eugene Jolas. I’m finding it very readable, as I said, and it may well be that I’m used to translations/prose from the 20th century so I’m comfortable with it. So far, it reads very impressionistically and evocatively, which I like.

4. What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Franz is a bit of a wide boy, isn’t he? Somewhat brutal, convicted of manslaughter, he’s not necessarily an appealing man. However, we don’t necessarily need to like our protagonists, and in fact Berlin itself is taking some of the centre stage in the storyline so far. It’s a vibrant yet seamy place, full of corruption and crime – all very interesting so far…

5. Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence.  Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way?  How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2?

I imagine the publisher wondered what the bald title Berlin Alexanderplatz conveyed on its own, and decided it needed a little more elaboration! As for chapter 2, the focus seems to me to be divided between Franz and the people around him; he *isn’t* at this point necessarily at the centre of the story and the general culture of Weimar Berlin. It’s a polyphonic narrative, full of bustling, hustling voices, and I’ll be interested to see where the story goes!

6. Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? 

I came to the book with no real preconceptions, and so I’ll simply be interested to see how the narrative develops. However, I noticed that the blurb (from 1982) described the book as being the equivalent of “Ulysses” or Dos Passos’ “America” – and I’ve recently read the first book of the latter. Initially I didn’t get the resemblance, but as I’ve read on I’m starting to see what they mean. Will be fund to see how this aspect develops!

*****

So those are my thoughts so far! The book is not as intimidating as I thought it might be, and I’m keen to see how it develops. I like the quirky nature of the narrative, the translation is not jarring so far, and the picture of Berlin that’s developing is very vivid. Watch this space for more impressions of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”!

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