2018 Year in Reading

At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.

I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.

Some highlights:

Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.

Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.”

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).

Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrina here. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.

Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.

Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.

Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.

Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Belly of Paris and The Kill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.

And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.

I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.

The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.

Some bests and worsts:

Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.

Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).

Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.

Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.

Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.

Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.

Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.

Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.

Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.

Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?

Interesting, but I don’t quite get the fuss: Oyinkan Brathwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer; Anna Kavan, Ice. I wrote about my struggle to teach the latter.

Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?

Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).

Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).

Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).

*

My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.

As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.

 

The Example of Zannovich: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (Guest Post by Nathaniel Leach)

Even if you got your fill of Döblin in my post, I urge you to read Nat’s shorter and smarter post on the same novel.

My excitement about Michael Hoffmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz can be traced to my very first day of graduate school. In a course on the fundamentals of critical theory, we were shown one of the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s adaptation, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf is lying on the ground, being told a story. It seemed like a strange choice for a course where we would be going on to read Kant, Hegel, Levinas and many other heavyweight philosophers, and I remember being puzzled about how this guy lying on the floor connected with the history of Western philosophy. It took some time for me to get over my bewilderment and realize that my resistances were coming from the excessive rationalism of my undergraduate self. In time, the professor of this course became my supervisor and mentor, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her was that the oblique, hidden, and seemingly chance connections between things are often more significant than relationships dictated by rationality and causality.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, this is one of the lessons of Berlin Alexanderplatz too; although its main plot can be summed up fairly simply—Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, tries to go straight, but suffers a series of increasingly disastrous misfortunes—this narrative is continually interrupted by digressions that detail seemingly insignificant events taking place in Berlin at the same time, or that re-tell versions of biblical stories and other prominent narratives of Western culture. These narrative interpolations demand that we read Franz Biberkopf’s story within a very broad cultural context, but at the same time, the narrative mostly refrains from making any direct connections between the stories; we are never told exactly how we should read these digressions as bearing on Franz’s story, and they are in fact often highly ambiguous. For example, Döblin’s insertion of the story of Job invites us to think of Franz’s sufferings as being like those of Job, but we also can’t avoid reflecting on the fact that he is to some degree deserving of his sufferings, or that he completely lacks Job’s patience and religious perspective.

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All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of explaining why, upon reading the book, I was inclined to attribute a particular significance to the story told to Franz in Chapter 1, even though I was also not surprised to find that it raised more questions than answers. Disoriented after his release from prison, Franz is helped by Eliser, a Jewish man who brings him into his house. Franz lapses into an almost catatonic state, and Eliser tells him the story of Stefan Zannovich, the son of an Albanian peddler, who launches an impressive career of social climbing by brazenly impersonating European nobility. Eliser concludes that “what you can learn from Stefan Zannovich is that he knew himself and he knew people”. This story thus seems to be a fable about autonomy, suggesting to Franz that he can control his own fate, and it is indeed instrumental in getting Franz back on his feet (literally, as he has been lying on the floor throughout).

It is not quite so simple, however; Eliser’s brother-in-law, Nahum, arrives during the telling of the story and insists that Eliser tell the end of the story, which is that Zannovich pushed his fraud too far, was found out, and eventually killed himself. For Nahum, the moral of the story is simply that “sometimes you can’t do everything you’d like to, sometimes things get fouled up”. Franz seems to hear Eliser’s message of hopeful autonomy and ignores Nahum’s warning, demonstrating both the power of stories and the danger of selective reading. But this is a highly ambiguous moment; it is not clear which of the brothers-in-law’s interpretations should be trusted, or indeed, if both are flawed. Nor is it clear whether Franz misreads Eliser’s intentions in telling him the story, or whether the story in fact has the desired effect. Nahum calls Eliser a “bad man” for telling the story, but Eliser’s intentions seem to be benevolent, even though Franz’s revival is somewhat questionable.

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While the meaning of the story of Zannovich is ambiguous, what does seem clear, however, is that Franz has failed to understand it fully, and that if he has learned anything from it, the lesson is painfully incomplete. The narrator continually reminds us that Franz has greater punishments in store for him, suggesting, at the very least, that this story has not fixed what was wrong with Franz. Moreover, while Franz is grateful for the help, he also diminishes its significance: “these Jews helped me, just by telling me stories. They talked to me, they were decent people who didn’t know me from Adam, and they told me about this Polack, and it was just a story, but it was very good just the same, and it was very instructive for me in my position. I thought: a glass of cognac might have set me to rights just as well”. Not only does he call it “just a story”, he judges it by its results, which he deems could have been achieved by other means anyway.

Ultimately, as Eliser’s interpretation suggests, the point of the story seems to be to signal that this book is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of self and others. But what exactly does it mean to “know oneself and know others”? Are these two different things, or are they connected? Is such knowledge to be understood as a philosophical ideal or is it merely instrumental and pragmatic? Is it significant that “self” is listed first, before “others”? Zannovich “knows others” in the sense that he knows how to manipulate them, while Franz’s understanding of others is almost always superficial and naïve. After being revived, he falls back on an overweening belief in himself that either exploits others, as in his string of relationships with women, or fatally misunderstands them, as in his toxic friendship with the womanizer and petty crook, Reinhold.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in Franz’s decision, immediately after his revival, to sell nationalist newspapers, “not that he’s got anything against the Jews, but he is a supporter of order”. While the book is not highly political, aside from a few pointed sections, I found it hard not to read Franz’s lack of self-knowledge in conjunction with the rise of National Socialism. Döblin, writing in 1928, is diagnosing the ills of a society about to be swallowed up by fascism, and one of these ills is the ugly and violent form of self-reliance embodied by Franz Biberkopf, whose lack of political conviction belies his philosophical kinship to fascism at this point in the book.

This resonance was developed for me by one of those oblique connections I mentioned earlier; while reading this book, I happened also to be reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer poignantly describes the increasing circumscription of his rights as a Jew living in Germany, and his increasing immersion in his academic work to avoid the reality of Nazism: “why should I sour my life still further by reading Nazi publications when it was already being ruined by what was happening around me? If by chance or mistake a Nazi book fell into my hands I would cast it aside after the first paragraph. If the voice of the Fuhrer or his Propaganda Minister was blaring out of a loudspeaker on the street I would give it a wide berth, and when reading the newspaper I desperately tried to fish out the naked facts- forlorn enough in their nakedness- from the repulsive morass of speeches, commentaries and articles”. While I identified strongly with this as a reader in 2018 trying to avoid depressing news without entirely burying my head in the sand, it also made me think of Franz Biberkopf; if Klemperer, one of the most sensitive observers of pre-WWII Germany, can reproach himself with allowing himself to become too self-involved and overwhelmed by the media, how much more does Biberkopf in Döblin’s chaotic world embody this flaw? The polar opposite of Klemperer, Franz does not question himself, and when he does dabble in politics, selling newspapers or, later, agitating with his anarchist friend, Willi, he believes he knows all the answers. He is by no means inherently fascist, but he embodies a lack of understanding or caring about others that is easily manipulated by the much more frightening Reinhold.

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The “example of Zannovich” (as the section heading calls it), then, is a negative one, deceiving Franz into believing that he is at the centre of the world, and enabling him to subordinate otherness to his will with a fascistic autonomy. (This is also pretty much the history of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas, so maybe that grad course really was on to something). Questions still abound, of course; for one, why does Eliser tell the story? Is he deceitful, or does he (like the narrator) foresee the necessary process that Franz must go through? If the novel diagnoses the ills of its society, it does so in order to suggest a solution of sorts, one that revises Eliser’s formula and makes the understanding of self and others inextricably linked.

“We Know What We Know, We Had to Pay Dearly Enough for It”: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

A few weeks ago, during some pleasant days vacationing in Maine, I read Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was good to have time to devote to it, because the book is fairly demanding. Yet I wouldn’t say I was immersed in it—it’s not the kind of book to love, fall into, think about even when you’re not reading it. At least it wasn’t for me. But I doubt Döblin wouldn’t have wanted any of that. After all, he was a doctor, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, and there is something of our conventional idea of medicine in his prose—it is detached, even Olympian, concerned with individuals but convinced that their functioning is a result of physiological and mental processes that exceed or evade individual consciousness or willpower.

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The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Franz Biberkopf is a pimp and small-time crook. He is sentimental, sometimes kind, shrewd yet naïve, always thuggish. The book begins as he is released from prison after serving a sentence for beating his former girlfriend to death. Frightened by his re-entry into the world, he is helped back on his feet by a man he happens to run into in the street, an Orthodox Jew who impresses Franz with his wisdom. Soon an old friend gets him a job selling shoelaces door-to-door. One of his customers, a wealthy widow, takes pity on him—he reminds her of her dead husband—and intimates she will take care of him but Franz can’t help but boast about his conquest to the friend, who proceeds to rob the woman. It is one of many betrayals in the novel. In response, Franz goes on a bender; eventually he rights himself enough to find work selling newspapers, but he’s barely making ends meet. His quest to go straight is further threatened when he comes into the orbit of a small-time but seductive mobster named Reinhold. Reinhold is a magnificent, despicable character, a man who hates women as much as he is drawn to them: he loses interest in each new girl after a week or two and arranges to pass them on to Franz. But Franz tires of the scheme—in his lumpish way, he likes the women, feels bad for them, doesn’t want to do Reinhold’s dirty work for him.

Reinhold is furious and takes revenge. He allows Franz into his band of crooks, and when a heist goes wrong takes the opportunity to push Franz out of the getaway car. Franz is run over and badly hurt: he survives, but loses an arm. After his lengthy recovery, he is brought back to life yet again by the crooks he’d been involved with before going to jail. They introduce him to Mitzi, a young girl newly arrived from the provinces, who goes onto the streets for him. So Franz is back where he started, once again a small-time pimp, though he’s chastened and knows he’s lucky to have the saintly Mitzi.

But fate won’t leave Franz alone, or he can’t leave well enough alone (for Döblin it’s the same thing): Franz won’t give up Reinhold (the novel doesn’t make much of this, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder emphasized the homoeroticism of this intense relationship in his gargantuan and compelling fifteen-hour television adaptation). Reinhold’s jealousy—which the novel figures as purely evil: unmotivated and unexplained—leads to a terrible denouement resulting (SPOILERS!) in Mitzi’s death and Franz’s psychological breakdown. (Reinhold murders her when she rejects his advances.) Eventually, though, Reinhold gets his comeuppance. This is cleverly handled: Reinhold gets himself arrested by pretending to be someone else, because he figures he is safest in jail, but once there he finally falls in love for real, with a boy in fact, to whom he tells everything, and when the kid is released he can’t help but talk about the mastermind he met inside and before long one of the little crook’s associates goes to the police to collect the reward and so Reinhold is arrested again, from within prison this time, and sentenced to ten years, not least on the strength of Franz’s testimony at trial.

Franz recovers from his breakdown—it’s at least his fourth time starting over—but the book is done with him: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.” Among its last lines we find this conclusion: “Biberkopf is a little worker. We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

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As Hofmann says in his excellent afterword, the novel has “good bones.” The repetitions, the peaks and valleys, the overall narrative arc are all satisfying. And there’s plenty of lurid excitement, B-movie type stuff. But it’s not an exciting book. (It’s nothing like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, for example.) Events matter less than their telling. Think about that enigmatic last line: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” Who is “we”? The narrator? The narrator and the reader? Franz himself, thinking of himself in the plural? (That would be weird, but the narration routinely moves from omniscience into subjectivity within a single sentence. An example, chosen at random, describing Franz’s testimony at Reinhold’s trial: “That’s all they can get out of Biberkopf on the subject of Reinhold. Nothing about his arm, nothing about their falling out, their fight, I shouldn’t have done it, I should never have tangled with him.”)

Let’s assume the “we” refers to readers. How have we paid for what we’ve learned? Maybe by mistakenly thinking the plot is what matters, that this really is the story of a guy named Franz Biberkopf, a scoundrel who wants to go straight and eventually does. In fact, that story is just a way for the novel to indulge its more urgent fascination with life in Berlin. As Fassbinder put it, the language of the novel is a way to imitate the rhythm of the S-Bahn (commuter rail), which Döblin heard coming through his window.

For an example of what that might mean, look at this passage:

It was the second week of April in Berlin, the weather could be balmy at times, and, as the press unanimously proclaimed, the gorgeous Easter weather was bringing people out of doors. In Berlin at that time a Russian student, Alex Fränkel, shot his fiancée, the twenty-two-year-old arts and craft worker Vera Kaminskaya, in her digs. The same-aged au pair, Tatiana Sanftleben, who had been in on the suicide pact, got scared at the very last moment, and slipped off as her friend was already lying lifelessly on the floor. She ran into a police foot patrol, told them the terrible details of the past few months, and led the officials to the place where Vera and Alex lay dying. The serious crime squad was alerted, and murder detectives despatched to the site. Alex and Vera had wanted to marry, but their economic circumstances would not allow it.

In other news, the investigations over responsibility for the tram accident on Heerstrasse are still unconcluded. Eyewitnesses and the driver, one Redlich, are being questioned. Technical reports are not yet completed. Only when they have come in will it be possible to decide whether the catastrophe was due to human error (driver slow to apply the brakes) or a tragic combination of circumstances.

The stock exchange was largely quiet: in the open market, prices were a little firmer, in view of a recently published Reichsbank report that took a positive view of the disposal of 400 million in obligations and another 350 million in credit notes. In individual shares, as of 11 a.m. on 18 April, I. G. Farben traded over a narrow range from260.5 to 267, Siemens & Halske 297.5 to 299; Dessau Gas 202 to 203, Waldhof Cellulose 295. German Petroleum steady at 134.5.

To return to the tram accident on Heerstrasse, all the inured passengers were said to be improving in hospital.

There’s plenty of this roving-eye stuff in the novel (all fascinating to me, and lovely in its mimicry of the language of newspapers), but it’s never just “local colour.” Here, for example, the idea of “human error” or “tragic combination of circumstances” brings up the ideas of willpower and fate that the Franz story is also wrestling with. And the story of the murder-suicide pact—a little novel in itself—is a commentary on the difficulty of life for so many in Weimar-era Berlin.

In such passages the narration is the definition of omniscience. At others, however, it closely attaches itself to Franz’s perspective, even his stream of consciousness. But it regularly abandons that perspective, in the most abrupt manner, as in this passage:

In the night Franz wakes up and doesn’t get off to sleep again. It’s freezing. Cilly [another girlfriend] beside him is asleep and snoring. Why can he not sleep? The vegetable carts are trundling on their way to the market hall. I wouldn’t want to be a horse, not in this weather, at this hour. Stables is warm, I’ll be bound. My God, this woman can seep. Can she ever sleep. Not me. My toes are frozen, I can feel the itch and tickle. There’s something inside of him, his heart, his lungs, his inner self, it’s there and it’s being buffeted and bent, who by? It doesn’t know, the mystery thing, doesn’t, who by. All it can say for sure is that it’s not asleep.

Those last three sentences are so odd. I don’t think they are free indirect discourse; I don’t think they’re offering Franz’s perceptions in third person. Why would that be necessary? We just had them in first. I think this is third-person omniscience, but a different omniscience than in the tram accident and stock market passage.

The newsreel passages tell us everything. These other passages—typically centered on Franz—hint that they know everything but without letting us in on the secret. “There’s something inside of him”—this is at once certain and vague. What is the something? Is it analogous to willpower? What makes Franz do what he does? Are we supposed to learn anything from his fate?

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In this regard, it’s no surprise that the text regularly references stories from the Torah, especially Job and Abraham. They have the same kind of gnomic assurance. And they too are famously hard to interpret. Are these references meant to be analogies to or parables of Franz’s experience? Is he suffering for no reason? Has he been selected to perform a great sacrifice? Impossible to say. Unlike the stories from Torah, which are made to be interpreted (rabbinic Judaism is in some sense nothing but the history of those interpretations), the story of Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to want to be interpreted.

More than anything this detachment from the conventions of interpretation is what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz easy to admire but hard to love. Thinking about its author in relation to his contemporaries, Döblin is warmer than Musil, less intellectual, his ironies less bitter. But he’s nothing like Mann, whose 1929 Nobel Prize victory quickly eclipsed the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wonder how this book compares to Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, another German epic based on biblical stories. I bet they’re pretty different.

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Inasmuch as there is warmth or passion here, it’s in the novel’s depiction of the city. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great city novels. Maybe the greatest. (More interesting in its depiction than either Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.) But it is not a love letter to Berlin. Nothing as kitschy as that. I don’t think it’s right to say that the city is a voracious machine, churning up all who enter into it (though the novel is fascinated by the construction of the subway, with lots of chewy descriptions of digging and earth-moving), unless of course we think of life itself—both animal and human—as a kind of machine, better, a kind of immense system. People aren’t simply pawns of that system—Döblin isn’t entirely determinist—but they aren’t in charge of themselves and the universe, either.

The best attitude to take to what Freud in another context called “narcissistic blows” to our anthropocentrism is the one incarnated in the famous Berliner Schnauze, literally, the Berlin snout, figuratively, the defiant, coarse, and clever slang of Berlin. That’s the language Franz and the others use all the time—heck, so does the narrator—and that’s what’s made the novel for so long seem untranslatable.

Hofmann’s solutions to this dilemma are admirable. He writes about this in his afterword, where he rightly notes “Döblin often has it in him to speak like his characters” (he’s not looking down on them, not offering their non-standard speech in distinction to his). Instead, the use of dialect “seems to be a function of intensity, but generally within reach of all.” Hofmann uses what he calls “the regional unspecific” to good effect, though the book does seem a little British sometimes. My favourite part of his comments concerns dropped letters: “I don’t like dropping letters and misspelling words in speech the way Dickens does, until I found the effect is entirely different if you just do it, without the rather self-congratulatory apostrophe, which is the perfect mark of bad faith.” (Ouch! I’ve been guilty of that!)

As Hofmann explains it, the book’s use of dialect is generous, and I appreciate the way that sentiment cleaves to some of the novel’s other expansive qualities. One of the ways the book is different for us than it was for Döblin and his first readers is that its invocation of the modern metropolis is now historical. In its suggestion that leftist movements are on the rise and National Socialism just a bad joke, we can glimpse how things might have been.

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The part of the book that moved me the most is an unwitting performance of this idea of the road not taken. At one point, the novel describes the movement of the # 4 tram as it leaves Rosenthalerplatz. At Lothringer Strasse, four people get on, “two elderly women, a worried-looking working man and a boy with a cap and ear-flaps.” The women are going to buy a girdle; the man needs to return a defective second-hand electric iron he bought for his boss. And the boy?

The lad, Max Rüst, will one day become a plumber, the father of seven little Rüsts, will work for Hallis & Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis & Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five. His obituary will read: On 25 September, suddenly, from heart disease, my dearly beloved husband, our dear father, son, brother, brother-in-law and uncle Max Rüst, in his fifty-sixth year. This announcement is placed by the grieving widow, Marie Rüst, on behalf of all with deep grief. The rendering of thanks will go as follows: Being unable to acknowledge individually the many tokens of sympathy we have received, we extend thanks to all our relatives, friends, and fellow-tenants in Kleiststrasse 4 and our wider acquaintances. Especial thanks to Pastor Deinen for his words of comfort. – At present this Max Rüst is fourteen and on his way home from school, via the advice center for those hard of hearing, with impaired vision, experiencing difficulties of speech, dyspraxia and problems with concentration, where he has been a few times already, about his stammer, which seems to be getting better.

Exuent Max Rüst. His ordinary and yet, to me, pathos-laden life (that stammer! that ill-fated and perhaps ill-advised lawsuit!) might have been the focus of a different book, though it is unclear whether we are to take the same sense of fate countering an individual’s striving. Still, fate certainly has its way with Max, as of course it does with us all. This burst of narrative omniscience—reminiscent of similar moments in Woolf’s near-contemporaneous Jacob’s Room, another great city novel—suggests the triumph of determinism. But how much more moving it is for us to read this passage in light of what we know of German history. It is possible that Max Rüst might indeed have left all of his little Rüst descendents and died peaceably enough in the increasingly prosperous Federal Republic in 1968 (Kleiststrasse would have been in West Berlin). (Would Rüst have looked askance at the student demonstrations? I’m guessing yes.) But there would have been so many possibiilities in which he wouldn’t have made it to that end (deployed to the front, killed in an air raid, lost to the hatred and violence of the SS, either as victim or perpetrator).

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” I suggested earlier how we readers might have paid for it. But I didn’t say what we know. The terrible rise and legacy of fascism is something we know that the all-knowing narrator can’t. Maybe we wish we didn’t know it. Maybe the cost of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz today is to know the extraordinary viciousness that overwhelmed the garden-variety, even petty viciousness of the world it depicts.