Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz

Published in Germany as Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, this novel has been described as the German Ulysses – the style and content of which have clearly influenced it considerably. I found it a difficult but rewarding read. Each of the nine sections, called Books in this translation, begins with a terse summary of its contents; here’s part of the one for Book Two:

…this is no ordinary man, this Franz Biberkopf. I did not summon him to entertain us, but so that we might share his hard, true and enlightening existence.

Doblin, Alexanderplatz The plot and style have been admirably assessed in several places: I’d recommend Max’s typically perceptive account at Pechorin’s Journal here. He summarises the (rather basic) plot and themes: the downward trajectory of the life of Franz Biberkopf, ‘an erstwhile cement-and –transport-worker in Berlin’. At the novel’s opening he is released from Tegel Prison after serving a four-year sentence for the manslaughter of his girlfriend. He resolves to go straight – but the narrative relates his stuttering attempts, and ultimate failure, to do so.

After several menial jobs he falls in with gangsters, loses a limb in an act of treachery by his fellow burglars, and suffers more and more blows in his life.

As Max points out, the plot is exciting enough in its way, but it’s the high modernist portrayal of Berlin in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic that’s its most compelling feature. That, and the style, something between middle period Joyce and the Dos Passos of USA: montage, collage, snippets of classical literature, popular songs, ads on billboards, anything that surrounds Franz in his peripatetic quests across and beyond the city.

It’s not a cheerful or easy read. Like Emma of Book Around the Corner I found it heavy going. Just as I started to weary of the fragmented style, however, the pace changed and my interest revived. So let’s take a look at the style. As Max has already commented on the fragmentation technique, I’d like to just add a couple of features that stood out for me.

First there’s the use of non sequitur:

 Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie.

 

This is Franz’s stream of thought as he stands on a corner in front of a movie theatre. The scene of typical urban renewal sparks off thoughts of a possible job, but the movie intrudes and interrupts the flow. This is largely how we all experience our interior monologue, I’d have thought, and it works quite well, but tends to irritate me after several pages of it.

Tenses jump around for no apparent reason from past to present and back. Pages 41-42 contain a sequence of symbols for Trade and Commerce to Finance and Tax Office; these are reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s insertion of bizarre symbols in Tristram Shandy, and serve no particular purpose here, as far as I can see.

Those sections where I was most able to overcome my aversion to these narrative tics were the ones which dealt with the festering political situation in the city (Max mentions the anti-Semitism), but there’s also a stark portrayal of the extremes of nascent fascism/nationalism beginning to assert itself over socialism and communism. Here’s a taster, in a long scene in a Berlin theatre-cum-drinking den:

 The veteran whispered, his hand before his mouth, he belched: “Are you a German, honest and true? If you run with the Reds, you’re a traitor. He who is a traitor isn’t my friend.” He embraced Franz: “The Poles, the French, the fatherland for which we bled, that’s the nation’s gratitude.”

 

Soon after this Franz peddles ‘Nationalist pro-Nordic papers’:

He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order. For law and order must reign in Paradise; which everyone should recognize. And the Steel Helmet, he’s seen those boys, and their leaders, too, that’s a great thing. [There follow sickening extracts of fascist rhetoric from the paper] In the Elsasser Strasse the other fellows laugh themselves sick when he makes his appearance in the café at noon, his Fascist armband discreetly tucked in his pocket; they pull it out.

Here it’s possible to see the other problem with the text, apart from its modernist liking for cinematic verbal metonymy: the clunky translation. It has to be said, given the fact that the novel is apparently filled with Berlin dialect and thieves’ argot, that translation must be a nightmare. This UK-published edition was translated by the American-born Eugen Jolas (died 1952), who uses a register that swings oddly from prohibition-era New Jersey to Edwardian English (‘What the deuce are those big boots?’ asks one character, implausibly).

I’ve found it hard to pin down what I ultimately made of this novel: it’s a considerable achievement, and certainly a notable addition to the canon of experimental modernist European fiction. But I can’t say hand on heart that I particularly enjoyed it. I’d be quick to concede that it’s probably more to do with my defects as a reader than those in the text.

Edition used: Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, first published by Martin Secker in 1931. Thanks to Cornwall Libraries for the loan of their copy.

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg