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Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf (Alexanderplatz, Berlin; Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf)

This is Döblin’s best-known novel and is probably the only one of his novels still read on a regular basis. It has been compared to Ulysses and rightly so. Like Ulysses, it is a novel that has a city as its hero and celebrates that city, in this case, of course, with the city being Berlin. Döblin rewrote the novel after reading Ulysses and, though he denied being influenced by it, he obviously was. However, this novel is a very fine novel in its own right and should be seen as a Berlin version of Ulysses. In fact, it nearly was not published at all, at least not by Fischer. Fischer were prepared to cancel Döblin’s contract but Samuel Fischer heard Döblin read excerpts from the novel and changed his mind.

The hero of the novel is Franz Biberkopf, a petty criminal who, at the start of the novel, has just been released from prison for the manslaughter of his girlfriend, Ida. He is resolved to go straight but things do not work out. He almost rapes Ida’s married sister, Minna and then gets involved with a Polish woman, Lina. He then meets Reinhold, who goes through women at a rapid rate and gets Franz to help him get rid of them. Reinhold then offers him a job transporting fruit but it turns out to be a robbery. Franz wants no part of it and is forced out of the getaway car and is injured, losing an arm. Back in Berlin, he takes up with Mieze, a prostitute, and lives off her earnings. However, Reinhold finds out, takes Mieze from him and then rapes and kills her. Franz is suspected and when there is a raid in a bar where he is drinking, Franz shoots at a policeman and is arrested. He goes on a hunger strike and is taken to an asylum where he has an epiphany and a new Franz emerges.

The beauty of this book is Döblin’s wonderful portrait of Berlin, its people, particularly the ordinary people and, more particularly, the underworld, with their special language. Like Ulysses and, indeed, like USA, this book offers a portrait of a city at specific time, including the people, the language, the culture and the political and economic situation. Franz flirts with left-wing causes but is not immune to the emerging Nazi party and, in particular, what it has to offer for the poor and unemployed. Through Franz, a poor man, not very intelligent, Döblin shows us a city with its strengths and weaknesses and, above all, its colour.

Publishing history

First published 1929 by Fischer
First published in English by Viking 1931
Translated by Eugène Jolas; later: Michael Hofmann