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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.

Hofmann cites a contemporary vignette by a much younger writer, Wolfgang Koeppen, of Döblin playing chess in a Berlin coffee house: “Pale face, pointy nose. The features above the stiff collar could have belonged to a clergyman. Jesuitical, which I propose as a positive here. Learned, finical, ascetic, disciplined. But the eyes behind the spectacles, which were oval, and I seem to remember, wire-rimmed, they were, tired, veiled, elsewhere, only half intent on the board and the figures. Alert, like a huntsman, but somehow passively so. It was clear that he wanted to win the game, and in time he did win it. But straightaway it became a matter of indifference to him. Perhaps he was observing himself, seeing into himself, thinking, what am I doing here, I should be in Babylon.” In fact, he was soon to go into exile.

Döblin’s achievement in Berlin Alexanderplatz was so colossal that it eclipsed the rest of his career. Hofmann’s rendering conveys something of the original, above all the filmic quality that made the novel the basis of an early talkie in 1931 and then a TV series by Fassbinder in 1980. But the book itself is a fascinating work of art. The first edition is an amalgam of tradition and modernism: Fischer’s typography uses the old-fashioned Gothic script; but the remarkable dustjacket, designed by Georg Salter, combines text and images, just as the novel does; it became the most plagiarised book cover in the history of German publishing.

Yet his celebrity, especially on the Left, doesn’t make Döblin a natural subject for Standpoint. What does is the moral framework, which is unmistakably Judaeo-Christian. (A secular Jew, in later life he converted to Catholicism.) At one point he introduces Job into the narrative, arguing with a voice that could be either God or Satan: Job is a Biblical Biberkopf. The novel is saturated in the search for transcendence and meaning. Like the greatest of Judaeo-Christian prayers, it begs God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and pleads with Him not to lead us into temptation. It is a parable that upholds freedom against fatalism and truth against relativism. That is what Western civilisation is all about.

Standpoint has always published fiction and poetry and this issue includes “The End of the Lazars”, a powerful short story by Joseph Epstein. The character of Elliott Lazar illustrates, quite differently from Franz Biberkopf, the case of a man whose decency deserves better than his predicament permits. Elliott defies the great and good on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts by refusing to lower his standards. He won’t pretend that do-gooding schemes to provide “writers’ places” or “poetry in prisons” have  anything to do with Western civilisation. He makes himself unpopular, but he “took no prisoners”.

This brings us to our cover story. Lord Lawson was, as he reminds us, the first senior politician to advocate Brexit. He is now telling the Prime Minister that if she wants to make a success of it, she must get up off her knees and follow Mrs Thatcher’s example in negotiating with our EU partners. This is not merely tactical but moral advice. Sticking to one’s guns, risking unpopularity, standing up to bullies: these are qualities on which our civilisation now depends, as it always has, not merely to flourish, but to survive.
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