THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

22 May 2017

The problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz

The current season of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the BFI has included his adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s ‘unfilmable’ novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Here former BL cataloguer Trevor Willimott reflects on his experience of reading the original work.

For someone reading the original text whose first language is not German, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a formidable challenge. Just a few pages in I realised this, partly because of the stream of consciousness nature of Döblin’s writing and partly because of the passages of colloquial language. The stream of consciousness technique has never been practised as much in German as in English or American literature but Döblin’s book is often seen in those ‘greatest novels of all time’ lists alongside other exponents of the genre, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, Berlin Alexanderplatz  is amorphous and turbid and in many ways untranslatable, although Eugène Jolas did translate it into English in 1931 (British Library. 012554.dd.26), a work which was not well received at the time. This is still the only available English translation of the novel.

Berlin Alexanderplatz DJ
Dust-Jacket of the first edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz (Berlin, 1929) YA.1988.a.21631

Regarded as one of the greatest German novels of all time, it tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer who upon release from prison resolves to become a respectable member of society in 1920s Berlin. Despite this, because of his past and the community he is released into, he is unable to free himself from the criminal underworld which has been his life. He lives in a grubby world of criminals and prostitution, with the lengthening shadow of Nazism falling over Germany. He is very much in and of Berlin and common, at one point considered a sort of ‘Vieh’ (in the contemptuous sense, animal or beast), a keyword throughout the novel, because humans are seen as little more than animals.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Döblin
Alfred Döblin around 1930 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Normally, I like stream of consciousness fiction, and Virginia Woolf is my favourite novelist, but it was a struggle to enjoy this book. Gloomy and oppressive like the U-Bahn below, the dialogue sometimes moves to the same monotonous rhythm. The main reason I didn’t like it was its heavy reliance on Berlin slang and colloquialisms, which tested my German skills greatly, and the mundanity of it all. True to the stream of consciousness form because it credibly reflects the commonplace thoughts and ruminations which daily obtrude into people’s minds, it completely failed to lift me to the sublime levels of Virginia Woolf’s poetic prose in To the Lighthouse, for example. She could create a beautiful image of how someone sees a newspaper swirling down a blustery street, whereas Döblin will describe in detail Biberkopf’s spiel on the differences between a tie and bow-tie when working in a high-class men’s tailors, which may well serve to develop his character and Berlin’s social life, but is ultimately totally uninspiring prose. It is that unrelenting use of direct speech to reveal the character’s mind that I found so unappealing.

The most striking aspect for me in Döblin’s writing came from the darker side of life, for example his description of the slaughterhouse. In those days it wasn’t a bullet through the head; it was clubbing and hacking. The submissiveness with which the animals entered the abattoir moved me deeply.

While the plot is unremarkable, as is the case with many stream of consciousness works, Berlin Alexanderplatz is undoubtedly a great novel because it is a brilliant exposition of an ex-convict’s mind, his world, and Berlin of the 1920s. I think it has to be read in the original German to appreciate fully the book’s greatness, and while my expectations fell short it’s no doubt because that appreciation can only be attained by someone who has been immersed in the German language and its literature at a high level for a long time.

Further reading:

Materialien zu Alfred Döblin "Berlin Alexanderplatz", herausgegeben von Matthias Prangel (Frankfurt am Main, 1975)  X:907/15849

Harald Jähner, Erzählter, montierter, soufflierter Text : zur Konstruktion des Romans Berlin Alexanderplatz von Alfred Döblin (Frankfurt am Main, 1984) YA.1987.a.13595

David B. Dollenmayer, The Berlin novels of Alfred Döblin : Wadzek's battle with the steam turbine, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Men without mercy, and November 1918 (Berkeley, 1988)  YH.1988.b.839

Otto Keller, Döblins Berlin Alexanderplatz: die Grossstadt im Spiegel ihrer Diskurse (Bern, 1990) YA.1993.a.8319

Frauke Tomczak, Mythos und Alltäglichkeit am Beispiel von Joyces ''Ulysses'' und Döblins ''Berlin Alexanderplatz''  (Frankfurt am Main, 1992) YA.1993.a.4008

Sang-Nam Park, Die sprachliche und zeitkritische Problematik von Döblins Roman "Berlin Alexanderplatz”. (Berlin, 1995)  YA.1995.a.10150

Peter Jelavich,  Berlin Alexanderplatz : radio, film, and the death of Weimar culture (Berkeley, 2006) YC.2006.a.2302

 Rainer Werner Fassbinder und Harry Baer, Der Film Berlin Alexanderplatz: ein Arbeitsjournal (Frankfurt am Main, 1980) X.944/411.

Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz, edited by Klaus Biesenbach (Berlin, 2007) LF.37.a.184. 

  Berlin Alexanderplatz Arbeitsjournal
Cover of the ‘Arbeitsjournal’ by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Harry Baer documenting their work on the film of Berlin Alexanderplatz  

 

19 May 2017

Dmitrii Moor interrogates: Have *You* Bought Your Ticket?

One of the main founders of Soviet political poster design, Dmitrii Orlov was born in 1883 in Novochekassk to the family of an engineer. In 1898 the family moved to Moscow. Although the young artist did not receive a systematic training, he started publishing caricatures in the satirical magazines that thrived during a short period after the first revolution in Russia in 1905. Early in his career, Orlov adopted the pseudonym D. Moor, alluding to Karl Moor, one of the protagonists in Friedrich Schiller’s romantic play The Robbers

Having started as a caricaturist in satirical magazines, Moor was very much influenced by the German satirical publication Simplicissimus (British Library LOU.F459) and the Norwegian artist and designer Olaf Gulbransson, known for his clear lines and emphasis on linking verbal and non-verbal messages. Moor’s artistic style also incorporated imagery from silent films with their exaggerated emotions, which can be seen on this film poster:

Image 1-Моор_кино_Убийца_афиша
Moor’s poster for the lost black-and-white film Ubiitsa (The Murderer)

It is interesting that he returned to a similar style in the 1930s: the worker on this poster bears a striking resemblance to the criminal from the film poster:

1899_c_12_(22)
‘Workers of the World Unite!’ Poster by Moor from the 193os. British Library 1899.c.12(22).

Today Moor is probably best known for his famous Red Army Recruitment poster of 1920, which appears on the poster for our current exhibition, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, MythsMoor is  also considered one of the main founders of that unique area of Soviet art – political poster design. His other striking  posters, well known to Soviet audiences, include ‘Wrangel is still alive! Finish him off without mercy!’ and ‘Be on Your Guard!’

Image 3-29-Far East-Krasnaia Armiia-Cup.1247.dd.20.
‘Wrangel is still alive! Finish him off without mercy!’ (left), as reproduced in the album Krasnaia Armiia (Moscow, 1938) designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Cup.1247.dd.20.

Maps CC.6.a.38
‘Be on Your Guard!’ (1920) Maps CC.6.a.38

Here the right shoulder and raised leg of the Red Army soldier actually become the western state border, and thus the soldier personifies the state. His body is the body of Soviet Russia (his back rests against and fuses into the Urals, depicted as the bony ‘spine’ of the country – in Russian the same word means both ‘spine’ and ‘mountain range’). The vitality and resilience of the state is equated with the strength and will of its citizenry-in-arms.

Moor’s Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier, published in 1921, is a small book of cartoons intended to teach soldiers literacy as such and ‘political literacy’ at the same time: each letter is illustrated by a picture emphasising the special mission and the triumphs of the Soviet forces. The letter ‘G’ is the initial letter of the Russian word goret’ (‘to burn’), and the inscription to this picture reads: ‘The Earth burns with a fire lit by the worker’s hand.’ Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders hoped to instil in the Red Army a sense of historic mission, and an understanding that it was not simply a conventional national army but the custodian of world revolution.

Image 5 smaller cup_401_g_25_002v
Dmitrii Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa (‘Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier’), 1921 (shelfmark Cup.401.g.25)

In the image for the letter ‘IA’ (Я), which also means the pronoun ‘I’ in Russian, the artist emphasised the idea of the new world and the new man who from now on will dominate in space and time for the next century: “The new Man has come! Long live the century of the Commune!”:

Image 6 smaller cup_401_g_25_014v

And there are examples of Moor’s caricature style, where enemies of the Soviet state look miserable and laughable. However, in most of the cases Moor uses the narrative and graphical themes that were very common and reproduced in many variations, such as Lenin sweeping the counter-revolutionary elements out of the country or a collection of ‘typical’ enemies opposing the new way of life.

Image 7-P1050733Images 8 P1050745

In the 1920s Moor worked for the anti-religious satirical newspaper The Godless and its reincarnation as the satirical magazine The Godless at the Workbench. The secularization of society and promotion of atheism was a crucial element of the ‘cultural revolution’ desired by the Bolsheviks, as Orthodox Christianity had been a pillar of support for the Tsarist state. Under Stalin anti-religious propaganda soon became quite aggressive. In 1925 the League of Militant Atheists, a volunteer organisation that promoted anti-religious views, was formed. In this image the peasant is sneezing out his religious beliefs under the supervision of the worker.

Godless P.P.8000.rs
Bezbozhnik u stanka (‘The Godless at the Workbench’; Moscow, 1923) P.P.8000.rs
.

Many art critics compared the aesthetics of Moor’s posters with the aesthetics and compositions of Sergei Eisenstein’s films and this is this is very true, as Moor was always thinking about perception of his works. For example, he wrote that a poster artist should not only be a complete craftsman in graphics, but also analyse the situation in which his art would be seen. He suggested that a poster artist should know the speed with which passers-by walk, the width of the streets in his town, the position of lights in the evening and many other things. It is not surprising then that his piece of agitation art invites you – or commands you – to come to our exhibition.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

 

17 May 2017

Short words strike home

A monosyllable is a long word that means a short one. Some tongues have more of them, some less; some are rich, some poor. English and Catalan (Eng and Cat in the MARC language codes used by library cataloguers) have more than Spanish (Spa).

Some think they’re the soul of Eng: all the words we spell with * are short and stark.

But what a punch the short can deal! To quote:

Basic English, produced by Mr C. K. Ogden of the Orthological Institute, is a simple form of the English language which, with about 1,000 words, is able to give the sense of anything which may be said in English.

The Bible in Basic English:

1 At the first God made the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was waste and without form; and it was dark on the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God, looking on the light, saw that it was good: and God made a division between the light and the dark,
5 Naming the light, Day, and the dark, Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Now, Cat or Spa? Let’s try some.

Spa             Cat
bueno         bo
cabeza         cap
lejos             lluny
plano           pla
vino             vi

And of course names such as Pep, places such as Vich and El Clot and shops such as Pans.

Ausiàs March (1400-59) loved short words:

Qui no es trist de mos dictats no cur
ó en algun temps que sia trist estat
é lo qui es de mals apassionat
per ferse trist no cerque lloch escur
lija mos dits mostrant pensa torbada
sens algun art exits d’hom fora seny,
é la rahó qu’en tal dolor m’enpeny
Amor ho sab quina es la causa estada.

Monosyllables March C.62.c.5.
Les obres de Mossen Áusias March ab una declaratio en los marges, de alguns vocables scurs. (Barcelona, 1543) C.62.c.5. fol. 1r

His Spanish translator, Jorge de Montemayor (1520-61) lived a short life but did a good job:

No cure de mis versos, ni los lea
quien no fuere muy triste, o lo aya sido;
y quien lo es, para que más lo sea
lugar no pida escuro, ni escondido.
Mis dichos puede oýr, y en ellos vea
cómo sin arte alguna me han salido
del alma, y la razón de mi querella
muy bien la sabe Amor qu’es causa d’ella

Monosyllables March trans 1072.c.18
Las obras del excelentissimo poeta Mossen A. March ... Traduzidas de lengua Lemosina en Castellano por J. de Montemayor. (Saragossa, 1562). 1072.c.18 fol. 1r

Here’s a punt of my own:

If
you’re
not
sad,
don’t
heed
my
verse,
or
if
you
weren’t
sad
once,
and
if
you’re
burnt
with
lover’s
ills
don’t
slink
to
dark
holes
to
make
you
sad,
but
read
my
words
that
show
tormented
thoughts ...

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies