We have two Michael Hofmann translations today. Two early, one mid, and two late 20th-century books…
Döblin, A. (2018 ). Berlin Alexanderplatz (M. Hofmann, Trans.). New York Review Books.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz, the great novel of Berlin and the doomed Weimar Republic, is one of the great books of the twentieth century, gruesome, farcical, and appalling, word drunk, pitchdark. In Michael Hofmann’s extraordinary new translation, Alfred Döblin’s masterpiece lives in English for the first time.
As Döblin writes in the opening pages:
The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.
To begin with, he succeeds. But then, though doing all right for himself financially, he gets involved in a set-to with an unpredictable external agency that looks an awful lot like fate.
Three times the force attacks him and disrupts his scheme. The first time it comes at him with dishonesty and deception. Our man is able to get to his feet, he is still good to stand.
Then it strikes him a low blow. He has trouble getting up from that, he is almost counted out.
And finally it hits him with monstrous and extreme violence.
A raging cataract of a novel, one that threatens to engulf the reader in a tumult of sensation. It has long been considered the behemoth of German literary modernism, the counterpart to Ulysses. —Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Because of its use of collage, stream of consciousness, and colloquial speech, Berlin Alexanderplatz has frequently been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer…Beneath the book’s innovative style, the reader can hear the gears of ancient narrative elements grinding: evocations of folk songs, myths and Old Testament stories, and themes of tragedy and fate. —Amanda DeMarco, The Wall Street Journal
In this new translation, the dissonant voices ring out boldly; we can tell when someone is being mimicked and wickedly sent up, enjoy the black Berlin humor…Döblin is never sentimental, or hysterical. He just gets us to listen to the drumbeat of violence throbbing in this city of the mind. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great anti-war novels of our time. —Joachim Redner, Australian Book Review
The story of Franz Biberkopf is the Éducation sentimentale of the petty thief. The most extreme, dizzying, last, and most advanced embodiment of the old bourgeois bildungsroman. —Walter Benjamin
I found myself reading Berlin Alexanderplatz in a way that you could hardly call reading—more like devouring, gobbling, gulping down. And these expressions still don’t do justice to that way of reading, which dangerously often wasn’t reading at all, but more life, suffering, despair, and fear. —Rainer Werner Fassbinder
[A] major writer who grappled with the roots of darkness in our time… —Ernst Pawel, The New York Times
Without the futurist elements of Döblin’s work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable…. He’ll discomfort you, give you bad dreams. If you’re satisfied with yourself, beware of Döblin. —Günter Grass
I learned more about the essence of the epic from Döblin than from anyone else. His epic writing and even his theory about the epic strongly influenced my own dramatic art. —Bertolt Brecht” — from New York Review of Books
Walser, R. (2012 [1907-1917]). Berlin stories (J. Greven, Ed.; S. Bernofsky, Trans.). New York Review Books.
“In 1905 the young Swiss writer Robert Walser arrived in Berlin to join his older brother Karl, already an important stage-set designer, and immediately threw himself into the vibrant social and cultural life of the city. Berlin Stories collects his alternately celebratory, droll, and satirical observations on every aspect of the bustling German capital, from its theaters, cabarets, painters’ galleries, and literary salons, to the metropolitan street, markets, the Tiergarten, rapid-service restaurants, and the electric tram. Originally appearing in literary magazines as well as the feuilleton sections of newspapers, the early stories are characterized by a joyous urgency and the generosity of an unconventional guide. Later pieces take the form of more personal reflections on the writing process, memories, and character studies. All are full of counter-intuitive images and vignettes of startling clarity, showcasing a unique talent for whom no detail was trivial, at grips with a city diving headlong into modernity.
Read Susan Bernofsky’s letter about Robert Walser and Berlin Stories.
I think it was Herman Hesse who said that if you can stomach Robert Walser’s prose, you can’t help but fall in love with it, and I fell in love with it pretty quickly. He’s guileless but not stupid, an admiring observer of the inconsequential… He became a chronicler of the ordinary (interestingly, at around the same time Joyce, on the other side of Europe, was doing the same). And in this unbelievably delightful and timeless collection of short pieces, we can recover the delight of ordinary, uncondescending appreciation, places where the vacant-minded stroller can take ‘peculiar pleasure.’ —Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
The magnificently humble. The enormously small. The meaningfully ridiculous. Robert Walser’s work often reads like a dazzling answer to the question, How immense can modesty be? If Emily Dickinson made cathedrals of em dashes and capital letters and the angle of winter light, Walser accomplishes the feat with, well, ladies’ feet and trousers, and little emotive words like joy, uncapitalized. —Rivka Galchen, Harper’s
Walser’s fictions are charged with compassion: awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer. —Susan Sontag
A writer of considerable wit, talent and originality …. recognized by such impressive contemporaries as Kafka, Brod, Hesse and Musil …. [and] primarily known to German literary scholars and to English readers lucky enough to have discovered [his work] …. [Walser’s tales] are to be read slowly and savored …. [and] are filled with lovely and disturbing moments that will stay with the reader for some time to come. —Ronald De Feo, The New York Times” — from New York Review of Books
Regener, S. (2007 ). Berlin blues [Herr Lehmann] (J. M. Brownjohn, Trans.). Vintage.
“It’s 1989 and, whenever he isn’t hanging out in the local bars, Herr Lehmann lives entirely free of responsibility in the bohemian Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Through years of judicious sidestepping and heroic indolence, this barman has successfully avoided the demands of parents, landlords, neighbours and women. But suddenly one unforeseen incident after another seems to threaten his idyllic and rather peaceable existence. He has an encounter with a decidedly unfriendly dog, his parents threaten to descend on Berlin from the provinces, and he meets a dangerously attractive woman who throws his emotional life into confusion.
Berlin Blues is a richly entertaining evocation of life in the city and a classic of modern-day decadence.” — from Goodreads
Fallada, H. (2010 ). Alone in Berlin [Jeder stirbt für sich allein] (M. Hofmann, Trans.). Penguin.
“Inspired by a true story, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is a gripping wartime thriller following one ordinary man’s determination to defy the tyranny of Nazi rule.
Berlin, 1940, and the city is filled with fear. At the house on 55 Jablonski Strasse, its various occupants try to live under Nazi rule in their different ways: the bullying Hitler loyalists the Persickes, the retired judge Fromm and the unassuming couple Otto and Anna Quangel. Then the Quangels receive the news that their beloved son has been killed fighting in France. Shocked out of their quiet existence, they begin a silent campaign of defiance, and a deadly game of cat and mouse develops between the Quangels and the ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich. When petty criminals Kluge and Borkhausen also become involved, deception, betrayal and murder ensue, tightening the noose around the Quangels’ necks…” — from Penguin
Timm, U. (1998 ). Midsummer night (P. Tegel, Trans.). New Directions.
“If this, Uwe Timm’s enchanting novel, were a cautionary tale, the tag line would go something like this: Should you plan to be in Berlin on Midsummer Night, the time of the summer solstice – Watch Out! The narrator of Timm’s story is a writer who simply can’t get started on his next book. So he accepts a commission to write an article about potatoes. He has some interest in the subject because of an uncle who could, remarkably, from taste alone, differentiate one species of potato from another. Since one of the authorities on the subject worked in East Berlin, our hero takes off to do some research. Rushing around the newly united city, he becomes involved in a series of madcap adventures, strange entanglements, and odd, sometimes threatening encounters. Uwe Timm spins a fascinating tale here, one filled with surprise, magic, comedy, and hope.” — from New Directions