But, "The Economist" goes on to say, Hofmann's "fluent, pacy new translation gainsays that assumption, opening up the book for English speakers". And, as Penguin allows itself to claim: "This landmark translation is the first to do justice to 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' in English, brilliantly capturing the energy, prodigality and inventiveness of Döblin's masterpiece".

In a similar eulogy, "The National" notes that Hofmann "expertly captures the fecundity … originality and musicality of Döblin's masterpiece ... A bold and dazzling collage of a novel." All well and good, then, for this book considered to be a classic of the Weimar Republic, that time of political extremism and hyperinflation which gripped a defeated Germany from the end of World War One in 1918 to the ascent of Adolf Hitler in 1933.

The Budapest Times isn't aware who did the original English translation those 75-plus years ago, or how good a job he/she made of it, but apparently the reason it has long been considered pretty much untranslatable is because a lot of it is written in the working-class argot of pre-war Berlin. Apart from this urban slang, Döblin employs a heady collage of imaginative writing that includes newspaper articles, weather reports, biblical stories, Jewish yarns, ancient myths, street noise, drinking songs and thick streams of consciousness.

His book's urban exploration, together with its bravura range of styles and voices and narrative tricks, has led to a comparison with that other modernist-metropolitan epic, James Joyce's "Ulysses", a book Döblin admired.

As one literary critic has noted in the case of "Berlin Alexanderplatz", a translator can of course ignore such wild forays away from conventional narrative and use plain English, but then you lose the flavour of the original.

Döblin was born into a Jewish family in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland), in 1878. He moved to Berlin at the age of 10, where he remained for the next 45 years. His first published novel, "Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lung" (The Three Leaps of Wang Lun), appeared in 1915 and his final novel, "Hamlet oder Die lange Nacht nimmt ein Ende" (Tales of a Long Night), was published in 1956, one year before his death.

He was an impecunious writer and doctor in a working-class neighbourhood in the east of the city until his 1929 novel made him famous. When dictator Hitler assumed power, Döblin fled to France and then Los Angeles.

He is remembered as one of the most important figures of German literary modernism, the philosophical movement that, partly, felt the traditional forms of art and many other activities were becoming ill-fitted to their tasks and outdated in the emerging fully industrialised world. The hero of "Berlin Alexanderplatz" is Franz Biberkopf, a pimp but not a bad sort, though given to sudden helpless rages. He whipped one of his girls, Ida, to death with an eggbeater and was jailed. But that is not how the epic tale – 440 pages – begins. It opens with Biberkopf being released from Berlin's Tegel prison, paralysed with fear at having to pick up his life again in the infernal metropolis.

He meets a poor bearded Jew, who tries to comfort him with some Yiddish wisdom, and his spirits are further revived by a rough sexual encounter with Ida's sister. He quickly finds a new girl, called Polish Lina. This time, Biberkopf vows, he will be a respectable man, ein anständiger Mensch; this time, he will stay away from crime. But he can't. In Döblin's words (our translation): "Although he does all right economically, he is at war with an outside force, unpredictable, something that looks like fate."

Biberkopf wants to believe in human goodness but the part of the metropolis he knows, concentrated in the mean streets around the proletarian Alexanderplatz in east Berlin, grinds him down. He is punished for his naive trust in others. Biberkopf's fate, a sorry succession of shabby deals, drunken brawls, petty crime and murder, is the stuff of a pulp novel or B-movie.

Döblin takes his readers down streets, around landmarks and into apartments, bars, shops, ballrooms, a mental asylum, police headquarters and, even, a slaughterhouse. And Hofmann weaves his way through the vernacular of Berlin's lower depths, with people on the lam or in chokey, and saying innit, mebbe, dunno, troos and nuffink.

The author himself likes to address the readers too, or switch from the first to the third person, or – via Hofmann – leave bits in German. There is a mass of it -- 430 pages -- plus an Afterword by Hofmann, and perhaps he will pick up another award.


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