‘The literary name and fame of the city of Berlin, if not the idea of modern city literature altogether, are founded on the novel in your hands,’ Michael Hofmann tells us in his afterword to his new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. While the first part of that statement is a matter of taste, the second is highly contentious, given the writings of Dickens on London, Zola on Paris and Joyce on Dublin, to name only a few of the more obvious examples. On second thoughts, judging by this book, the first part of that statement is also open to argument. Although Hofmann assures us that Döblin’s Berlin is ‘brilliantly and commensurately styled’, there is little sign of this throughout much of the novel.
Twelve pages into Berlin Alexanderplatz, for instance, one stumbles across a sentence such as this: ‘The country is calmer and quieter, people consider everything, you can talk for hours, and if your luck’s in you’ll earn a few coppers. It’s no easier in the city, but the