New York Review Books Classics, US$18.95 pb, 480 pp, 9781681371993
Revered in Germany as one of the founders of literary modernism, the equal of Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) has remained something of a mystery to English readers. Some are aware of Berlin Alexanderplatz: The story of Franz Biberkopf, translated by Eugene Jolas soon after its appearance in 1929. But even this great novel of the modern metropolis seems to have been largely displaced since 1980 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s brilliant but distorted film version, which presents women as passive, even willing, victims of the male violence prevalent in postwar German society – and thus saddles Döblin with Fassbinder’s own misogyny. Michael Hofmann’s new translation, more attuned than Jolas’s to the coruscating irony in Döblin’s treatment of his anti-hero, provides a welcome opportunity to re-enter the world of Berlin and to more fully experience its agony and its vitality in the year before the Great Depression tipped Germany over into totalitarianism.