Berlin Alexanderplatz is an unusual twentieth century, avant-garde novel in being both a popular and a critical success. Readers liked the book’s cynical, acid portrayal of Berlin’s underworld as well as its happy ending, and the critics were enthusiastic about Alfred Döblin’s use of montage techniques to create an electrifying portrait of a metropolis.
The breezy, hard-boiled tone, which characterizes much of the book, is a hallmark of Berlin’s interwar writing. Germany’s premier playwright of the time, Bertolt Brecht, perfected this tone in such works as The Threepenny Opera (1928). Works of this type depict the world of small-time criminals, shysters, prostitutes, and other outcasts and deviants. Their lives, like those of gamblers, are filled with abrupt rises and falls. Relationships are unstable and unpredictable, passions hot, and loyalties only for the short term. To these characters, highly industrialized, modernized Berlin seems to be governed not by rational procedures but by a whimsical, inscrutable fate. The only way to live in such a world is with a shield of knowing cynicism. In Döblin’s book, characters such as Herbert and Eva have adopted this cynical attitude, and Franz acquires it in modified form at the conclusion. He learns about the mysteriousness of fate when he is repeatedly laid low by such unexpected disasters as Meize’s disappearance.
However, Franz’s outlook at the end is not purely cynical but includes a more positive element. This element, which accompanies the book’s fatalism throughout, is the celebration of primal, resilient vitality. Döblin reflects this vitality both in the ongoing nascence of the city—a city that is constantly being demolished and reconstructed—and in the ingenuity of its inhabitants, who invent innumerable dodges to survive and...
(The entire section is 755 words.)