The sheer brio of Döblin’s prose, together with the unstoppable forward momentum of his narrative, makes all this squalor not only bearable but riveting. The story comes at you in a flood of words: Each character’s stream of consciousness is just one tributary in an enormous torrent that also includes newspaper headlines, advertising jingles, weather reports, political slogans, and seemingly every other kind of verbal and aural flotsam that would have been bobbing around Berlin in the years 1927–28, when the novel is set ... That it all flows as naturally as it does in English is a testament to Michael Hofmann’s resourcefulness ... he becomes a kind of one-man band, tossing off rhymes, doggerel, and what feels like several decades’ worth of low-down slang to recreate the working-class patois of Döblin’s interwar Berlin ... This is one modernist monument that nobody should have trouble finishing.
Michael Hofmann’s new translation now promises to awaken readers to the relevance of Berlin Alexanderplatz as an urgent, raw account of modernity ... Hofmann’s accomplishment is to reimagine in English how the novel talks, squawks, screeches, and curses in Döblin’s German. The original is a gabby thing, and Hofmann too makes his translation talk in many voices ... The language remains impressively taut and sharp throughout ... Hofmann brilliantly creates a linguistic force field that captures the spirit and inflection of the original, choosing a word here and an expression there that slowly build the sense of a close-knit, grimy, grotesque world ... We come away having tasted that heart, and all the strange, succulent marrow of Döblin’s epic.
The scandalous, almost futurist velocity of Berlin Alexanderplatz undoubtedly contributes to its appeal. But while the book is funny, shockingly violent, absurd, strangely tender and memorably peopled, its lasting resonance lies not in its hulking antihero or picaresque narrative beats but rather in its collage-like depiction of the city ... Luckily for readers, new and returning, Hofmann’s rhythmically pliable language renders a Berlin no less operatic for all its sordidness ... For the contemporary reader, alert to the churning of Trump-stoked resentment and the rising of the far right worldwide, Berlin Alexanderplatz may prove a kind of cracked mirror. Döblin acts as both poet and prophet, though one wishes him only the well-deserved stature of the former.