Tuesday, 23 December 2008

All recent roads lead to Berlin. . .

I've been on a bit of a blogging break but I have a good excuse - I've been absorbed by several rather all consuming projects in addition to getting a lot of work done so that I can enjoy the holidays guilt-free. (And life after all, is for living first, and then blogging afterwards). But I'm now off for a couple of weeks and outside my cozy apartment the wind is raging and there's a lot of snow piled up. Time for cocooning, knitting, reading and watching movies.

My first big task over the last two weeks was to tackle Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. According to the blurb on the back of my copy, he was apparently the first German writer to write in the style of James Joyce although I found Döblin a much easier read. There are certainly a lot of similarities with Ulysses - the evocation of everyday, urban working class life and references to classical mythology and religious imagery - though not the sustained retelling of the Odyssey that is found in Joyce. And Döblin also plays with interior monologues, experimental language and different narrative techniques.

Essentially the story revolves around Franz Biberkopf who at the beginning of the novel has just been released from prison after serving four years for the killing of his girlfriend Ida. The story follows him over the next few years (we're in the late 1920s) as he tries to rejoin society, first by vowing to go straight and only work at honest jobs, then after subsequent betrayals by people he trusted, a return to a life of petty crime, pimping and alcoholism. We follow his relationships with several women, including Eva, a high class prostitute from his past who remains in love with him, and Mieze, a seemingly naive, young girl who comes to a horrific end. Franz also forms an unlikely friendship with the sinister Reinhold with tragic results, not once but several times. This is a world where everyone is just trying to survive and though politics does intrude (Franz at one point sells Nazi party newspapers and wears a swastika armband), it's not the heart of the novel, which essentially revolves around Franz accepting responsibility for his own actions instead of blaming an elusive "Fate". Though there is an eerie presentiment towards the end of the novel when Franz is watching a party parade out of his window and vows not to join in: But if I march along, I shall have to pay for it later on with my head, pay for the schemes of others. That's why I first figure out everything, and only if everything's quite O.K., and suits me, I'll take action. Reason is the gift of man, jackasses replace it with a clan. . . If war comes along and they conscript me, and I don't know why, and the war's started without me, well, then, it's my facult, it serve me right. Keep awake 'mid the strife, we're not alone in life.

I read this novel in preparation for watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteen hour plus 1980 adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Called the "Mount Everest of Cinema", I convinced my good friend K, to accompany me - we sherpas of celluloid - to Cinematheque Ontario's screening. Fortunately for our butts, the 13 parts plus epilogue were spread out over three days. Now that I have some distance in time from the experience, I can write about it more calmly, but I will admit to exiting the theatre raging with indignant irritation and cursing Fassbinder. Why? His bloody, bloody epilogue! There is much about the film that I really enjoyed - basically the first 13 parts. The acting was superb, in particular Günter Lamprecht as Franz and Hanna Schygulla as Eva. The sets, costumes, lighting, camera shots, musical score - all beautifully done. Then came the epilogue which is completely jarring in style, both visual and aural. After 14 hours of realism and attention to historic detail, all of a sudden we're hearing Elvis and Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack and visually we're being subjected to a messy melange of horror film, bad B movie melodrama and porn. And it goes on and on and on and on and on. Honestly it felt longer than the previous 13 parts put together. And this is where I got angry - because after enduring fourteen hours of a film - who is going to leave at this stage? It seemed like a completely self-indulgent insult to the audience who were now basically held hostage until the bitter end. I have no problem with Fassbinder acknowledging hindsight and showing glimpses of the future (the epilogue takes place mostly in the hallucinations of Franz while he is in an insane asylum) with references to the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and upon reflection I realized that he was probably paying tribute to one aspect of modernism which is to shock one out of complacency and narrative expectations (and he certainly succeeded in getting me all riled up) - but did it really have to be so incredibly cheesy? And so darn long? And now I can never think about the whole film without shuddering at the ending, whereas I certainly would like to watch some of the episodes over again. A very odd film-going experience to say the least.

And so back to reading and tackling the 900 page novel that has made so many Top 10 lists of Best Books of 2008 - Roberto Bolaño's 2666. This is the first novel I've read of his but I will definitely be seeking more of his work, especially as so many of the excellent reviews it's received from critics and bloggers alike, point out recurring themes and preoccupations from previous work. I loved the scope and ambition of the novel - told in five parts - each concentrating on a different narrator/subject and each told in a different style. If I had all the time in the world, I would have immediately started re-reading the book moments after turning the final page to absorb all the connections and allusions I had missed the first time around. For a novel that deals with some very serious issues - the murders of over 200 women in Mexico, the horrors of fighting on the Eastern front in WWII - there is also a surprising amount of wry humour. I particularly loved the first section, The Part About the Critics, which follows four academics who become complicated friends through their mutual obssession over an allusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi. It is very, very funny. And then, lo and behold, when I get to the final part - The Part About Archimboldi - should I be surprised that Archimboldi comes across a notebook that proves greatly influential, and in this notebook the writer expresses a great admiration for Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz? Which come to think about it makes sense, as society's indifference to the fate of murdered women is also prevalent in 1928 Berlin. I can't recommend 2666 enough - it's definitely worth the time and effort.

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