The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Weimar-era experimentalism

BEFORE

1915 Metamorphosis, a key early anti-realistic text by Franz Kafka, influences several other modern German-language writers.

AFTER

1931–32 Austrian author Hermann Broch’s trilogy The Sleepwalkers experiments with form, changing genre according to the plot.

1930–43 Austrian Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities is structured as a tour of ideas through which the central character attempts to define himself.

1943 Herman Hesse’s use of Jungian psychoanalysis and Eastern mysticism in The Glass Bead Game results in a combination similar to the later genre of Magic Realism.

Although the 15 years after the end of World War I saw hyperinflation and mass unemployment in Germany, it was also a time of a great flourishing in the arts and sciences, known as Weimar culture. Many leading intellectuals were Jewish, and the period came to an end with Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 and the rise in anti-Semitism, when thousands of Jews fled Germany.

New forms for a new world

While the Weimar era lasted, German-language literary experimentalism was ambitious in its attempts to express the complexities of the modern world, and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) was a key work. It is the story of a low-level pimp, Franz Biberkopf, who struggles to make his way in the criminal underclass after being released from prison. The characters speak in the almost untranslatable argot of the slums of inter-war Berlin, and the novel is a dazzling exercise in literary montage. At times it takes the form of newspaper stories, street ballads, speeches, and extracts from fictional books. The narrative incorporates stream of consciousness and a mixture of first- and third-person viewpoints. Through this complex experimental technique, 1920s Berlin itself is given vivid expression, leading Berlin Alexanderplatz to be seen as one of the great Großstadtromane, or “big city novels”, which focus on life in urban areas.

"German fellow-citizens, never has a nation been betrayed more ignominiously and more unjustly than the German people."


Berlin Alexanderplatz

See also: Metamorphosis • The Magic Mountain • The Man Without Qualities