There is a Mower, Death Yclept

Oxford is beautiful in the autumn. As the sun is alternately hidden and revealed behind the clouds, the stone switches from yellow to grey. Flowers remain on the stalk, ossified into place as leaves fall from the trees into the mud below. The church of St Michael in Begbroke is a rather small affair, rendered noteworthy by its Romanesque arches and its sixteenth century stained glass; I especially like a plate showing Saint Barbara with a Brueghelesque landscape behind her. I’m also rather struck by some rather militant looking angels as corbels on the windows outside. The nearby St Bartholomew in Yarnton is more impressive. A black cat looks at me suspiciously from its gravestone perch in the overgrown churchyard as I enter. Many of the tombs are from the baroque period, with ornate details of skulls and cherubs crumbling beneath the layers of lichen. Here too, the stained glass is especially impressive, with such strange details as Seraphs and All Seeing Eyes. A pair of baroque and medieval tombs for the same family also draw my attention.

Reading Berlin Alexanderplatz after watching Fassbinder’s television adaptation is a strange experience. In many respects, the novel counts as a Schopenhauerian fable concerning the extinction of Franz’s will (or a religious fable, given the presence of Death and his Angels), but the fable is very far from occupying much of the novel. Biblical allegories proliferate throughout the novel, but the ideology behind them often seems far from Biblical; for example, it would have been very easy to present Mieze as receiving the due punishment for a fallen woman but Doblin deliberately states that she does not deserve her fate. In formalist terms, the fabula and syuzhet have diverged; where novels like The Trial deliberately deny meaning, Berlin Alexanderplatz has a surplus of it. As Doblin puts it early on in the novel, it’s as if we see events from behind a lens which switches from close-up to wide-angle and back again throughout. As such, the novel ranges from Franz’s story to counterpointed exemplars of Berlin life (at one point Doblin notes that "we all have different natures and lives, in kind, in future and destiny we are all different"), related through monologue to excepts from the popular press and songs. In short, it’s heteroglossic in the true sense of Bakhtin’s term (as well as polyphonic, particularly in the scenes where Franz argues with the narrator), assimilating different media and registers into itself. Part of the purpose of this seems to be to critique Nietzsche’s idea of the superman and suggest a concept of the interconnectedness of existence, with Doblin presenting himself as as anti-subjectivist. Throughout Franz appears unconcerned with others, wondering if he can sell the Volkische Beobachter to his Jewish friends before introducing to Mieze to her downfall in the form of Reinhold; "what do these people want anyway, first the fairies, who don’t concern me, and now the reds?" This is something that often seems to recur in Franz’s arguments with Berlin’s Marxists; "you can’t do anything alone." But the character voicing that sentiment also denies the idea of a higher being, which sits oddly in so metaphysical a novel; Marxism seems to emerge as one of many wills to power, that upset both Franz’s existence and the narrator’s ideas alike ("somebody had told him all about communism; to the effect that it’s nothing at all and that a reasonable man believes only in Nietzsche"); for example, the novel’s ending casts Death as winning over the Whore of Babylon. But Death is also the warmonger, and the foreshadowing of the war at the end casts a very ambiguous status on this victory.

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