Berlin Alexanderplatz. By Alfred Döblin. Translated by Michael Hofmann. NYRB Classics; 480 pages; $18.95. Penguin Classics; £14.99.

EARLY in “Babylon Berlin”, a lavish new television series, Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne, is sent to the German capital in 1929 to investigate a mafia pornography ring. Extremists have taken to the streets. The parallels between then and now are glaring. Moka Efti, the meticulously recreated nightclub where much of the action plays out, stands for louche contemporary society. As a review in the Times put it, “for the National Socialists, read Alternative for Germany” (AfD), the insurgent far-right party; “for the League of Nations, the European Union”; and for the Weimar Republic, modern Germany.

Weimar is a popular reference point these days, in Germany and beyond. A retrospective on its cinema was a highlight of last month’s Berlinale, the capital’s international film festival. An exhibition on its art has just closed at the Schirn Kunsthalle museum in Frankfurt. It has sometimes been deployed as an analogy to the sinister glitz of Moscow under Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile Glenn Beck, an American TV host, last month posited that his polarised country was in “probably 1926, 1928—Weimar Republic”.

The notion of Weimar implied by these comparisons stars Marlene Dietrich and features jackboots and sequins. A very different perspective on the era is offered by Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, the classic Weimar novel. Its version is at once more accurate and more ominous.

Like “Babylon Berlin”, Döblin’s story concerns a lone outsider. Released from prison after serving time for a woman’s murder, Franz Biberkopf negotiates the temptations and dangers of Berlin in 1928. Much of the novel comes in a stream-of-consciousness style known as erlebte Rede, a cinematic barrage of impressions and thoughts recalled without explanation or differentiation. It was long branded untranslatable, a view reinforced by a turgid rendering published in 1931. Yet a fluent, pacy new translation by Michael Hofmann gainsays that assumption, opening up the book for English-speakers.

And with it the city. Seen through Biberkopf’s eyes, the heart of Berlin is Alexanderplatz itself. Then as now, the square in the capital’s proletarian east was associated with transience, both architectural (it was endlessly being rebuilt) and human (it was a place of prostitutes, criminals and ne’er-do-wells). The glamorous metropolis of popular imagination, with its decadence and excess, is glimpsed in political street fights and nightclub adverts, but is not Döblin’s main concern. He was a doctor, whose surgery lay just to the east of the square he knew well, and he concentrates on the city’s flickering mundanity:

‘Mokka-fix’ on Alexanderstrasse, nonpareil cigars, cultured beers in mugs and glasses, card games forbidden, guests are responsible for their own coats, I’m not taking the rap. Signed, the Landlord. Breakfast from 6am to 1pm, 75 pfennigs, one cup of coffee…

Such was the lot of Biberkopf, a resentful, anonymous working-class citizen of Weimar who is trying to be “respectable”. Think of him as one of the blurred faces in a crowd scene by George Grosz, an expressionist painter of the time (see picture); as an extra in “Babylon Berlin”; as an alter ego of Fräulein Schroder, the grumpy landlady in Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories”, a collection that inspired the musical “Cabaret”. Döblin’s novel was published two weeks before the Wall Street Crash and a few years before Adolf Hitler came to power. In the view of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film adaptation appeared in 1980, Biberkopf would probably have voted for the Nazis.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” therefore offers an invaluable insight into Weimar Germany, through the eyes of a writer intimately acquainted with its people, but who did not know precisely what was to come. In some ways this view is reassuring, for the Germany he depicts looks nothing like wealthy societies now.

It is poor—far poorer than Western countries today and than many at the time. Ordinary folk in the novel scrape about to avoid destitution. Its heaving crowds were young. The average age was 32, whereas in modern Germany it is over 47. Above all, it is violent. Biberkopf is beaten up and beats others up. He loses his arm in a car crash and responds stoically. “It won’t make my arm grow back,” he says of a mooted revenge, “and I’ve got no beef with my arm being gone neither. It had to go, there’s no sense in yapping about it.” As David Runciman of Cambridge University has noted, “the collapse of the Weimar Republic was shot through with killing on the streets.” He observes that its demography made it more like today’s Egypt than the West.

Look more closely, however, and the real resonances of this bygone society, and its true warning signs, start to appear. To begin with, Biberkopf is overwhelmed by change. On the tram from the prison he has something like a panic attack: “The crowds, the crowds. My skull needs grease, it must have dried out.” This is followed by seething resentment at the satisfied citizens in their restaurants and shops: “Hundreds of shiny windows, let them flash away at you, they’re nothing to be afraid of, it’s just that they’ve been cleaned, you can always smash them if you want.”

Between beauty and desperation

This Unbehagen, a nagging unease with the unfamiliar or fast-evolving, is prominent even in today’s rich countries. In a speech on February 26th Angela Merkel said it helped explain the rise of the AfD.

The battle between Biberkopf’s primal urges and his quest to “remain decent” is also recognisable. Döblin read and advocated Freud’s theories, and his repressed anti-hero is both horrified and seduced by the permissiveness of the city. The freedom of a dark cinema prompts him to visit a prostitute. Selling newspapers, he wanders into a gay-rights meeting; he storms out in disgust, not just at what he has seen but at his own enchantment with it. This tension between take-what-you-want hedonism and a stark sense of respectability is manifest, too, in the modern world’s blend of prurience and puritanism, or in the support of American religious conservatives for a libertine president.

Moreover, Biberkopf’s take on current affairs will be familiar to any social-media user. “I don’t do politics,” he smugly tells a girlfriend. Contact with the business does not help. When he stumbles into a political meeting, the speaker appears to him a grotesque figure, “a fat balding man, provoking, tempting, laughing, teasing”. In that moment “there is nothing so contented as our Franz Biberkopf, who tells politics to go get lost.” This tear-it-all-up tendency may have been what Fassbinder was getting at when he presumed to know how Biberkopf would have voted. It lives on in sneering online nihilism.

Western societies—changing, hypocritical, anti-political—are not about to follow Weimar Germany’s trajectory. But elements of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” still echo. Consider “Seven Nights”, a new novel by Simon Strauss, a German journalist who has reported on the rise of populism, in which the narrator seeks stimulation in the seven deadly sins. The current liberal, conformist Germany could hardly be more different from its late-1920s counterpart, yet in Mr Strauss’s book it prompts similar sensations. At a masked ball the narrator reckons that “Between beauty and desperation lies just one word: lust.”

Something of the psychology of Weimar, the desire to touch the electric fence just to see what happens, lives on in modern societies and makes them, in their own ways, vulnerable to extremism and demagoguery. Mr Runciman argues that a latter-day failure of democracy will look very different to the implosion of the 1930s. One lesson of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is that darkness can take many forms.