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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) - pseud. Linke Poot


German Expressionist novelist and essayist whose best-known work is Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), a story of an ex-convict and life in a modern metropolis. The book was performed as a radio play in 1976 and adapted into a television drama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. Döblin attempted to extend the expressive means of the novel beyond its conventional boundaries. His work shows scientific interest in the political and social forces that shape individual fates. From 1933 to 1945 Döblin lived in exile in France and in the United States, in California, like Brecht and Thomas and Heinrich Mann.

"Die Trommel wirbelt hinter ihm. Marschieren, marschieren. Wie ziehen in den Krig mit festen Schitt, es gehen mit uns hundert Spielleute mit, Morgenrot, Abendrot, leuchtest uns zum frühen Tod.
--Biderkopf is ein kleinen Arbeiter. Wir wissen, was wie wissen, wir habens teuer bezahlen müssen."
(from Berlin Alexanderplatz)

Alfred Döblin was born in Stettin, Pomerania, into an impoverished middle-class Jewish family. When he was ten, his father, Max Döblin, a merchant and tailor, abandoned his family and emigrated to America with a much younger woman than his wife. Growing up without a father and the loss of social status was hard for the young Döblin, and this left mark on his writings – happy families and harmony between an indivual and society are rare in his stories. Döblin's mother Sophie (Freudenheim) Döblin, was from a lower-middle class family, determined to raise her children alone and survive on her on terms. The family moved to a proletarian district of Berlin in 1898.

Döblin was educated at the Gymnasium, Stettin (1888, 1891-1900), where his student days in the anti-Semitic Prussian school system were unhappy. Finally at the age of 22, Döblin passed the high-school exam. Between the years 1900 and 1904, he studied medicine at Berlin University, then at Freiburg University. Though Döblin received a medical degree in 1905, he did not actually practice until 1911. During his student years, Döblin became deeply interested in the philosophy of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. In 1912 he married Erna Reiss, a medical student. The marriage almost broke down under Döblin's affair with the photographer Yolla Niclas in 1921.

Most of Döblin's early literary effots remained unpublished. Between the years 1905 and 19011 he was a journalist in Regensburg and Berlin. Before gaining success as a novelist with Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun (1915), Döblin practised psychiatry in the workers' district of the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. The extensively researched depiction of political upheaval in the late 18th-century China earned Döblin the Fontane Prize. Wang-Lun, the protagonist, is a reformer, martial arts master, and a devotee of non-violent protest. After becoming involved in a bloody uprising during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, he perishes in the face of uncontrollable powers.

Döblin's gained first critical acclaim with his stories in the expressionist magazine Der Sturm. From about 1908 Döblin was active in the avant-garde scene of Berlin and he became one of the founders of Expressionism. Soon, however, he dropped out of the movement, and remained outside literary groups. Döblin's stories published in Der Sturm appeared later in Die Ermordung einer Butterblume (1913). Rather than follow the program of Italian futurism, he insisted that the writer should communicate empirical experience of the world in ways that were immediate to the senses. Presenting himself as the champion of radical anti-subjectivism, he saw that the external world should speak through the written text, and any portion of a text should be viable independently of the rest.

In World War I Döblin served as a medical officer in the German army. During this period he also continued writing. Döblin's historical novel, Wallenstein (1920), set during the Thirty Years' War, was partly written while he was at the front. Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfturbine (1918) and  Berge Meere und Giganten (1924) experimented with the themes of the scientific-technical Zukunftsroman. The latter was a dystopian vision of future, in which the gigantomaniac projects of the technocrats lead to confrontation between man and nature.

After WW I Romanisches Café became in Berlin the main meeting place of such writers as Döblin, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Grosz, Franz Werfel, Ernst Toller, Joseph Roth and Erich Maria Remarque. In 1920 Döblin joined the Schutzverband Deutcher Schriftsteller Association of German Writers. Four years later he was appointed president of the organization. From 1921 to 1924, he was a theatre reviewer for Prager Tageblatt. With his friend Brecht he was a member of a leftist cultural discussion circle called Group 1925.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a montage novel, in which Döblin employs multiple viewpoints to create a nearly documentary view of Berlin. Its interior monologue (in working-class dialect of pre-war Berlin) show the influence of James Joyce. The protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is a pimp. In the beginning Biberkopf, a simple and rude criminal, is released from Berlin's Tegel prison and drawn into the underworld. He falls under the influence of Reinhold, who murders the prostitute Mieze, a stabilizing force in Franz's life. After mental and physical crisis, Franz perhaps understands better the forces inside and outside of himself. The action is confined to a small area centered on Alexanderplatz. Metropolitan environment is presented in the manuscript of the novel by using news items and advertisements from newspapers, soldiers' songs, weather forecasts, election speeches, sex manuals, market reports etc. Sound effects appear from time to time.

In 1928 Döblin was elected to the Prussian Academy of the Arts, but after the Nazi takeover Döblin was obliged to leave Germany due to his political views and Jewish ancestry. He had left the Socialist Party of Germany (the SPD), joining the independent and Communist Social Democrats. Döblin fled after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 with his wife and four children to Switzerland, narrowly escaping the Nazis through the much-used route from southern France to Spain and Portugal. Das Land ohne Tod, set in South America, appeared in 1937-38, came out while he lived in Paris. None of his books written at that time reached a  wider audience.

Fleeing again from the advancing Nazis, Döblin moved to the United States. There he settled in Beverly Hills and worked as a scriptwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer for approximately one year. Döblin participated in the development of six screenplay ideas. Until the contract expired, he earned $100 a week. Mrs Miniver, in which he was involved, won six Academy Awards. Döblin also contributed ideas for Random Harvest, based on James Hilton's bestseller with the same title. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy; Claudine West, George Froeschel, Arthur Wimperis got the writing credits.

At the studios Döblin felt himself humiliated. "The people here don't need our stories, they already have vaults full of them", he said. "I do not believe one can at the same time serve Louis B. Meyer and one's own work." (Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America by Jean-Michel Palmier, 2006, p. 513) In 1941 Döblin converted to Roman Catholicism and later acknowledged the influence of Kierkegaard and Spinoza, whom he considered his great philosophical and moral master.

Already in 1939 Döblin had started to work on the multi-volume novel, November 1918, an account of Germany's failed revolution. The tetralogy was not completed until 1950. Only an episode, Nocturno, was published in Los Angeles during Döblin's exile in the United States. Döblin himself called the work an "Erzählswerk", not a novel, because it was based on historical documents and mixed fictional and real life characters, such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The first volume appeared in Holland in 1939, the second, third, and fourth volumes were published between 1948 and 1950. For a period, November 1918 did not attract a wide circle of readers, but found a new audience after it was reissued in paperback in 1978. Of the assassination of Liebknecht and Luxemburg Hans Mayer said in Der Spiegel, that "Größeres hat Döblin nicht geschrieben".

Döblin returned to Europe in 1945 as a member of the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs, noting that people walked "down the street and past the dreadful ruins as if nothing had happened". Döblin served in Baden-Baden, Germany, as an education officer and published the magazine Das goldene Tor from 1946 to 1951. In 1949 he was a co-founder and vice-president of the literary section of Academy for Science and Literature in Mainz. Disappointed in the political development of his native country, Döblin settled in Paris in the early 1950s - he had obtained French citizenship in 1936. In 1956 he entered a sanatorium at Freiburg in Breisgau. Before his death Döblin was for many years almost totally paralyzed. He died on June 26, 1957, at Emmendingen. Wolfgang Döblin (1915-1940), the author's son, was a highly talented mathematician. He joined the French army after obtaining in 1938 his doctor's degree from the Sorbonne. Upon being captured in Housseras by the German's, he committed suicide.

Döblin's last novel, Hamlet (1956), was an expression of his hope for a new Europe and reflected the author's Catholic faith. The work, which was brought out in East Germany, combined a family history with Jungian therapy sessions, and used allusions to Greek myths, medieval troubadour poetry, and other sources.

In 'Der historische Roman und Wir' (1936) Döblin stated that the historical novel is the present-day form of fairy tale - every novel is actually a historical novel. In a speech in 1950 he expressed his low opinion of the influence of writers on society: "No tragedy can change anything; no poem changes anything." Döblin considered creation purely an anti-intellectual process - art is individual, anarchistic, but accumulation of facts and details is also important to the modern epic. He attacked in his literary theories one-dimensional linear plots and dismissed character as nonessential. In an article about Joyce's Ulysses (1928), he notes that the book cannot appeal to the masses, who still live in the old flat world of fabulation. Döblin's concept of the novel as a free genre had a deep influence on Brecht. Also the Nobel writer Günter Grass has acknowledged a debt to Döblin.

For further reading: Dimensions of the Modern Novel by Theodore Ziolkowski (1969); Bibliographie Alfred Döblin by Leo Kreutzer (1970); Alfred Döblin by Louis Huget (1972); Alfred Döblin by Klaus Müller-Salget (1972); Alfred Döblin by Wolfgang Kort (1974); Materialen zu Alfred Döblins 'Berlin Alexanderplatz', ed. by Matthias Prangel (1975); Alfred Döblin in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten by K. Schröter (1978)); Döblins Montageroman als Epos der Moderne by Otto Keller (1980); Literarische Trauerarbeit: Das Exil- und Späterwerk Alfred Döblins by Helmuth Kiesel (1986); Alfred Döblin by Matthias Prangel (1987); The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin by D.B. Dollenmayer (1988); Vier Pole Expressionistischer Prosa by Joseph L. Brockington (1988); Ars militans. Alfred Döblinin poliittinen kritiikki 1910-1929 by Pekka Vartiainen (1992); 'Asiallinen murha. Alfred Döblinin Die beiden Freundinnen und ihr Giftmord (1924)' by Pekka Vartiainen in Murhaava miljöö, ed. by Johanna Matero and Hannu K. Riikonen (1994); The Critical Reception of Alfred Döblin's Major Novels by Wulf Köpke (2003); A Companion to the Works of Alfred Döblin, ed. by Roland Dollenmayer, Wulf Koepke and Heidim Thomann (2003); Alfred Döblin: eine Biographie by Wilfried F. Schoeller (2011);Montage as Perceptual Experience: Berlin Alexanderplatz from Döblin to Fassbinder by Mario Slugan (2017; Döblins Berlin: literarische Schauplätze by Michael Bienert (2017)

Selected works:

  • Lydia und Mäxchen, 1906
  • Die Ermordung einer Butterblume und andere Erzählungen, 1913
    - Erään rentukan murha ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Marja Wich, 2014)
  • Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun: chinesischer Roma, 1917
    - The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun (translated with an introduction by C.D. Godwin, 1991)
  • Die Lobensteiner reisen nach Böhmen, 1917
  • Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfturbine, 1918
  • Der Schwarze Vorhang, 1919
  • Wallenstein, 1920 (2 vols.)
  • Der deutsche Maskenball, 1923 (under the pseud. Linke Poot)
  • Die Nonnen von Kemnade: Schauspiel in Vier Akten, 1923
  •  Berge Meere und Giganten, 1924 (simplified version published as Giganten. Ein Abenteuerbuch, 1932)
  • Die beiden Freundinnen und ihr Giftmord, 1925
  • Feldzeugmeister Cratz. Der Kaplan. Zwei Erzählungen, 1926
  • Reise in Polen, 1926
    - Journey to Poland (translated by Joachim Neugroschel; edited by Heinz Graber, 1991)
  • Das Ich über der Natur, 1927
  • Manas: epische Dichtung, 1927
  • Alfred Döblin: Im Buch - Zu Haus - Auf der Straße, 1928
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, die geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf, 1929
    - Alexanderplatz, Berlin, the Story of Franz Biberkopf (translated by Eugene Jolas, 1931; Anne Thompson, 2014)
    - Berlin Alexanderplatz: Kertomus Franz Biberkopfista (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1979)
    - films: 1931: Berlin-Alexanderplatz, dir. by Piel Jutzi, starring Heinrich George, Maria Bard, Gerhard Bienert, Bernhard Minetti; 1980: 15 hour, 13-part TV presentation, dir. by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; 2020: Berlin Alexanderplatz, dir. by Burhan Qurbani, starring Welket Bungue (Francis B), Albrecht Schuch (Reinhold), Martin Wuttke, Jella Haase (Mieze). Burhan Qurbani's film modernizes the story: Franz Biberkopf is now a Guinea Bissau refugee, named Francis B. "Don't you call me a refugee," he says in a scene. "I'm a German."
  • Die Ehe: drei Szenen und ein Vorspiel, 1930
  • Wissen und Verändern. Offene Briefe an einen jungen Menschen, 1931
  • Die deutsche literatur (im Ausland seit 1933), 1933
  • Jüdische Erneuerung, 1933
  • Unser Dasein, 1933
  • Babylonische Wandrung, 1934
  • Flucht und Sammlung des Judenvolkes: aufsätze und erzählungen, 1935
  • Pardon wird nicht gegeben, 1935 (4 vols.)
    - Men Without Mercy (translated by Trevor and Phyllis Blewitt, 1937)
  • Die Fahrt ins Land ohne Tod, 1937 (first part of Amazonas)
  • Der blaue Tiger, 1938 (second part of Amazonas)
  • November 1918, 1939-50 (tetralogy: Bürger und Soldaten 1918, 1939; Verratenes Volk, 1948; Heimkehr der Fronttruppen, 1949)
    - A People Betrayed (translated by John E. Woods, 1983); Karl and Rosa (translated by John E. Woods, 1983)
  • Living Thoughts of Confucius, Presented by Alfred Doeblin, 1940 (published by Longmans, Green and co.).
  • Nocturno, 1944 (episode from November 1918; Los Angeles, Pazifische Presse)
  • Der unsterbliche Mensch, 1946
  • Sieger und Besiegte, eine Wahre Geschichte, 1946
  • Der Oberst und der Dichter:  oder, Das menschliche Herz, 1946
  • Heitere Magie: Zwei Erzählungen, 1948
  • Unsere Sorge der Mensch, 1948
  • Der neue Urwald, 1948
  • Schicksalsreise: Bericht und Bekenntnis, 1949
    - Destiny's Journey (edited by Edgar Passler, translated by Edna McCown, 1992)
  • Minotaurus; Dichtung unter den Hufen von Staat und Industrie, 1953
  • Hamlet oder Die lange Nacht nimmt ein Ende, 1956
    - Tales of a Long Night (translated by Robert and Rita Kimber, 1984)
  • Die Zeitlupe - Kleine Prosa, 1962
  • Aufsätze zur Literatur, 1963
  • Märchen vom Materialismus : Erzählung, 1966 (afterword by  Hans Daiber)
  • Briefe, 1970-2001 (2 vols., edited by Walter Muschg and Heinz Graber)
  • Gesammelte Erzählungen, 1971
  • Schriften zur Politik und Gesellschaft, 1972
  • Griffe ins Leben: Berliner Theaterberichte 1921-1924, 1974 (edited by Manfred Beyer)
  • Ein Kerl muss eine Meinung haben: Berichte und Kritiken 1921-1924, 1976
  • Autobiographische Schriften und letzte Aufzeichnungen, 1977 (edited by Edgar Pässler)
  • Erzählungen aus fünf Jahrzehnten, 1977 (edited by Edgar Pässler)
  • Gespräche mit Kalypso: über die Musik, 1980
  • Das Alfred Döblin Lesebuch, 1985 (edited by Wolfgang Minaty)
  • Schriften zu Leben und Werk, 1986
  • Schriften zu Ästhetik, Poetik und Literatur, 1989
  • Berlin-Alexanderplatz: Drehbuch von Alfred Döblin und Hans Wilhelm zu Phil Jutzis Film von 1931, 1996 (introduction by Fritz Rudolf Fries)
  • Die Ermordung einer Butterblume: sämtliche Erzählungen, 2001 (edited by Christina Althen)
  • Bright Magic: Stories, 2016 (selected and translated from the German by Damion Searls; introduction by Günter Grass)

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