Alfred Döblin belongs in the pantheon of great German writers who were born in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, began writing before the First World War, flourished during the Weimar Republic, and went into exile during the Third Reich. Like Kafka, he was a Jew from a lower-middle-class mercantile family. Like the poet Gottfried Benn, he had a parallel career as a practicing physician. Like Thomas Mann, whom he despised, and Bertolt Brecht, whose friend he was, he spent his exile in the exotic refuge of southern California and returned to Europe soon after the war was over. Like the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, he turned to Catholicism late in life under the pressures of exile.
In his life and works, Döblin mirrors the turbulence and fecundity of German letters in the first half of the twentieth century. Before the First World War he had already established himself on the Berlin literary scene with his contributions to the journal Sturm, one of the central organs of German Expressionism. Early stories like "Die Ermordung einer Butterblume" (The Murder of a Buttercup) are masterpieces of Expressionist prose, a genre most Expressionists neglected in favor of poetry and theater. Beginning with Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun (The Three Leaps of Wang-lun), completed just before the First World War, Döblin developed a new style that he called "epic" fiction. During and after the war, he continued to write monumental epics of social upheavals and mass movements.
Like most Berlin writers between the wars, Döblin's political sympathies were left of center. Although he became increasingly disillusioned with party politics and resigned from the Social Democratic Party in 1928, he continued to be an active member of various left-liberal writers' organizations and, after 1928, of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences. His masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, was an immediate best-seller and Döblin's only commercial success. Forced into exile in 1933, he spent bitter years in
Paris and Hollywood, cut off from his German-speaking public and from the Berlin he loved so much. In 1945, largely forgotten in his native country, he returned to Germany as an officer of the French army of occupation. Embittered by his inability to place his works with German publishers and by the conservative restoration he saw developing in West Germany, he emigrated a second time in 1953 and settled in Paris. His last novel was published in East Germany in 1956, the year before his death.
Alfred Döblin's reputation with the reading public, both in his own time and today, rests largely on the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz . "Whenever they mentioned my name," he wrote in 1955, "they added Berlin Alexanderplatz ." It was an especially ironic fate for so prolific a writer, a fate he struggled unsuccessfully to overcome. Unlike Robert Musil and The Man without Qualities, Döblin did not regard Berlin Alexanderplatz as his magnum opus, but rather as one link in a chain of works, each of which he described as growing out of questions left open by its predecessor (BA 506). The open and problematic ending is indeed one of the most striking characteristics of Döblin's works, a reflection of his own discomfort and inability to find satisfactory and conclusive answers to the urgent social and moral questions he raised. For Döblin is a writer with a deep sense of unease both about himself and his place in society and about modern man and society in general. His novels arise from and reflect that unease.
The popularity of Berlin Alexanderplatz is based to some extent on the misconception that it is a document of Berlin in the turbulent, seething twenties. It is that, but it is also much more. The montage technique that informs every page of the novel was immediately recognized as a major formal achievement by critics like Walter Benjamin, and we will see that while the montage does serve a documentary purpose by mounting things like contemporary hit songs and advertisements directly into the fictional text, it also has the more important purpose of suggesting the integration and unity of a reality that at first appears chaotic. In its encompassing of everything from vulgar Schlager to mythological and biblical references, the montage pieces together universal meaning out of the often sordid reality of Berlin in the twenties.
Berlin was for Döblin both his real home and the archetypical metropolis, a microcosm of the entire world. In an early autobiographical sketch he describes himself as a "Berliner with vague notions of other
cities and regions" (ASLA 13). Even after seven years of exile from Germany, in a letter of 1940, his pen slipped, writing "Berlin" when he meant "Paris" (Briefe 240). He never really recovered from being banished from his native soil. Yet for such a confirmed homo urbanus and the author of the most famous city novel in German, there is a curious dualism running through the list of seventeen novels he published during his lifetime. Less than half of them are set in contemporary Berlin. The others range geographically from the jungles of South America to the river valleys of China, and chronologically from the seventeenth to the twenty-seventh century. Döblin himself drew attention to this dualism in his afterword to a 1955 edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz:
How curious: I had spent my whole life in the East End of Berlin, had attended the Berlin public schools, was an active socialist, a public health system doctor—and I wrote about China, about the Thirty Years War and Wallenstein and finally even about a mythic and mystic India. My friends entreated me to write about Berlin. I hadn't turned my back on Berlin on purpose. It just happened that way. I could give freer rein to my imagination that way. All right then, I could do something different. You can also write about Berlin without imitating Zola.
Döblin here suggests two related reasons, one formal and one psychological, for the dualism evident in the settings of his novels. First, he has avoided writing about his contemporary environment because he does not want to be misunderstood as perpetuating the tradition of nineteenth-century naturalism by "imitating Zola." If he eventually came to call his own fictional method—and indeed his worldview—Naturalismus, he meant something quite different from Zola's naturalisme . Döblin, himself a doctor who practiced first psychiatry and then internal medicine, was much more skeptical than Zola had been in the previous, more positivistic generation that science and the scientific method would eventually be able to answer completely all questions about human life and the universe. Even in a quite fiercely "naturalistic" text like the early story "Von der himmlischen Gnade" (On Heavenly Mercy), there are anomalous and jarring narrative intrusions from other, metaphysical and satiric levels that throw naturalism into question. For Döblin, fiction was never a carefully controlled experiment in social reality, but rather an "epic work," chronicling mass movements and social upheavals rather than registering the nuances of individual psyches. The epic work, for instance, scorns the amatory complications that in Döblin's view comprise the plot structure of the
average realistic novel (not that relations between men and women are unimportant in his works; indeed, we will see that the struggle to come to terms with sexuality and women occupies a central place in Döblin's oeuvre). There is also a streak of utopianism in most of Döblin's novels, although the explicit utopias in his works—the society of the future in the science-fiction fantasy Berge Meere und Giganten (Mountains Seas and Giants) and the Paraguayan Jesuit Republic in Amazonas —end in disaster.
Along with his view of the novel as an epic work goes the psychological aspect of Döblin's aesthetic theory and practice. He says in the afterword to Berlin Alexanderplatz quoted above that he had neglected Berlin in order to give his imagination freer rein. Like many other authors, he used the metaphor of pregnancy and birth to describe the creative process. He wrote to Martin Buber in 1915 apropos the novel Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfturbine (Wadzek's Battle with the Steam Turbine), "I never have a conscious intention. I always write completely involuntarily, and that's not just a turn of phrase. This book was written in a single stretch from August to December 1914, and that fact also proves to me that the book has no birth defects: I never make any progress by thinking" (Briefe 80). Döblin here describes his method as almost automatic writing, and although one cannot take him completely at his word in the above passage, his novels do often have the formless, surging incoherence one would expect from such a technique. It was thus that he hoped to confront reality most directly, to divest himself of consciousness and merge with his object: "I am not I, but rather the street, the streetlights, this or that occurrence, nothing more" (AzL 18).
At its best, this technique does indeed set free Döblin's imagination to create visions of extraordinary dynamism and power. At its worst, it results in flabbiness, obscurity, and banal tedium (almost all of Döblin's works could stand some cutting). But it also means that the writer's own subconscious is very near the surface of his text. We will see how certain themes and patterns of action, particularly with regard to sexuality and women, recur obsessively throughout Döblin's long career.
If turning his back on Berlin meant that Döblin could give freer rein to his imagination, then the converse is also true, that writing about the contemporary metropolis imposed limits on his imaginative hypertrophy. The monstrous biological fantasies of Mountains Seas and
Giants present the most extreme example of Döblin's unbridled imagination, while the 1935 city novel Pardon wird nicht gegeben (Men without Mercy) is his most austere, controlled work, his closest approach to a traditional novel.
There was thus a life-long tension in Alfred Döblin the novelist between his tropically fertile imagination and the cold exigencies of the social and political reality in which he lived. Of course, no literary work is written in a temporal and social vacuum, and even the novels Döblin set in distant times and exotic places implicitly refer to the society in which they were written. In fact, both The Three Leaps of Wang-lun and Mountains Seas and Giants (1924) have dedicatory prefaces in which the narrator speaks from his contemporary urban environment before launching his story. Nevertheless, it is in what I will call the "Berlin novels" that Döblin's concern with contemporary society is most explicitly evident. It is in them that the dilemma that underlies all his works, the struggle between the contradictory impulses of passive acceptance of fate and active resistance to oppression, is directly related to the crises of urban and industrialized Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. In describing how he came to write the mammoth tetralogy of the German revolution, November 1918, Döblin clearly expresses the opposition between the two sorts of novel he wrote: "After satisfying my thirst for adventure in the South America book, I returned to my native shores. I thought of Berlin, the distant city, and began to examine in my mind how everything had come about, as I had in 1934 in Men without Mercy " (AzL 394).
The theme of Berlin, with its explicit concern for contemporary society, is present in Döblin's earliest surviving work and recurs throughout his oeuvre. The social and political questions it raises became more and more urgent during the course of the Weimar Republic. Berlin Alexanderplatz is surely the most perfect expression of the city theme and Döblin's greatest achievement as a novelist. It is a city novel of the stature of Joyce's Ulysses and Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer . But his other Berlin novels also deserve our attention, not only because they help us understand the achievement of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but for their own sake. They are engaging, disturbing works of a great and unique prose stylist, and at the same time documents of the dilemma of a progressive writer caught between the ideological fronts that would tear the Weimar Republic apart.
Döblin was a constant experimenter with form, and his four Berlin
novels are distinctly, even radically different from each other. They chart both Döblin's social concern and the development of the formal means to express that concern in fiction. His first Berlin novel, Wadzek's Battle with the Steam Turbine (written 1914), despite its provocatively Futuristic title, is a difficult, introverted, darkly comic work with a narrative focus that never allows the reader any distance from the psychotic viewpoint of its hero, the industrialist and engineer Franz Wadzek. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, written thirteen years later, the narrator establishes an ironic distance from his narrative. He is now a monteur who relativizes and universalizes the story of Franz Biberkopf by surrounding it with fragments from other lives and other levels of reality. In Wadzek, Berlin remains a shadowy background for the psychotic drama of the central figure. In Berlin Alexanderplatz it becomes itself a central figure of the novel and a microcosmic reflection of a universal order.
But the cautious optimism evident at the end of Berlin Alexanderplatz —the hope for a positive synthesis of individual and collective—was shattered in 1933. The ambiguous provenance of the marching feet that end Döblin's greatest novel was soon to be resolved as fascist reality. In the two Berlin novels Döblin wrote in exile, there is a definite shift of intention in reaction to the disastrous end of the Weimar Republic. Döblin is more overtly concerned with social and political questions, more sharply, pessimistically focused on the relation between the individual and society, more solicitous of understanding from his readers. Men without Mercy, the first novel he wrote in exile, is remarkably economical in length and conventional in technique compared to his other works. Later in life, he would depreciate his work on it as "skirmishing around in a little Berlin novel" (AzL 392), but in fact it is his most conscious attempt to explore the interconnections between familial and social oppression and to espouse liberation in both realms. It is also the first Berlin novel in which he focuses on revolution as a possible means to that end. Revolution then becomes a central theme of Döblin's final Berlin novel, the tetralogy November 1918 (1939–1950). It is a gigantic work of multiple narrative strands in which the narrator chronicles the failure of the German revolution in many voices, satirizing its ineptitude, mourning its murdered idealists, scourging its enemies and betrayers. What sets it apart from Döblin's other Berlin novels is the Christian faith of both its central character, Friedrich Becker, and its narrator, a faith that reflects
Döblin's own religious crisis and conversion during the long and discontinuous composition of the novel. We will see what the implications of that conversion are for the central opposition in Döblin's thought between passive acceptance and active resistance. We will also see how the obsessively recurring and problematic image of women in Döblin's works culminates in November 1918 in his fictionalization of the historic Rosa Luxemburg.
Of all his contemporaries in the vibrant literary culture of the Weimar Republic, Döblin is perhaps the most difficult to summarize. He was tremendously prolific and stylistically uneven. Some of his novels are so different from each other as to seem the products of two completely different writers. The present study does not pretend to do justice to his entire work. Its intention is to see Döblin in the longitudinal perspective of his Berlin novels; to demonstrate how they use the urban milieu as a common focal point for the personal, the political, and the sexual; and to learn what they have to tell us about the possibilities of a progressive German novelist in the catastrophic first half of our century.