What are life paradoxes that nobody talks about

Unknown classic - A mammoth work as clearing work

When Günter Grass wrote about his teacher Alfred Döblin at the end of the sixties, his admiration was for a stranger. Much has changed since then. Almost everything has been reprinted, Germanists all over the world bend over Döblin's work, the community is organized in a functioning literary society, the huge estate is well organized and generally accessible in the German Literature Archive in Marbach. But only a few are familiar with his work. The man is still good for any surprise.

This monumental writing existence was ruler over I and He, over the first and the third person, ruler of immense masses of material, narrator, inventor also of rarely played plays, of film scripts and radio plays, travelogues, religious conversations, wisdom tracts and a music philosophy. Last but not least, Alfred Döblin was a passionate Berliner. With him, the "kilometer eater of paper, liter eater of ink", as he ironically ironized, one is not safe from being overwhelmed. Proteus Döblin is one of the most cumbersome modern classics and has not become more common due to the interpretation work of the Germanic armies.

Who could have an overview of what is on the market in around forty individual books? The publishers Patmos and dtv promise a “new”, “critical” Döblin edition under the editor Christina Althen. So far she has published two volumes of short stories as well as a volume with personal testimonies to life and work. Now follows, on the 50th anniversary of his death on June 26, 2007, a new edition of Döblin's Chinese novel “The three leaps of Wang-lun”.

Trapped in sheer paradoxes of life

Döblin was a titan who covered huge spaces: modern technology and China of the 18th century, Amazonia with the Indians and the Jesuits at Paraná (in four volumes) and several centuries of future, the Thirty Years War, the revolution of 1918 (in four volumes) and the Odyssey of a fallen god. Amongst other things. With him the forced paradoxes of life pile up. He only wanted to be at home in Berlin, about which he wrote his most famous novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and had to flee from the Nazis to France and the USA. As an early returnee, he wanted to help in 1945 and was avoided as an exile. It hung on the ego with a thousand threads and saw it shattered by the collectives. He spent his life searching for the right God and used up a philosophy for almost every one of his novels. He eventually professed Christianity and yet saw nothing comforting on the horizon.

Döblin experienced three trauma in his youth in Stettin in 1878: fatherlessness, poverty and the Prussian school. Alfred Döblin was ten when his father ran away to America with a very young tailor's maid, ruining the family. Moved to the east of Berlin, the mother and her five children lead a begging existence by the grace of relatives. He spat on the school floor when he finally graduated from high school at the age of 22; Doblin wanted to expressly put this on record long afterwards. Even the high school graduate had a novel in his pocket, sent it under a pseudonym to the critic Fritz Mauthner out of shame and did not get the manuscript back at the post office because he had no ID for the assumed name. He rewrote the manuscript. That was the first evidence of his incredible literary impulsiveness and dynamism.

In 1905 Döblin received his doctorate in medicine - with a (technically lousy, but literarily informative) thesis on memory disorders. Then he hired himself out in asylums. He drew some added value from the anamnesis of the schizophrenics: In his stories, published since 1908, the disintegration of perception, the splitting of the subject, the ego into pieces is tested.
In 1911, Dr. Döblin opened a medical practice as an internist and neurologist. A love story with the nurse Frieda Kunke, to whom he had a child, came to an end after an objection from the family: This friend was obviously not welcome, as she was not Jewish. In 1912 he married the medical student Erna Reiss: She was Jewish and from a wealthy family.

It's about the rebirth of the novel

Döblin celebrated Italian futurism, which in turn praised technology and gave Herwarth Walden space for his manifestos in his magazine “Der Sturm”. A short time later he repudiated Marinetti and proclaimed his "Döblinismus". It was about cinema style and the fanaticism of self-renunciation, about the rebirth of the novel. Basically, Alfred Döblin reborn the novel for life and tore it out of the crisis diagnosed by critics: out of the grip of psychoanalysis, the political claims as an organ of world improvement, out of education, the deterioration of the milieu, the lameness of bourgeois irony, the last reserves of educational history.

The test of the cinematographic imagination, of the epic word film, was the novel "The Three Jumps of Wang Lun", a program of devotion: to expressionist modernity, to the rhythm of the street, to anonymous fate. Doblin had eaten his way through a tangle of non-fiction books about China, sorted the rubble into details and dreamed of the exotic faraway places of the 18th century. Through the linguistically powerful Chinoiserie he sent a rebel: Wang-lun, rebel in the name of pacifism. This first large book of Doblin is a mighty song of revolt and surrender.

In the twenties Döblin immersed himself in the mysticism of nature, placed himself as an ingenious mocker and polemicist under the pseudonym "Left Poot", opted politically for a time (at least 1918) "blood red to ultra-violet", dealt with Indian mythology in an epic verse, put himself in a future that ran ahead into the 27th century. In this energetic mess that mocks an orderly literary career, he himself appears almost only as the hand that records.

Forty years later he will confess that he did not have his novels, but that they wrote him. The books wrote themselves, as it were. They came up with the techniques of montage, quotation, sentence fragmentation, with the onomatopoeia of the screaming everyday life and with the murmur of myths, they owed themselves to an advanced sense of construction and yet looked as if they were born out of intoxication and linguistic degeneration, involuntary fantasy and obsessive flood of images. The self-creation in writing, out of father's pain, poverty, hostile Judaism, civil coercion, was more triumphant than that of Thomas Mann, at least more eruptive, more violent, the constant experiment of a rebellion of the imagination. Döblin's story includes the fact that Herbert Jhering proposed him for the Nobel Prize in 1929 - and that his antipode, Thomas Mann, received it.

A good biographer should also be a novelist

When the two-volume Wallenstein appeared in 1920, Döblin's work, which had been written to date, would have been enough to secure a place for him in German literary history. The life history knowledge about him would have been inadequate, however, and that changed little in the further course. Most biographers describe his life on the side, on the way of introducing his work. No biographer has so far compiled the dramas of his existence and made them legible. His mother lingers on Parkinson's for ten years; from this disease he will die himself. The only sister is killed by shrapnel in street fights. The oldest brother who is most capable of living commits suicide. Family members are killed in Auschwitz.

There is little talk of such catastrophes, which affected Döblin, but of which he hardly made a fuss, in the new biography of Oliver Bernhardt. The book by the Heidelberg lecturer is reliably structured according to life stations and ranks them


to each other, but it shows no further ambition. A passionate biographer, on the other hand, would have to link several life novels with one another, would have to jump back and forth between literature and life, would have to visualize a man in eternal revolt who is tied to his century by a thousand threads, would have to assume the role of a novelist for himself. Döblin is different from his antipode, Thomas Mann, who was gifted for the representative role and to whom every lack of brightness appeared to be a threat to his height of existence; also different from Brecht, who spoke of "attempts" when he modeled himself into a classic.

Döblin notoriously surprised its audience with new approaches - and with it probably overwhelmed. On the one hand, he presented himself as a mocking atheist, on the other hand, he was and remained a God-seeker and religious tester. He was a believer all his life, only the religion changed with almost every novel: Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, progress, modernity and technology, Taoism, socialism, natural mysticism, a small excursion into Judaism, Catholicism are all part of it.

"Berlin Alexanderplatz" - the brilliant hit

And then, in 1929, the big city novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz. The story of Franz Biberkopf ». Someone who has struck and who has been beaten comes out of prison with the intention of "being decent". The transport worker Franz Biberkopf will not succeed in this because, as the novel says: "Cursed is the person who relies on people." His battleground is the big city of Berlin with its noises and smells, its tangle of people, the streets, nooks and crannies and pubs; with advertising and jazz rhythms, the beer haze of the pubs, the traders, whores, babblers and everyday philosophers; with its various snippets of language from the unadulterated Berlinerisch to the high pitched biblical tone. The big city as a novel film - with this book event, all of his other works before and after were overshadowed.

On the day after the Reichstag fire, Alfred Döblin finally responded to a warning that may have come indirectly from his illegitimate son, Bodo Kunke, who worked in the police force; he boarded the train that was to take him to the Swiss border. A writer on the run from the Nazis, the well-known story. But who knows exactly? For Döblin, exile - first in Zurich, then in Paris, and since 1940 in the USA - meant the annihilation of bourgeois existence. As a doctor, he was no longer allowed to practice. His books were now published in small editions by the Amsterdam Querido publishing house. But first of all, exile meant for him, above all, new beginnings, risk and a new beginning. In the burlesque novel "Babylonian Migration or Arrogance Comes Before the Fall", he downright mocked the fate of exile.

In Paris, Doblin took part in a "League for Jewish Colonization", discovered his Judaism for a short time - and then forgot it again; even Hitler could not make him a Zionist. He remained the mocking, bitterly commentary onlooker of all ideologies. In 1935 a small Berlin novel “Pardon is not given” was published, after which Döblin buried himself in atlases and ethnographic works about South America: “Now the Amazon River. I immersed myself in his character, this miraculous being, river sea, a primeval thing. Its banks, the animals and people belonged to him. One thing led to the other. I read about the indigenous people, got into their history, and read how the whites invaded here. Where did I get to? The old song again, anthemic celebration of nature, prize for the wonders and glories of this world? So again a dead end? "

The tragedy of the son Wolfgang Döblin

The emigrant Döblin could not complain about a lack of productivity. After the “Amazonas” trilogy, he began his four volumes on “November 1918”. The writing continued well into American exile. In 1936 the family was naturalized in France. After the outbreak of war, Döblin joined the information ministry headed by Jean Giraudoux and wrote propaganda articles against the Nazis. On June 10, 1940, he fled the advancing German army with his office from Paris to the unoccupied area in the south. An odyssey through the province.

Later he will write a report about these escapes as well as about the confusion of the stay in America and the futility of returning to Germany. He gives this book the title «Journey of Destiny». Persecuted by the German occupiers without knowing exactly where his is
Family found, Döblin had a revival experience. In the Gothic cathedral in the small town of Mende, he fought for the unknown, strange god who was nailed to a crucifix and hung on the wall.

Meanwhile, a terrible act took place in the Vosges village of Housseras. In the early morning of June 21, 1940, the day before the armistice was signed, Döblin's son Wolfgang shot himself. Shortly before the arrival of the German troops, the French soldier and doctor of mathematics, scattered by his unit, had put an end to his life in a peasant barn: out of fear or pride, who knows, falling into the hands of his victorious ex-compatriots and end up in a concentration camp. The parents did not find out about this for years on their odyssey. Until March 1945 they remained without any news about this dead person.

But while still in America, his father began a novel that focuses on a damaged returnees. "Hamlet or The Long Night Comes to an End" is the epic lament of a broken family; the longing fantasy of the returning son Wolfgang forms the secret trace of this book. The first sentence is like calling out a wish: "He was brought back" - a great magic of hope for healing unfolds in this novel when read against the foil of the loss that has struck the family.

The censor's novel fell into censorship

Doblin only had monosyllables to report about his exile in California. It was the stage of radical neglect: "As for my résumé for America, I have been a zero here for the entire five years and have stayed that way." He returned to Europe as quickly as possible in 1945. On November 9th, he crossed the German border in French uniform. At the age of almost seventy, he threw himself into cultural reconstruction. The French occupation authorities had appointed him as an appraiser for the printing approval of books, so he was a censor in the service of the good cause, gave lectures and, as Vice President of the Mainz Academy, tied cultural-political threads to colleagues in the Soviet-occupied zone and then in the GDR. He published a magazine, "Das goldene Tor", which saw itself as a collection of lost German literature and also wanted to present the classical legacy. Of all people, the occupation authorities refused his license to publish «November 1918». And he himself often got into a mental conflict: he was unable to defuse the paradox of appearing as an occupation officer but speaking to Germans as a German.

His attempts to achieve sales success with his extensive works in exile in Germany failed in every respect. The conversion to Catholicism, kept secret for a long time so as not to offend socialist or Jewish fellow exiles, became apparent in books such as "The Immortal Man" by 1946 at the latest. With this Döblin had thwarted his own plan, which mainly relied on the republication of his earlier books and based on his independent socialism from yesteryear. The ten volumes of exiled novels could have been published on this basis.

Nothing came of it. The writer Alfred Döblin failed after the war not only because of the indifference of his compatriots, because of his long absence, because of the interruption of cultural traditions, because of the West German restoration, but also - because of himself. He had no concept of renewing his own fame, and if he did, he thwarted it himself. His oeuvre was too rich and too ambiguous - a gigantic task that no publisher was up to at the time. The fate that met this author: having written too many books that were too good, so that they now appeared as too heavy a baggage for a literary reintroduction.

"How shamefully I will die"

The turn to Catholicism not only caused astonishment among friends and critics, it appeared as a revision of Döblin's lifelong moral and aesthetic declaration of self-sufficiency. It is difficult to get acquainted with books like "The Immortal Man" at all; a similar work is still unpublished in the estate. The ecclesiastical Imprimatur The Catholic would hardly have received Döblin for it.

In 1953 the writer was struck by his mother's illness: Parkinson's diseasewho have favourited paralysis of the limbs. «The long game is over. From a corner, behind me, the enemy rose and took hold of me. He cut me off from yesterday by taking hold of the body and my materiality in an action of staying power. " In April 1953 Döblin moved away again with his wife: to Paris. There are bitter reasons for this step, especially in letters to Theodor Heuss. And yet he kept returning to Germany for long hospital stays. From May 1955 to February 1957 the patient dictated reflections "On life and death, both of which do not exist". In this there is a different humility than that before the regulating hand of a ruling Bible God.

Finally, he turned back to one of his favorite subjects - the disappearance of the self. In his splendid laconicism he now called the ego "a defilement of thinking". His last claim: that he - "has nothing". What a clearing job: there was no longer any talk of the certainties of faith, of the sure consolation of the religion of salvation. Two more pages of dictation, then a break in the middle of the sentence. In a short autobiography, the poet had given himself an oracle at the end of the First World War: “How shameful I will die, how unworthy of mine everything will be. It doesn't help me that I write and write and write. Because it will be written again. "

Alfred Döblin died on June 26, 1957. The Döblin family's log book of evictions, escapes and despair does not end there: ten weeks later, on September 15, his wife Erna committed suicide in her Paris apartment. The two were buried in the village cemetery of Housseras in the Vosges, with their son Wolfgang. So the three of them are in no man's land. And that won't change in the anniversary year either.


Wilfried F. Schoeller is Secretary General of the German PEN and lives in Berlin. His essay volumes “Germany on site. Stories, Myths, Memories ”and“ Writing elsewhere. Jorge Semprun ».

Works by and about Alfred Döblin

Berlin Alexanderplatz. The story of Franz Biberkopf. novel
dtv, Munich 2001. 874 pp., 25 €
The three leaps of Wang-lun. Chinese novel
dtv, Munich 2007. 560 pp., 15 €
Journey of fate. Report and confession
dtv, Munich 1996. 520 pp., € 19.90
Wallenstein. novel
dtv, Munich 2003. 1022 pp., € 24.50
November 1918. A German revolution. Four volumes
dtv, Munich 1995. 2408 pp., € 68
Amazon. Romantic trilogy
dtv, Munich 1991. 944 pp., € 20.35
Mountains, seas and giants. novel
dtv, Munich 2006. 800 pages, € 16.50
Hamlet or The Long Night comes to an end. novel
dtv, Munich 2000. 594 pp., € 13.55

Oliver Bernhardt
Alfred Doblin
dtv, Munich 2007. 192 pp., 10 €