The Critical Reception of Alfred Döblin's Major Novels

The Critical Reception of Alfred Döblin's Major Novels

Wulf Koepke
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 264
Stable URL:
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Critical Reception of Alfred Döblin's Major Novels
    Book Description:

    Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) is one of the major German writers of the twentieth century. His experimental, ever-changing, avant-garde style kept both readers and critics off guard, and although he won the acclaim of critics and had a clear impact on German writers after the Second World War (Günter Grass called him "my teacher"), he is still largely unknown to the reading public, and under-researched by literary scholars. He was a prolific writer, with thirteen novels alongside a great many other shorter fiction works and non-fiction writings to his credit, and yet, paradoxically, he is known to a larger public as the author of only one book, the 1929 novel 'Berlin Alexanderplatz,' which sold more copies in the first weeks of publication than all his previous novels combined. 'Alexanderplatz' is known for its depiction of the criminal underground of Berlin and a montage and stream-of-consciousness technique comparable to James Joyce's 'Ulysses'; it became one of the best-known big-city novels of the century and has remained Döblin's one enduring popular success. Döblin was forced into exile in 1933, and the works he wrote in exile were neglected by critics for decades. Now epic works like 'Amazonas, November 1918,' and 'Hamlet, Oder die lange Nacht nimmt ein Ende' are finding a fairer critical evaluation. Wulf Koepke tackles the paradox of Döblin the leading but neglected avant-gardist by analysis of contemporary and later criticism, both journalistic and academic, always taking into account the historical context in which it appeared. Wulf Koepke is Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-619-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Major Novels by Alfred Döblin
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    Alfred Döblin was one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. Over a period of fifty years he wrote a dozen novels, in addition to a very large number of other fictional, critical, political, and philosophical texts, and was recognized early on as a major avant-garde writer. He has been compared to James Joyce. And yet, only once in his life did he manage to attract the attention of a large audience and of the majority of literary critics: with his 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. While the (still incomplete) collection of his works now numbers well above thirty volumes,...

  5. Part One: Contemporary Reviews
    • 1: Contemporary Reviews before 1933
      (pp. 5-46)

      An Romanautoren und ihre Kritiker,” Döblin’s commentary on the genre of the novel, written in 1913 after the completion of Wang-lun, was a polemic against what Döblin considered the then-dominant type of the novel, the psychological novel. With the negation of psychology as the central concern, Döblin turned against the predominance of subjectivity and the focus on the fate of individuals. This implied, for him, a break with the form of the novel as it was then understood. Döblin was never comfortable with the word Roman and the idea of fiction, as he valued scientific observation and reality. Schöne Literatur,...

    • 2: Contemporary Reviews after 1933: Döblin in Exile
      (pp. 47-69)

      After the burning of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933, Döblin was warned that his life was in danger. He left for Switzerland and crossed the border on 2 March 1933. After months of hesitation, the family settled in Paris in early September 1933, and stayed in and around the city until the German offensive of May 1940. In October 1936 the family obtained French citizenship, due to the special protection it afforded and the fact that Döblin’s sons would be able to do military service. Döblin missed the work in his medical practice, and moreover, he was forced to...

  6. Part Two: Döblin Scholarship
    • 3: Döblin Scholarship: The First Approaches
      (pp. 70-83)

      Döblin’s texts were never unequivocal and easy to grasp; but the often contradictory opinions on his work were also caused by faulty, or at least differing, editions. Döblin’s editors are faced with multiple problems. First and foremost, it is never easy to determine the definitive, final text. If an editor follows the principle of establishing and publishing the text that the author considered final, he is confronted with the fact that Döblin never stopped changing his works, and did not consider any of his texts to be “final.” Döblin wrote his works in longhand, in Gothic script and his hard-to-read...

    • 4: Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun
      (pp. 84-95)

      Wang-lun’s publication in 1915 not only introduced Döblin as a new novelist to a wider audience, but also impressed many of his fellow writers and gave him an immediate standing in the literary community.¹ However, it was later overshadowed by Wallenstein and Berlin Alexanderplatz, so that scholarly attention to Wang-lun was directed predominantly to a few areas: its depiction of the masses; the question of religion, specifically mysticism; the political meaning of “Wu-Wei,” non-violent resistance; and the image and idea of China and the question of exoticism.

      Werner Falk published his article “Der erste moderne deutsche Roman: Die drei Sprünge...

    • 5: Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfturbine
      (pp. 96-103)

      The initial disappointment and bewilderment after the publication of Wadzek has had visible consequences for scholarship. Very few scholars have considered the novel worthy of a special study. Müller-Salget skips it altogether. Among the studies on Döblin and Berlin, David Dollenmayer alone devotes an entire chapter of his book The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin to the text,¹ in addition to his 1983 paper, “Heroismuskritik in einem Frühwerk von Döblin: ‘Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfturbine.’”² In this paper, beginning with the usual statement that Wadzek has caused bewilderment and attracted little scholarly attention, Dollenmayer points out the fact that the...

    • 6: Wallenstein
      (pp. 104-114)

      Döblin’s Wallenstein, written during the First World War and dealing with another catastrophic event, the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48, has always been considered a commentary on war, violence, and possible ways to achieve peace. Above all, it was a historical novel, but one of a very peculiar kind. This is where the emphasis of scholarship has been so far.

      Wolfdietrich Rasch, in his article “Döblins Wallenstein und die Geschichte,” first published in the Festschrift for Döblin’s seventieth birthday,¹ begins with the global statement that Wallenstein is the great historical novel of the postwar period. It is the first...

    • 7: Berge Meere und Giganten
      (pp. 115-122)

      Berge Meere und Giganten, Döblin’s immense vision of future history, impressed his contemporaries when it appeared in 1924, but seems to have embarrassed rather than fascinated academic scholars, who found ways to avoid it. Klaus Müller-Salget has noted that it is almost de rigueur to speak in negative terms about this work; and he mentions Muschg, Martini, and Leo Kreutzer as examples of this.¹ Erwin Kobel, in a book dealing with Döblin’s early short stories and all major novels, even Manas, avoids Berge Meere und Giganten as well as Wadzek.² Ingrid Schuster’s collection of essays of 1980, Zu Alfred Döblin,...

    • 8: Manas
      (pp. 123-125)

      One of the largely unexplained riddles of Döblin’s oeuvre is his attempt to write a verse epic on a topic from ancient Indian mythology at a time when he was closely involved in the political struggles of the Weimar Republic and in the happenings of the literary scene of Berlin. Döblin did not help matters by declaring Manas a mere prelude to Berlin Alexanderplatz. In spite of Robert Musil’s enthusiastic review at the time of its publication, Manas never found an audience, and is rarely seen by critics as a work in itself, but instead only as a transition to...

    • 9: Berlin Alexanderplatz
      (pp. 126-157)

      The year before Döblin published Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, he had been honored widely for his fiftieth birthday, and he was a dominant figure in the Berlin cultural scene, but his publications remained texts for other writers, critics, and the happy few. The public at large knew the man but not his work. Furthermore, his stormy relations with his publisher Samuel Fischer had reached the point of crisis. It was only after much hesitation that Fischer consented to publish one more book by the quarrelsome author who brought in little or no money. Fischer disliked the title Berlin Alexanderplatz and...

    • 10: Babylonische Wandrung
      (pp. 158-164)

      In 1932, amidst the turmoil of the disintegrating Weimar Republic, Döblin had started a novel that would take him far afield, the story of a Babylonian god who finds out that he has been deposed, that no one prays to him anymore, and that Babylon has disappeared. The work might have been a tragedy, but it turned out to be a tragicomedy, with many grotesque scenes and characters. The god Marduk, later called Konrad, goes on an unending trip; thus the title Babylonische Wandrung. The larger part of the book was written in exile in 1933 in Zurich and Paris,...

    • 11: Pardon wird nicht gegeben
      (pp. 165-170)

      Döblin’s first novel written entirely in exile — after the transitional work Babylonische Wandrung, which he began before leaving Germany in 1933 — was Pardon wird nicht gegeben, published in 1935. It is an anomaly in the author’s oeuvre in that it is a well-built novel of modest length with a clear plot, fairly past-paced action, and an emphasis on psychological processes, albeit with a socio-political background. It also has easily discernable autobiographical elements. This has caused some scholars to surmise that this novel was written hurriedly between July and October 1934, under financial pressure, in order to reach the drastically shrunken...

    • 12: Amazonas
      (pp. 171-177)

      Döblin himself described how he immersed himself in the maps of South America and was fascinated by the huge river system of the Amazon. In his trilogy Amazonas, also titled Das Land ohne Tod, Döblin used episodes from the history of the colonization of South America to voice his fundamental critique of modern Western civilization and his call for a return to a life more in keeping with the laws of nature. Amazonas was first published in two volumes in 1937 and 1938, titled Die Fahrt ins Land ohne Tod and Der blaue Tiger, but in his postwar edition of...

    • 13: November 1918
      (pp. 178-203)

      Döblin called November 1918 an “Erzählwerk,” not a novel, since it narrates the events of German history from November 1918 to January 1919 on the basis of documents, and mixes historical and fictional characters. It was to be a trilogy, but the second volume grew to be too long, and Döblin divided it into two parts, thus creating the tetralogy November 1918: Eine deutsche Revolution.¹ Döblin began writing the work at the end of 1937, and the first volume, Bürger und Soldaten 1918, was published in Holland in 1939. The manuscript of the second and third volumes, Verratenes Volk and...

    • 14: Hamlet oder Die lange Nacht nimmt ein Ende
      (pp. 204-213)

      Döblin’s last novel Hamlet oder Die lange Nacht nimmt ein Ende was written during the transition from American exile to his return to Germany. The action is centered around Edward, a seriously wounded and mutilated British soldier, returning to his family in England and his attempts to begin a new life. It is, on the surface of it, a Heimkehrerroman, as they were written in large numbers after both world wars. In reality, Döblin aims at something very different, but the theme of the return home should not be forgotten.

      Döblin brought the unfinished manuscript with him when he arrived...

    • 15: Döblin’s Impact on Other Writers
      (pp. 214-217)

      Döblin the writer is known to be avant-garde, unconventional, ever changing, and multi-faceted. How could he possibly serve as a model, as a “master” for younger generations of writers? He did serve this purpose, but relatively little attention has been paid to his impact. Günter Grass did much to change the idea of Döblin as unsuccessful with his 1967 speech, “Über meinen Lehrer Döblin.” Yet little has been done since then to follow it up. What Matthias Prangel stated in 1987 — “[Es] ist noch beinahe ungeklärt, welche Bedeutung Döblin seinerseits für Zeitgenossen und Nachgeborene hatte und hat”¹ — has not lost...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 218-222)

    There are two “schools” among Döblin scholars; one of them calls him a “Proteus” and emphasizes the changes in his views and in the nature of his texts. The second maintains that, in spite of these undeniable changes, he always remained the same. This is only the first indication how varied the views on Döblin and his oeuvre have been. From the first reviewers to the most recent scholars, hardly anyone writing on Döblin remains neutral. As he himself liked debates and controversy, his texts still elicit a partisan response, pro or con. He still causes emotional reactions with his...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-236)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 250-250)