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Döblin was born in Stettin (Szczecin), Province of Pomerania, as the son of a Jewish merchant. His family moved to Berlin in 1888, where Döblin studied medicine, first at the University of Berlin, then at Freiburg University. During his student years, he became interested in German philosophy, especially that of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. After graduating, he worked as a journalist in Regensburg and Berlin, before actually beginning a psychiatric practice in the working class neighborhood of Alexanderplatz.
During this time, he wrote several novels, but none of them were published until 1915, when Die Drei Sprünge des Wang-Lung first appeared, for which he won the Fontane Prize. It tells the story of political upheaval in 18th century China. The English translation "The Three Leaps of Wang Lun", published by the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong in 1991, describes this as "the most sustained and hallucinatory evocation of China as itself that we have in any European language."
He was garnering popularity through several expressionist short stories in the magazine Der Sturm. Eventually he dropped out of the Expressionist Movement, but many of his 'Sturm' stories were published in 1913 in a collection called Die Ermordung einer Butterblume.
During World War I, Döblin served as a doctor with the German Army, but continued his writing. His historical novel, Wallenstein, set during the Thirty Years' War, was written during this period, but not published until 1920. During this time his son the mathematician Wolfgang Doeblin was born (he had two other sons as well).
In 1920 Döblin joined the Association of German Writers (Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller), and in 1924 he became its president. He reviewed plays for the Prager Tageblatt for several years, and was a member of the Group 1925 with Bertolt Brecht. In 1924 he published Berge, Meere und Giganten, a dystopic view of a future in which technology confronts man and nature.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was partly written in colloquial German, written from the viewpoints of many characters and with a narrative style reminiscent of John Dos Passos and James Joyce, it tells the story of a criminal who is drawn deeper and deeper into an underworld he cannot rise out of. Döblin though, denied being familiar with Joyce's Ulysses at this time.
His "Amazonas-trilogie", three novels describing the onslaught of Europeans on the native cultures of South America, was published in exile in 1937. The three parts are Das Land Ohne Tod (The Land without Death), Der Blaue Tiger (The Blue Tiger), and Das Neue Urwald (The New Jungle).
In 1940, aged 62, he was again uprooted by the German invasion of France, and spent arduous months as a refugee in a camp at Le Puy. Eventually reaching the United States, he worked for MGM in Hollywood. In 1941, Döblin converted to Roman Catholicism, citing Søren Kierkegaard and Baruch Spinoza as influences.
Döblin returned to Europe in 1945, working for the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs. He returned to Germany, settling in Baden-Baden, where he worked as an education officer and a magazine publisher, but, unhappy with the political environment in his native country, he settled in France.
His outstanding contributions from this period include November 1918, a trilogy of historical novels about the failed revolution in Germany following the First World War, (Vol. 1: Verratenes Volk (A People Betrayed), Vol 2 Heimkehr der Fronttruppen (Return of the Troops), Vol. 3 Karl und Rosa (Karl and Rosa). His last novel, Hamlet, is an expression of his hopes for the future of Europe.
Doeblin's place in 20th century literature
In a 1967 essay, Guenter Grass declared: "Without the Futurist elements of Doeblin's work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable." Yet to the extent Doeblin is known today at all, it is for just one work: Berlin Alexanderplatz, the subject of countless graduate papers and scholarly analyses, and also of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's spellbinding 13-hour TV adaptation of 1980. Modern, well-edited volumes of almost the complete oeuvre have been available in German since the 1980s, indicating the existence of at least some readership; and the Internationale Alfred-Doeblin Kolloquien have been held every two years since the early 1980s. But only a handful of other works of fiction have ever appeared in English translations: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (trans. C. D. Godwin, Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 1991), and the November 1918 trilogy: A People Betrayed (which also includes The Troops Return) and Karl and Rosa (trans. John E. Woods, Fromm International, 1983 and 1987); Tales of a Long Night (trans John E Woods, From International, 1987; and the lesser-known big-city novel Men without Mercy (trans. Trevor and Phyllis Blewitt, Howard Fertig, 1976). Two works of autobiography have also been translated: Destiny's Journey (trans. Edna McCown, Paragon House, 1992), the harrowing account of Doeblin's flight and exile in the 1940s; and the account of his mid-1920s Journey to Poland (trans J. Neugroschel, I. B. Tauris, 1991).
Another of Grass's observations may help to explain this neglect. Doeblin, says Grass in the Akzente essay referenced above, "will discomfort you, give you bad dreams. He's hard to digest. The reader will be changed by him. If you're satisfied with yourself, beware of Doeblin." But the reader who is prepared to take up the challenge can find many treasures.
The publisher's blurb for the Wang Lun epic in English, for example, calls this "the most sustained evocation, in any European language, of a China untouched by the West... Teeming cities and Tibetan wastes, political intrigue and religious yearning, life at Court and the fate of wandering outcasts are depicted in a language of enormous vigour." Doeblin brought the same hallucinatory intensity of imagination and powers of depiction to another setting, South America, in the Amazonas-trilogie (1937). The continuing lack of an English translation of this epic is quite surprising, for the trilogy depicts with tremendous sweep, excitement and pathos the pre-conquest cultures of the Amazon and Andes, episodes of conquest and colonisation, and the doomed efforts of the Jesuits to save at least a fragment of the native population (a topic that may be familiar from the 1986 film The Mission).
Doeblin's early association with the Futurists ended with Wang Lun. "Neither (Herwarth) Walden nor anyone else from the circle of the orthodox said a word about the novel... They developed into pure word-artists. I took another path," wrote Doeblin in the Epilogue to his Autobiographische Schriften (Autobiographical Writings) in 1948. His writings from the 1920s on encompassed a tremendous range, in which he seldom repeated himself: literary theory, film and book reviews, reflections on philosophy and religion, and several epic works of fiction in the most varied styles. These include Berge Meere und Giganten (Mountains Oceans Giants, ), a dystopic science-fiction view of the far future; and Babylonische Wanderung (Babylonian Exile), a comic account of the god Marduk's adventures in 20th century Europe.
- Die Ermordung Einer Butterblume
- Die Drei Sprünge Des Wang-Lun (The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun)
- Wadzeks Kampf Mit Der Dampfturbine
- Der Schwarze Vorhang
- Berge, Meere Und Giganten (Mountains, Seas and Giants)
- Die beiden Freundinnen und ihr Giftmord
- Reise in Polen (Journey To Poland)
- Berlin Alexanderplatz
- Die Ehe
- Unser Dasein
- Babylonische Wandrung (Babylonian Wandering)
- Pardon wird nicht gegeben (Men Without Mercy)
- Amazonas-trilogie (Vol. 1 Das Land ohne Tod, Vol. 2 Der blaue Tiger, Vol. 3 Das neue Urwald)
- November 1918 (Vol 1: Verratenes Volk, Vol. 2 Heimkehr der Fronttruppen, Vol. 3 Karl und Rosa)
- Der unsterbliche Mensch
- Der Oberst und der Dichter
- Schicksalsreise (Destiny's Journey)
- Hamlet, Oder Die Lange Nacht Nimmt Ein Ende (Tales of a Long Night)
- Die Zeitlupe
- Aufsätze zur Literatur
- Alfred Döblin Society (German)
- Collection of links from Berlin university (German)
- Döblin's Berlin novels
- novel Berlin Alexanderplatz
- Döblin in Southern California
- Döblin links at allLearn.com
- Döblin at kirijasto.sci.fi
- First editions of Döblin’s works (Documentation in German)
- Dr. A. W. Riley fonds (Alfred Döblin scholar) at Queen's University Archives
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