Alfred Döblin Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alfred Döblin (DEW-bleen), one of the most important novelists and essayists of the German expressionist movement, was born in the region of Pomerania, in the newly created German empire, in 1878. Although his parents, Max and Sophie Freudenheim Döblin, were both Jewish, they came from different backgrounds and had incompatible dispositions. After years of an unhappy marriage, Max Döblin abandoned his wife and five children. In 1888 Sophie Döblin moved her family to Alexanderplatz, a working-class district of Berlin that Alfred Döblin later made famous. He considered this family crisis to be the turning point in his life.{$S[A]Poot, Linke;Döblin, Alfred}

In 1891, Döblin enrolled in the Köllnisches Gymnasium and began writing seriously, but he concealed his work—including his first short novel, Jagende Rosse (galloping horses), completed in 1900 but not published during his lifetime—under pseudonyms. He studied medicine and philosophy at the universities of Berlin and Freiburg, then opened a medical practice in 1911 in Berlin. In 1912 he married a medical student, Erna Reiss, with whom he had four sons. While establishing his medical career, Döblin cofounded the expressionist literary journal Der Sturm (the storm) and published his first epic novel, Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun (the three leaps of Wang-lun), in 1915.

During World War I Döblin served as a physician with the German army and completed his historical epic, Wallenstein. In 1918 he published Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfturbine (Wadzek’s battle with the steam turbine), a novel about a typical expressionist subject, humanity’s struggle against the machine. By the war’s end, he had begun to moderate his uncritical nationalism and supported the new German Republic enthusiastically. Nevertheless, Döblin exhibited a cynical attitude toward politics in satirical essays published under the pen name Linke Poot (left paw) and collected in a volume titled Der deutsche Maskenball (the German masquerade ball). In 1924 he completed his futuristic novel Berge, Meere, und Giganten (mountains, seas, and giants).

In 1929 Döblin published his masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz. In it he applied techniques such as free association and stream-of-consciousness narration, along with interior monologue and Berlin slang, to develop a montage in which the usual linear development of a novel is encased in a whirl of simultaneous activity. These techniques effectively dramatized the overwhelming power of the collective forces of technological society. In 1931 Döblin wrote his most important political essay, Wissen und Verändern! (to know and change!), which challenged Germans to reject class struggle and cooperate in forming a better society.

With Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany in 1933, Döblin’s position as left-wing intellectual of Jewish descent became both dangerous and exposed. His works were among those burned in public by the National Socialists in the literary auto-da-fé of May 10, 1933. Therefore he emigrated, first to Switzerland and then to France, where he wrote two studies on the plight of the Jews and became a French citizen. His first work written in exile, the pessimistic Men Without Mercy, is his novel with the most traditional structure. In it he argued that political and social oppression is linked to oppression within the family and that revolution is a possible means of liberation in both realms.

Döblin’s harrowing escape from France after the German invasion of 1940 led to a complete nervous breakdown. After emigrating to the United States he converted to Roman Catholicism. When the war ended, he returned to Germany as a member of the French occupation forces. There he published an important multivolume novel depicting the German revolution, November 1918. Unable to adjust to postwar Germany, he returned to Paris in 1953. Döblin’s last major novel, Tales of a Long Night , was published in 1956. Declining health forced Döblin to enter a sanatorium in the...

(The entire section is 1,958 words.)