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Happy 140th, Doctor Döblin!

Born 140 years ago today into a Germany newly unified under militaristic Prussia, Alfred Döblin lived through eight turbulent decades. We send birthday greetings, noting some of the milestones of a literary career that did not end in 1957.

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You were born 140 years ago, on 10 August 1878, just a few years after the founding of the German Empire – the first unitary German nation-state. Who could foresee how that world-political event would work out, and affect your next eight decades?

A hundred years ago, in August 1918, amid the barbarous misery of the First World War, you were deep in the writing of your second great epic novel: Wallenstein, which would bring to vivid life the follies and barbarism of the Thirty Years War three centuries earlier. How little had humankind learned!

Ninety years ago, in 1928, you were admitted into the Literature section of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, alongside Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Oscar Loerke, and other literary luminaries of Left and Right. This was a year before your one best-selling international success appeared: Berlin Alexanderplatz, which ever since has overshadowed all your other works. (But Wang Lun, Wallenstein, the Giants book, the wonderful and neglected Manas, not to mention your political polemics and reflections on the writer’s craft, were more than enough to justify your admission to the Parnassian heights of the Academy.)

Eighty years ago, in exile in Paris in 1938, you had just published your South American epics, now known under the covering title Amazonas. Deprived by tyranny of almost all your German-reading base, you nevertheless persevered to provide an engrossing work of historical fiction which is also a thought-provoking critique of what Europe has wrought on the world over half a millennium.

Fifty years ago, in 1968, a decade after you left this earth, the first uniform edition of your works was well advanced under the editorship of Walter Muschg. (Not all of Muschg’s editorial decisions have fared well in the eyes of later scholarship.)

Thirty years ago, by 1988, serious scholars in Germany were coming to grips with your extensive oeuvre, for example collecting your many scattered essays and journalistic pieces, and writing sometimes controversial overviews. (On a personal note, 1988 is the year I discovered Wang Lun, and decided to try my hand at translating it.)

This year, 2018, your 140th anniversary, has seen a new English translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the launch of this website, dedicated to bringing your other works to the attention of the English-reading world.

Dear Doctor Döblin: the Muse (or Demon, or celestial Power) that drove you to devote such extraordinary energy and imagination to the creation of word-worlds never had as its first aim the accumulation of ‘fame’ and ‘fortune’. But it did at least need attentive readers. Your works, it is true, make demands on the reader (especially in this new age of the ‘instant message’), yet their reward is correspondingly great; for those word-worlds, once experienced, revolve and orbit for evermore in the imaginations of those who encounter them.

Be assured, Doctor Döblin, that you are not forgotten!