Döblin’s Epics

Döblin’s reputation rests largely on the major fictions he called ‘epics’. He wanted a new kind of fiction, a break from the bourgeois novel with its contrived ‘plot’, its ‘suspense’, its focus on an invented ‘individual’ with an invented ‘psychology’, and its cheap eroticism.

Instead Döblin sought to reinvigorate, under modern conditions, the kind of art that enabled Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes to resonate with large audiences over long spans of time. Those authors deal with themes of enduring human concern: life and death, power and subjection, eternity, fate, meaning; humans acting in and on the world, either as part of Nature, or in defiance of Nature (hubris and nemesis).

A daunting task, he knew. The minstrel entertaining an audience with a tale of Troy received immediate feedback. The writer alone in his study produces a book that may or may not be ‘noticed’ – and often the critic is ignorant and/or prejudiced. Feedback seldom filters through to the writer, who has anyway moved on to the next project.

Still, Döblin persevered. His epic fictions cover an astonishing range in space and time – 18th century China; Europe in the Thirty Years War; a hyper-Promethean 27th century; India real and mythical; Weimar Berlin; modern Europe through the eyes of a Babylonian god; South America pre-Conquest to the present day; the failed German revolution of 1918.

These epics are best conceived, said Döblin, as symphonies. They proceed not so much by plot-actions, but by themes and motifs that swell and fade, appear and reappear in tempi slow or fast, employing an orchestra of voices. And these symphonic fictions do indeed pursue, in their varied guises, matters of enduring human concern.

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