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.
Humanity's ever-worsening estrangement from the natural world is perhaps the most pervasive theme in Döblin's epic fictions. In numerous passages he brings Earth and the cosmos into focus: here the mighty stage on which humans strut their puny stuff. War and...read more
Whether satirising or sympathising, Döblin always paints his royal figures as human beings rather than remote idols. In these excerpts we meet a powerful emperor unsure if he is up to the job, a megalomaniac, a native ruler confronted with unfathomable intruders, an...read more
In addition to his epic fictions Döblin wrote a number of plays (for stage and radio), and spent his first year of American exile in Hollywood, writing 'storys' for MGM that never reached the screen. Within his epics there are several scenes of performance....read more
Throughout his works, Döblin has a penetrating eye for political power and the pretensions of status. The first excerpt lampoons the minor royalty of the Holy Roman Empire (despotic within its realm, helpless outside it); the second presents an outside view of the ...read more
Behind the 'rational' everyday world lurk mysterious forces, sometimes benign but mostly unsettling if not terrifying. Wars and invasions provide a playground for such forces. A Circus (from Wallenstein Part 4) The Bohemian population, traumatized by the...read more
Though unimpressed by religious Judaism, Döblin’s fascination with the theme of exile frequently surfaces in his fictions. These two excerpts, one written fifteen years before he had to flee Germany, the other during his first exile in France (his arduous...read more
Religion as the expression of a primal sense of humanity's place in the world and the cosmos; religion as a tool of social control. Döblin summed up this contradiction in his 1938 essay Prometheus and the Primitive, but he was already exploring it in his...read more
In the dystopian epic Mountains Oceans Giants, the most momentous step in alienating humanity from the natural world is the development and free distribution of Synthetic Food, made almost entirely from inorganic matter. The masses at first welcome their freedom from...read more
This second set of themed excerpts explores the ways in which human beings have become estranged not just from the world but from their own physical being. THEME 2: ALIENATED BODIES 1: The Bastard Mansfeld (from Wallenstein Part 3) Ernst von Mansfeld, a warlord...read more
Each of Döblin’s Epic fictions plays out over several hundred pages. To introduce readers of English to the worlds he creates, we have selected several 'starter platters' to download or read online. THEME 1: LOVE STORIES 1. Diuva (from Mountains Oceans...read more