“I’m also a doctor, and not as a sideline,” declared Döblin. His medical thesis on Amnestic Disorders in Korsakoff Psychosis (1905) was his first major publication, and he ran a medical practice specialising in nervous disorders in a poor quarter of Berlin up until his escape from Germany in 1933. (The loss of his ability to practise was a major part of the trauma of exile.)
From the 1920s to 1940s he reflected several times on his dual callings. In 1928, as Berlin Alexanderplatz was being written, a Berlin newspaper suggested that the two gentlemen sharing the same name – the writer and the medical chap – should meet and record their impressions of each other. The result was this pair of rather charming little pieces: ‘Two Souls in a Single Breast’.
We shall post more of Döblin’s autobiographical pieces as we go along.
Two souls in a single breast
Alfred Döblin, Berliner Volkszeitung 8 April 1928
Translation © C D Godwin 2018
Dr Döblin, neurologist, on Döblin the writer
As a doctor I am only vaguely aware of the writer of the same name. To tell the truth, I don’t know him at all. I work in the east end of Berlin in a middling medical practice, really not a big one at all, I am a neurologist and this activity takes up virtually my whole day. I have no great leanings towards literature, find books quite boring, and as for books by the man who, you tell me, bears the same name as me, I have sometimes come across them by chance at the homes of acquaintances; but dipping into them I was left completely cold and uninterested. This gentleman seems to have a good imagination, but I can’t follow him down that road. On my income I can’t afford trips to China and India, so I have no way to check up on what he writes. And anyway, for this kind of thing I prefer original reports, i.e. first-person travelogues, of which I am a keen reader. And another thing: I can’t get to grips at all with the style of this man, the author who bears the same name as me. It’s just too difficult, why should anyone tired out after a hard day’s work be asked to wade through such stuff of his own accord. And allow me, please, a general remark, which may come across as a bit political or ethical. More so than his books, I am familiar with this writer’s occasional effusions as delivered to me by the newspaper, which of course I read. I must confess I can’t make head or tail of the man, from a political angle or in general. My appetite for better acquaintance is not in the least improved by these effusions. Sometimes he seems to stand squarely on the Left, even the extreme Left, maybe Left squared, and then he says something that’s either not thought through, which is unacceptable in a man of his years, or he makes out that he is above the parties – absurd authorial arrogance. In short: it was you, Editor, who asked for my opinion of this writer, the man with the red nose; the coincidence of names led you to do so, I myself would never have bothered with him any more than with any other young author, and I say again: the gentleman is almost a complete stranger to me, he is of no interest to me, I am not related to him by blood or marriage, and I could not care less about his verdict on me, which you tell me you are soliciting from him. Whatever apparently mischievous assertions he may cast will not touch me.
The writer Döblin on the neurologist Döblin
Even though it is Easter, and as you can imagine I am buried under piles of work, questionnaires and so on, I am most grateful to you, Editor, for setting me this remarkable task and in a certain sense enriching my circle of acquaintances. I am currently working on a Berlin novel, I mean an epic work in everyday language, the action of which takes place in the east end of Berlin, around Alexanderplatz and the Rosenthaler Gate. So your request for my comments on the neurologist of the same name was an interesting lead. Maybe this can be another source of material, I thought, along with the Salvation Army, the slaughterhouse and the crime files. So I went over there and now report back. The man is spritely, and makes not too bad an impression. I attended his clinic and sat in his waiting room. A waiting room is the most remarkable milieu you can imagine. And when I introduced myself to the gentleman and we had a good laugh about the coincidence – God knows our origins could not be more different – he told me lots of things which with his permission I noted down there and then. These general practitioners are not to be envied. I saw the peculiarly stressful work that kept him busy, and this mostly with the strangest kind of patients. I am sure that he is no untypical example of this specialism, but the very fact of his toiling here anonymously endeared him to me. He is my exact opposite, I realised as he busied himself with practical tasks, spoke, observed: I the perpetual solo dancer, prima donna as my publisher once called me, he a grey soldier in a silent army. I am sure I made no great impression on my namesake. Sometimes I grew rather nervous when he gazed at me in a psychotherapeutic way. I have a few defects in that area, complexes probably, and his experienced nose no doubt sniffed them out. Please do not be angry when I confess that for this reason I did not pursue any deeper acquaintance with him. To tell the truth, I did not feel very comfortable sitting across from him; too many unpleasantnesses come to mind in such a situation. But I retain a good memory of the small, slender man with the doctor’s pince-nez, and I would be delighted to know, if you can betray the secret, what this anonymous man had to say about me, whom he certainly saw not as a writer but merely as a human being.