I was dozing in front of the TV when I lifted one eyelid to see Rachel Maddow interviewing a man with a trim beard and a startling name: Alfred Doblin. They were discussing Chris Christie and the Bridgegate scandal. Maddow described her guest as the editorial page editor of the Bergen Record, a New Jersey newspaper.
Suddenly wide awake, I pulled a thick German novel from a nearby shelf. “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was its hard-edged title. The German Jewish novelist who wrote it: Alfred Döblin.
Döblin (1878-1957), along with Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, was one of the writers who talked back to their traumatic era with originality and power. This Alfred Doblin turned out to be his grandson. I wondered whether Doblin, the editor with no umlaut to his name, took more interest in Döblin, the German novelist, than others in a literary world — especially the English-speaking one — who have largely overlooked him.
When I reached him at the Record, he made it clear he did. He called Döblin a “varied writer” and a “highly evolved person,” but said he wasn’t a scholar of Döblin’s vast oeuvre — more than a dozen novels, along with plays, nonfiction books, essays and short stories — accessible mostly to those who read German. He spoke thoughtfully of “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” an urban epic that appeared in 1929 and became Döblin’s one bestseller. Walter Benjamin and other critics called him a modernist master for the story of Franz Biberkopf, an everyman freed from prison after serving four years for manslaughter of his girlfriend. Capable of tenderness, he tries to go straight but gets sucked back into the criminal shadows of Weimar Berlin, stealing and pimping.
The novel linked individual experience to the mass forces that shaped it, using newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, popular songs, even weather reports. It embraced Bible stories and folk legends, but sustained empathy for those who lead hard lives, which perhaps was inspired by Döblin’s work as a physician who practiced in a working class district. Brecht, 20 years younger, wrote him on his 60th birthday about the “extraordinary zeal with which I have studied your literary works and appropriated the numerous innovations you have made.”
If Döblin came close to having a revival, it was after Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s monumental West German television series based on the novel, released here theatrically in 1983 and described by some critics as far more Fassbinder than Döblin. Still, the English translation that literary gadfly Eugene Jolas made in 1931, which has a mixed reputation, remains the only one. That monopoly has probably hurt the Döblin cause, but there’s hope. Doblin the newsman gave me the big news: “A new translation of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ is being done,” he said.
Edwin Frank, editorial director of New York Review Books, publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, confirmed that the “sorely needed” new translation is coming from Michael Hofmann, regarded as one of the leading translators of German literature. In fact, Frank plans a total of three Döblin translations for 2015, all with the NYRB Classics imprint. One of the others, in col laboration with Chinese University Press, is a 1991 English-language version of Döblin’s first novel, “The Three Leaps of Wang Lun.”
The book, published in 1915, was an imaginative exploration of 18th-century China structured around Taoist ideas about how detached or engaged one should be with the world. The third title, “Cheerful Magic: Early Stories and Late Tales,” will gather the writer’s short fiction, translated by Damion Searls. Frank, who has more Döblin in mind for the future, hopes to repeat the success he’s had raising the ghost of Stefan Zweig for English-reading audiences. Just by bringing out the three books he will please Döblin devotees who bemoan that BA (as it’s fondly abbreviated) has eclipsed his other work.