This remarkable book – an exciting and intriguing story, a blend of Hindu mythology and existentialism and told with great verve in a vigorous, direct language of many moods and voices – is one of the major fictions Alfred Döblin produced over the forty tumultuous years pre-World War 1 to post-World War 2.
Döblin himself is one of the least known of the twentieth century’s great German writers, though his reputation has grown in Germany since his death in 1957: smart new editions appear every decade or so, and streams of books, journal articles and scholarly colloquia examine aspects of his art and his thinking.
The Anglophone reader comes to Döblin with little idea what to expect. Maybe a vague knowledge of that one title from his vast output: Berlin Alexanderplatz – The Story of Franz Biberkopf. The next novel after Manas, it has eclipsed all the rest ever since its publication in 1929. 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: no more playing with ‘plot’, ‘suspense’, ‘individuals’ with invented ‘psychologies’, no more cheap eroticism.
Döblin’s fictions – all substantial works: Wallenstein, the Amazonas trilogy, November 1918 are each three to four times longer than Manas – are best conceived, he said, as symphonies. They proceed not so much by plot-action (though Manas does have a very forward-moving plot) as 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 in their varied guises do indeed pursue, over forty years, matters of enduring human concern.
Alfred Döblin, born in Szczecin in 1878, initially worked as a medical assistant and opened his own practice in Berlin in 1911. Döblin’s first novel appeared in 1915/16. His greatest success was the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz published in 1929. In 1933 Döblin emigrated to France and finally to the USA. After the end of the 2nd World War he moved back to Germany, but then moved in 1953 with his family to Paris. He died on June 26, 1957.