Barbara Burns interviews Robert Craig, whose new book Alfred Döblin: Monsters, Cyborgs and Berliners 1900-1933 is volume 20 in our Germanic Literatures series.
BB. Would you like to tell us a bit about your educational journey?
RC. I’m originally from Bradford in West Yorkshire. I decided I wanted to study modern languages at quite an early point, not least thanks to some inspirational teaching at secondary school. Via a gap year in Paris, that decision took me to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where I took my BA in French and German, an MPhil in European Literature & Culture, and finally a PhD on German modernism. Nine very rewarding years at Cambridge were interspersed with Erasmus-funded stays in Germany, and I’m left both with gratitude for the support I received and sadness that it won’t be available in such a generous form to future British students.
BB. You're now teaching in Bamberg. What is it like to work there, and what topics do you teach? Does the university system differ much from what you experienced in the UK?
RC. Upper Franconia reminds me of Yorkshire! There’s a bluff amicability to Bambergers that came as a bit of a surprise after so many years in Cambridge, but I quickly found my feet after my move here in 2017 – thanks in no small part to the beauty and liveability of Bamberg itself. While my research here remains focused on German literature and thought, I’m currently based in the Institute for English and American Studies, and I teach a combination of English, American, and German literary and cultural studies. One of the very best aspects of my job is the degree of freedom I have to decide what I want to teach. That felt a little daunting at first, as there’s less prescriptiveness than in the British system; but it means I’ve been able to experiment and grow into the job in my own way. I’ve been able to teach a huge range of material, from fin-de-siècle British and Irish Gothic all the way through to a comparative course on transculturalism in recent and contemporary British and German literature and culture. Still, literary modernism remains my wheelhouse…
BB. Can you remember the initial impact Alfred Döblin’s work had on you, or why you wanted to study him in more depth?
RC. My first encounter was one of outright confusion! I really didn’t know what to make of Berlin Alexanderplatz when I first dipped into it as an undergrad, and I remember putting it to one side and thinking that life was too short. As I turned my mind to my MPhil and PhD projects, I knew I wanted to do something that linked up my growing fascinations with modernist literature, science, and philosophy; and as a medical doctor who wrote both highly experimental epic fiction and adventurous (and remarkably original) works of nature philosophy and anthropology, Döblin more than fitted the bill. Maybe it was as simple as that at first, but the deeper I went, the deeper I wanted to go. Döblin can be formidably difficult, but for those who persist, his work can become something of a rabbit hole.
BB. You begin your book with a ‘literary health warning’. What do you mean by that?
RC. It’s certainly what Günter Grass issues at the end of the tribute that he pays his so-called ‘teacher’ in 1967, on the tenth anniversary of Döblin’s death. Grass celebrates his importance and influence, while admitting that he’s hard to digest, unpalatable to smug bourgeois tastes, and altogether discomfiting and upsetting for self-satisfied ideologies and received wisdoms. This might seem a rather counterintuitive way to launch into a book about Döblin, but it captures a sense of both his uniqueness and his profound importance as a writer. In work after work, he trains his focus on the less sightly, attractive, or respectable dimensions to modern human life. That is hardly a guarantee of an easy read, but it often makes for an extraordinarily compelling one. As readers, he challenges us to think all the harder about what it might actually mean to be ‘human’ when the veneer and various trappings are stripped away.
BB. Which aspects of Döblin’s work interest you most, and what is the main focus of your book?
RC. I’ve always been newly impressed and surprised by the sheer range of his writing. One of his most celebrated aesthetic watchwords is ‘Tatsachenphantasie’, or ‘fact-fantasy’. He comes up with this neologism in his famous ‘manifesto’ of 1913, the so-called ‘Berliner Programm’, and it speaks to the ways in which he weaves the putatively ‘factual’ materials of his voluminous research into fantastic new constructions. It’s a principle that runs throughout his oeuvre, from his early case-study-like short stories of mental illness, through his historical fictions of the 1910s, and his vast science fiction of 1924, Mountains, Oceans and Giants, all the way to the celebrated city masterpiece of 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz. If by the close of the 1920s he ends up back on his Berlin stamping ground, it’s with a sense of how much he’s been enriched by his imaginative travels through an ancient mythical India, Central Europe in the seventeenth century, Qing Dynasty China in the eighteenth, and – for good measure – the hyper-technologized, utopian-dystopian world of the twenty-seventh.
My book’s central focus is the relationship between humankind and nature, which was one that perennially fascinated Döblin. What particularly intrigued and excited me as I wrote it was the way in which his visions and figurations resonate with aspects of our current thinking about the relationship between the human, the non-human, and the post-human; the symbiosis and conflict between humankind and its natural environment; the relationships between utopia and dystopia; and so on. We’ve clearly reached an inflection point in these respects – and if in a very different time and place, it’s fair to say that Döblin and his contemporaries knew they had, too. In 1948, he suggested that a major impetus behind Mountains, Oceans and Giants had been the question of what would become of humankind if it continued down its reckless path of inexorable technological growth. In 2021, we are asking a similar question, and our answers are even more sobering.
BB. What would you say to a lay person who asked you to sum up Alfred Döblin’s importance in just a couple of sentences?
RC. He was path-breaking in his literary techniques of conveying the look, the feel, the sound, and the smell of simply being alive in the modern world. As well as switching in and out of myriad different voices, he literally pasted bus timetables and newspaper headlines into the manuscript of Berlin Alexanderplatz – and that sense of sensory immediacy and actuality was radically new to German literature. His impact on later writers was considerable. Günter Grass said that his prose was ‘inconceivable’ without Döblin; and Bertolt Brecht even went so far as to suggest that no one had had a bigger influence on his theory of epic theatre. And permeating all this, there’s that extraordinary and idiosyncratic re-figuring of human life itself in writing.
BB. Is Döblin still under-recognised, in your opinion, or is he being studied on university courses and by academic researchers? How have attitudes to his work evolved over recent decades?
RC. He certainly is still under-read and under-recognized, both within and beyond German studies. Unlike Kafka, Mann, and others, he’s often been relegated to sub-clauses and footnotes and mentioned, if at all, in the same breath as other experimental modernists like James Joyce and John Dos Passos. That said, Berlin Alexanderplatz remains a staple on ‘modernism’ reading lists in Germany in particular, as do short stories like 1912’s ‘The Murder of a Buttercup’ and ‘The Dancer and the Body’.
Michel Foucault’s work of discourse analysis obviously revolutionized ways of thinking about literature and culture – and as Döblin was an author who worked creatively and innovatively with a multiplicity of discourses and forms of ‘knowledge’, scholarship on him has benefited immensely from that kind of approach. In recent years, critics have also paid more attention to the ‘multimedia’ qualities and textures of Döblin’s work, particularly in relation to the film versions of Berlin Alexanderplatz. And my own approach to his writings, which is deeply informed by the dialectical moves of the likes of Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, is inconceivable without the invaluable scholarly editions produced over the past couple of decades by Gabriele Sander and others. Things are changing, and Döblin is finally starting to enjoy the recognition he deserves.
BB. Apart from the famous Berlin Alexanderplatz, is there a work by Döblin in English translation which you would recommend to someone interested in reading more of his work?
RC. Berlin Alexanderplatz, in Michael Hofmann’s acclaimed 2018 translation, is the obvious answer. But for a quicker taste of writing that is as unsettling as it is intriguing, try the short story selection Bright Magic, translated by Damion Searls and released by New York Review Books in 2016. This year alone has seen new translations of the science fiction novel Mountains Oceans Giants and the Indian verse epic Manas, both by Chris Godwin, as well as Imogen Taylor's translation of the ‘true crime’ novel Two Women and a Poisoning: one of Döblin’s hardest hitting and most accessible pieces of social fiction, and another good starting point. The sheer plasticity of his writing is best appreciated in German, of course, but there’s never been a better time for English speakers to discover and enjoy him.