In his concisely written Introduction, David B. Dollenmayer presents the author of "monumental epics of social upheavals and mass movements" as a stylistic innovator whose technique of writing from subconscious inspiration often produced the "formless, surging incoherence one would expect from such a technique." He characterizes Alfred Dublin's Berlin novels as "engaging, disturbing works of a great and unique prose stylist" that document "the dilemma of a progressive writer caught between the ideological fronts that would tear the Weimar Republic apart."
In the first chapter, the author gives a brief biography of Döblin, explaining the origin of the sexual conflict that surfaces again and again, the influence of artistic Futurism, with its glorification of dynamism and speed, and the development of an objective style that presents the totality of the real world without attempting to interpret it.
Chapter Two, tided "Wadzek's Battle with the Steam Turbine" for Döblin's second published novel (1918), introduces a work that developed away from the direction (man against technology) indicated by the title to a preoccupation with family life. The rather grotesque protagonist, Wadzek, who ultimately abandons his idealistic role in love and in public life, is seen as the antithesis of the traditional hero. [End Page 829]
Each of the remaining chapters deals with a major work and only peripherally with Döblin's other writings (plays, essays, reviews). The protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf, is a representative victim of modern industrial society; released from prison, he determines to live a decent life, but his resolution is thwarted by three increasingly severe disasters culminating in the death of his great love, Mieze. Finally accepting his guilt, he is resurrected as a new man at the end of the novel, determined to live in solidarity with others within the context of urban life. This work, says Dollenmayer, "owes its fascination and greatness primarily to the way in which it is told": the inclusive, kaleidoscopic montage technique, equal in importance to the hero. The city stands at the end of the novel, says Dollenmayer, in a positive relation to the individual who has accepted responsibility for himself as well as his need for dependence on others. Yet the ending remains open, Biberkopf's plan for redemption as yet unrealized.
The chapter on Men Without Mercy (Pardon wird nicht gegeben, 1935) is characterized as Döblin's most conventional and most autobiographical novel. The struggle between freedom and authority is expressed in family relations as well as in society by the protagonist, Karl, who exemplifies in his career the futility of hopes for the revolution.
The last chapter deals with November, 1918 (1937-1943), described as the culmination in the progression of Berlin novels. Its protagonist, Friedrich Becker, undergoes a religious conversion analogous to that of his author at the time of writing; Becker sacrifices himself for his fellow men and "represents the narrator's desperate attempt to raise his story out of the realm of history, to suggest a transcendent alternative mat focuses on the individual soul rather than a society in turmoil."
Dollenmayer addresses his theme of the massive city novels with easy competence. Although he characterizes Döblin as the most difficult of all his contemporaries to summarize, he succeeds well at imparting the essence and the flavor of the works he discusses. He is not uncritical; he sees that these works can be dull and obscure as well as intense and dynamic. Undeterred by the immensity of his topic, he traces the development of style and the major themes, and he strikes to the heart of his topic in a brisk, readable style. He evinces broad knowledge of the...