Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Revolution and Redemption: Alfred Doblin's November 1918

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Revolution and Redemption: Alfred Doblin's November 1918

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This article focuses on the heterogeneity of Doblin's November 1918, indicated on the one hand by this title and on the other by that given on the dust-jacket of Part iii in the 1950 edition: Karl und Rosa. Eine Geschichte zwischen Himmel und Holle von Alfred Doblin. The novel's two strata are highlighted, with an emphasis on the 'story between heaven and hell', which conflates the historical novel with a different genre in the tradition of the religious epic and the theatrum mundi, Milton's Paradise Lost and Goethe's Faust functioning as perspective points of orientation.

Late in 1937 Alfred Doblin, then living in exile in France, started to work on what was eventually published as November 1918, eine deutsche Revolution. Erzahlwerk in drei Teilen. (1) The title announces the novel as a chronicle of the revolutionary first two months of the new German republic. This declaration differs decidedly from the one given on the dust-jacket of the 1950 edition of the novel's last volume, which reads Karl und Rosa. Eine Geschichte zwischen Himmel und Holle von Alfred Doblin and is illustrated with a dragon rearing up against the background of a Berlin panorama. (2) The two headings signal the novel's peculiar heterogeneity, the dovetailing of two generically and programmatically distinct literary undertakings: a historical narrative on the one hand and, on the other, a Miltonic drama with Satan as the protagonist, holding two of the novel's characters in suspense between damnation and salvation.

November 1918 starts off and continues to its end as a historical novel. Twice it runs the course of an abortive revolution. In its first part, Burger und Soldaten, it narrates a ten-day revolutionary interlude in Alsace, and it subsequently traces the two-month revolutionary period in the young German republic's capital, Berlin. It accompanies 'a German revolution' down to the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919, a date which marks, in the novel's judgement, the end of a viable socialist revolution in Germany. Part ii was originally entitled Ebert, after the name of the head of the German post-war government, the Rat der Volksbeauftragten, who later became President of the Weimar Republic. (3) Ebert's name stands for the restoration side of the politics and society of that decisive period. Karl und Rosa, the title of Part III, signals the revolutionary side. Around the two prospects, restoration and revolution, the novel organizes the events, manoeuvres, and schemes of the political scene of the period.

November 1918 is a judgemental and satirical review of the politics in the early months of the new republic. Doblin builds his fictional cosmos around a scaffolding of reliable historical facts and data, thus fulfilling a basic requirement of the genre of the historical novel. (4) He does not, however, develop a reasoned history structured along lines of causal and teleological stringency. He works through the medium of a narrator who poses as a chronicler, trotting out calendar dates, registering persons and events as they pass by. 'Ehrlich ist nur Chronologie.' (5) Of course, this narrator does not restrict himself to merely delivering facts and dates. He is ever ready to pass judgement, to present his observations with irony, to sharpen them into satire. He avails himself of the epic narrator's traditional means--similes, metaphors, personifications--presents a locomotive as a wheezing granny (1, 137), has the waves of the River Spree monologize (11/1, 243) and fate hold the steering wheel (1, 197). 'Der 6. Dezember lost seine Anker und fahrt majestatisch aus' (11/1, 428). A dying airman's intestines are turned into a tropical jungle to transfigure death into a purely natural event (1, 9-12). An intertextual connection established by a simile imports the motif of the lion escaping a fire from Goethe's Novelle (II/1, 282). Yet these references and transfigurations are stylistic moves which do not deny the narrator's obligation to a presumed reality. …

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