Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin (tr. Damion Searls). NYRB Classics, $15.95, 240pp.
Two years before his death, Alfred Döblin, author of seventeen novels and a dozen volumes of stories, essays, and memoirs, complained, “Whenever they mentioned my name, they always followed it with Berlin Alexanderplatz.” That there are worse fates a writer could suffer is a fitting rejoinder in the German-speaking world, where his novel is ranked among the milestones of literary modernism and readers can relish its seediness, its bewildering structure, and its vertiginous language in the original. In translation, however, the book has been cut and bowdlerized, and its formal innovations tamed; and the slang and sudden shifts in linguistic register, which are among its signal pleasures, drift from dated to incomprehensible. A new version by Michael Hofmann, due out this year, will doubtless do much to address these lacunae, but in the meantime NYRB Classics has issued translations of two seminal works of Döblin’s: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and Bright Magic: Stories, selected and translated by Damion Searls.
Bright Magic opens with the complete text of The Murder of a Buttercup, Döblin’s first collection of short fiction. He wrote these stories between 1903 and 1905, and in 1906 submitted them to the publisher Bruno Cassirer. There, they were read by the comic poet Christian Morgenstern, who turned them down, declaring that they gave him an “unsettling, morbid impression,” and intimating that their author was of unsound mind. They finally appeared in 1913 in a series of expressionist prose that included Gottfried Benn’s Brains and Georg Heym’s exquisite, neglected The Thief.
“The Sailboat Ride,” the story that opens the book, shows the strengths and weaknesses of the early Döblin. The writing is evocative, with a particular sensibility for nature and climate, as when a character tries to “follow the delicate eddies of air that ran around his bare neck, lifted the gray hair on his temples, and whirred against his cheeks with their fine stilettos.” But there is a weakness for the decadent and exotic that can grow tiresome, when not exasperating. “The Sailboat Ride” spills forth a farrago of late Romantic clichés: a Brazilian yachtsman arrives in Ostend at the end of his rope after enduring “the debaucheries of art for four months” in Paris and nearly dying in a hospital. Taken with a redheaded young woman in a black shawl he has caught sight of thrice in one day, he burns his wedding ring over a candle, clutches it in his hand, visits her room, and invites her for an outing in a sailboat. A tragic event compels her to leave Ostend and turn to prostitution in Paris before she returns a year later and unmoors the boat for a reunion with the Brazilian’s spirit.
Döblin reported to Martin Buber, an early reader of his work, “I never have a conscious intention. I always write completely involuntarily, and that’s not just a turn of phrase.” This is evident in the stories’ often inexplicable twists, which the author does little to illuminate: in “The Ballerina and the Body,” a young dancer, hospitalized for a mysterious wasting disease, performs a last waltz before stabbing her doctor in the chest with sewing scissors, while “The Metamorphosis” tells of the convoluted despair of an unfaithful Queen and Prince Consort, with lugubrious hunting trips, a great deal of sobbing, self-mutilation, and suicide (hinted at by a scepter and golden crown which, in defiance of Archimedes, are seen bobbing on the surface of the water).
Virtually all these stories center on carnal temptations that inevitably presage danger. As critic and translator David B. Dollenmayer remarks in his illuminating study of Döblin’s Berlin novels:
In both men and women, the sexual drive invariably leads to murder, suicide, or madness. At the age of forty, after seven years of outwardly contented marriage, Döblin was still obsessed with and troubled by his relationship to female sexuality. In an unfinished autobiographical sketch, he admits to having been ignorant of female anatomy as late as the first semester of his medical studies, when he was twenty-two (he had already fallen several years behind in school because of the family’s move to Berlin).
Readers’ opinion of Döblin’s early work may hinge on the extent to which they find the challenge of teasing out the author’s particular neuroses tiresome or enthralling. A tale like “The Murder of a Buttercup,” which recounts a man’s obsession with a flower he has mown down with his cane, and his series of perverse attempts to ignore, make amends with, and finally humiliate its ghost, may be brilliant or preposterous, depending on how plausible the protagonist’s tormented conscience appears. However disciplined and even beautiful Döblin’s portrayal is, there will be some for whom it is all a bit much.
An interesting contrast is “She Who Helped,” about a coffin maker in 19th-century New York assisted by a ghastly figure who inveigles the moribund into yielding to death’s embrace. The lack of psychology, of portentous depths, makes this a masterpiece of straight suspense, but it also relegates it to the status of genre fiction. The tension between restraint and indulgence is evident throughout the book: some stories are content with clever plotting and well-wrought detail, while others give free reign to the dismal extravagancies characteristic of expressionist literature as a whole. In the second group, for which “The Murder of a Buttercup” is emblematic, the disjunction between the events presented and the emotional consequences adduced is less resolved than papered over with lush, morbid details: there is staggering, shuddering, every character seems pallid; everything is as if grave, but the minutiae of experience that frame the individual sense of gravity are frequently absent. The characters have little history, few memories, scant traits, and are hence better suited to advancing plot than to revealing the arcane corners of the mind. Curiously, Döblin’s erudition seems to exacerbate this difficulty: a lover of maps and miscellaneous realia, he cannot resist placing his figures in faraway lands or giving them foreign and not-quite-right sounding names. The result is places and persons with features but without histories, and plagued by a persistent two-dimensionality.
In Döblin’s defense, he rejected the explicitly psychological novel’s unseemly interventions into the organic development of the plot in favor of an epic approach rooted in “factual fantasy.” But to eschew psychology as a narrative technique while composing fiction for which psychology appears one of the few effective interpretive instruments is arguably an exercise in bad faith.
In his laudatory introduction to the book, Günter Grass says of Döblin: “He starts afresh with every book, refutes himself and his changing theories.” His versatility is amply on view even in this very short collection. If the language and concerns of the stories from The Murder of a Buttercup are of a piece, the second half of Bright Magic shows the breadth Döblin’s humor, his tenderness, his mysticism. In “A Fairy Tale of Technology,” a gramophone brings back to a father the voice of his long-lost son, who has vanished following a pogrom in the Ukraine; “Five Inexplicable Stories” are gems of speculative absurdity, with hippopotami, stone caviar, and volcanoes ignited by arson. The centerpiece here is “Materialism: A Fable,” in which the natural world becomes conscious of the truth of materialism (of the Democritan and, to a certain extent, Marxist varieties) and rebels against its subjugation to mankind:
The venerable cow in her stall, nourisher of us all, the matron, what about her? She chewed her hay and let herself be milked. What was that if you called it by its real name? Manufacture, continuous production, fueling, carburetion, combustion, conversion, synthesis, dross, product. And this monotonous stupor was what we had thought was existence. This was what we identified ourselves with. Moreover, though it’s horrible to think about: we actually thought it was fun. What a scam.
Disillusioned with the pointlessness of their pastimes, the animals hunger for an existence that transcends their innate reflexes and the demands of the superstructure, and even the grass longs for its lost innocence. As the materialist dogma spreads across the continents, chaos ensues, fish leap recklessly ashore, and even the particles swirling around in atoms question their fidelity to their duty.
Döblin was a writer of uncommon range and energy: among the thousands of pages of his collected works are historical novels about 18th-century China and the Thirty Years’ War, the radical and prescient Berge Meere und Giganten (“Mountains Seas and Giants”), a fundamental chapter in the history of science fiction that is still unavailable in English, and correspondence with many of the major figures of German art and literature from Thomas Mann to Arno Schmidt. All this without mentioning his magnum opus, Berlin Alexanderplatz. His work shows the merits and shortcomings of virtuosity: it is immense, energetic, touches high and low, spans genres and subjects, but is also, on occasion, hurried, repetitive, or slipshod. Yet there is no denying his significance, for literary modernism in general, and specifically for the generation of German writers that would succeed him, and Bright Magic is indispensable for English-language readers who would wish to get some sense of his accomplishment.
Adrian Nathan West is author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of numerous works of European literature, including Marianne Fritz’s Weight of Things and Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny. He lives between the United States and Spain with cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
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