Subtly violent, at times quite bizarre, Alfred Döblin’s stories of romantic futurism reinforce fairly everything that one has come to assume about German literature. The author, most known and best-loved for his modernist masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a darkly epic tale of a convicted man’s struggle with the criminal underworld, is celebrated today as one Germany’s most important figures of the European literati. His stories are often Faustian, disturbing probes into the darker recesses of the psyche which turn up many unpleasant truths.
Bright Magic: Stories is a collection of tales divided into two sections: earlier and later works. The reader’s interest in these works will depend on the tolerance for intimately personal dramas that have less to do with human action than they do human behaviour. These stories are circular, puzzling; they often end as cruelly as they do quietly, the characters and their journeys extinguished with poisonous calm.
Some of the best stories in this collection are simply about human neurosis. They go nowhere but they delve uncomfortably deep, depending solely on the tension of the situational dramas. In “The Ballerina and the Body”, a callous young dancer with a drive for perfection submits to a mysterious illness with a morbidly psychosexual fascination. Her body slowly degrades to the impractical frame of a child’s doll until it is shattered by a brutal act of violence.
Döblin’s writing is dense, flowing — and insufferably insular. Rarely are we allowed reprieve from the characters’ headspace. These stories are structured and layered with several degrees of remove: one construct within the human mind, and yet another when we pull (or are pulled) back a degree to see things outwardly at an expanse. By the end (at their final degrees), an observational distance at the furthest remove reveals all sorts of objective truths. And so is the beauty of Döblin’s work: to be read on so many levels yet wholly received in a singular emotional compound.
“A Little Fable” (from the later stories), a highly ironic political allegory, uses absurdist humour to satirize ideas of freedom and capitalism. The overtly surreal comedy and slightly dystopian leanings of the story bridges its style somewhere between the works of Kafka and Orwell. In “The Metamorphosis”, the nightmarish near-fairytale unfurls with Jacobean drama. Queens, princes and sweeping oceans orbit in a narrative of romantic doom with emotions of astrophysical enormity. Admittedly, the earlier stories are better than the later ones and demonstrate a youthful sense of abandon. By contrast, Döblin’s later stories are studied, clinical works that dissect the political aggression within the fabled realism of the narratives.
Döblin’s stories often play upon technique and design. His ability to perfect a scene with such striking imagery is his most impressionable skill. Stories like “The Sailing Trip” are notable for passages that are flush with ripe descriptors that augment a highly expressionist tone; precipitated by the acutely drawn characters, the cold and brightly-lit atmospheres are further marked by such elegantly-coiled lines like, “Under a lashing rain they tumbled down between the mountains of the waves; she could not hear her own furious cries through the singing and whistling of the storm. He lowered his arm, leaned back into the wave as though into a pillow.”
Damion Searls’ translation from the German is smooth and clear; the expressions (some of which are noticeably European) are not lost here in their English translations. The late Günter Grass’ introduction (another renowned German writer, most famous for his work The Tin Drum) provides an insightful look into Döblin’s stories and offers this at once enticing and cautionary assessment of the author’s work: “He will unsettle you; he will give you bad dreams; you will have to gulp him down, and he won’t taste good; he is indigestible and not even nutritious. Döblin changes the reader. If you’re satisfied with yourself, beware of Alfred Döblin.”