Bright magic, p.1
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       Bright Magic, p.1

           Alfred Doblin
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Bright Magic

  ALFRED DÖBLIN (1878–1957) was born in German Stettin (now the Polish city of Szczecin), to Jewish parents. When he was ten his father, a master tailor, eloped with a seamstress, abandoning the family. Subsequently his mother relocated the rest of the family to Berlin. Döblin studied medicine at Friedrich Wilhelm University, specializing in neurology and psychiatry. While working at a psychiatric clinic in Berlin, he became romantically entangled with two women: Friede Kunke, with whom he had a son, Bodo, in 1911, and Erna Reiss, to whom he had become engaged before learning of Kunke’s pregnancy. He married Erna the next year, and they remained together for the rest of his life. His novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun was published in 1915 while Döblin was serving as a military doctor; it went on to win the Fontane Prize. In 1920 he published Wallenstein, a novel set during the Thirty Years’ War that was an oblique comment on the First World War. He became president of the Association of German Writers in 1924, and published his best-known novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, in 1929, achieving modest mainstream fame while solidifying his position at the center of an intellectual group that included Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, and Joseph Roth, among others. He fled Germany with his family soon after Hitler’s rise, moving first to Zurich, then to Paris, and, after the Nazi invasion of France, to Los Angeles, where he converted to Catholicism and briefly worked as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After the war he returned to Germany and worked as an editor with the aim of rehabilitating literature that had been banned under Hitler, but he found himself at odds with conservative postwar cultural trends. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease in later years and died in Emmendingen in 1957. Erna committed suicide two months after his death and was interred along with him.

  DAMION SEARLS has translated books by Rilke, Proust, Hermann Hesse, Christa Wolf, and others. For NYRB he has edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal and translated Nescio, Robert Walser, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Patrick Modiano.

  GÜNTER GRASS (1927–2015) was born in the Free City of Danzig, to a German father and a Kashubian Polish mother. He published The Tin Drum in 1959 and soon became one of Germany’s most prominent postwar intellectuals. Throughout his life he was an outspoken Social Democrat and critic of German reunification. He went on to publish numerous novels, including Crabwalk and two sequels to The Tin Drum: Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. In 1999, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in Lübeck at the age of eighty-seven.




  Selected and translated from the German by


  Introduction by



  New York



  435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

  Copyright © 2016 by NYREV, Inc.

  Original text copyright © by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main

  Translation copyright © 2016 by Damion Searls

  Introduction copyright © Steidl Verlag, Goettingen, Germany 1997, 2002

  All rights reserved.

  All stories, except “A Fairy Tale of Technology,” published by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, in Die Ermordung einer Butterblume: Gesammelte Erzählungen. “A Fairy Tale of Technology” published by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, in Schriften zu jüdischen Fragen.

  Günter Grass’s essay, “My Teacher, Alfred Döblin” was originally published as “Über meinen Lehrer Döblin, Rede zum 10.Todestag Döblins am 26. 6. 1967 in Berlin” in Akzente, 1967, S. 290–309 and collected in Günter Grass: Essays und Reden, Band I, 1955–1969 (Werkausgabe in 18 Bänden, Band 14).

  Cover image: Kurt Schwitters, Collage, 1947; bpk, Berlin/Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany/Michael Herling/Benedikt Werner/Aline Gwose/ © Art Resource, NY

  Cover design: Katy Homans

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Döblin, Alfred, 1878–1957, author. | Searls, Damion, translator.

  Title: Bright magic : stories / by Alfred Döblin ; translated by Damion Searls ; foreword by Günter Grass.

  Description: New York : New York Review Books, 2016. | Series: NYRB Classics

  Identifiers: LCCN 2015040622 (print) | LCCN 2015050009 (ebook) | ISBN 9781590179734 (paperback) | ISBN 9781590179741 (epub)

  Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Short Stories (single author). | FICTION / Psychological. | FICTION / Literary.

  Classification: LCC PT2607.O35 A2 2016 (print) | LCC PT2607.O35 (ebook) | DDC 833/.912—dc23

  LC record available at

  ISBN 978-1-59017-974-1


  For a complete list of titles, visit or write to: Catalog Requests, NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014


  Biographical Notes

  Title Page

  Copyright and More Information



  The Murder of a Buttercup (written 1904–11, published 1912)

   The Sailboat Ride

   The Ballerina and the Body


   The Immaculate Conception

   The Metamorphosis

   She Who Helped

   The Wrong Door

   The Murder of a Buttercup

   Bluebeard the Knight

   The Other Man

   Memoirs of a Jaded Man

   The Canoness and Death


  A Fairy Tale of Technology (1935)

  A Little Fable (1937)

  Bright Magic (written 1940–45, published 1948)

   Traffic with the Beyond

   Materialism, A Fable

  Five Incomprehensible Stories (1947–48)

   The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius · The Origins of Caviar · The Library · Max · What People Mean by Cow’s Cheese


  My Teacher, Alfred Döblin


  This translation omits a long middle section discussing several of Döblin’s other works, in particular the novel Wallenstein.

  I NEVER saw him. I imagine him as short, nervous, jumpy, shortsighted and so pulled extra-close to reality; a stenographing visionary, the rush of inspirations leaving him no time to construct painstaking periodic sentences. He starts afresh with every book, refutes himself and his changing theories. Manifestos, essays, books, thoughts follow close on one another’s heels, a jostling throng that makes it impossible to see: Where is the author in all this?

  When we talk about Alfred Döblin today, to the extent we talk about him at all, it is mostly about Berlin Alexanderplatz. This over-simplification of a writer whom I would rank with, and against, Thomas Mann, with and against Bertolt Brecht—this focus solely on a single book has its reasons. The work of a Thomas Mann, of a Bertolt Brecht even more so, consciously conforms to a classicist plan designed by the author and worked out in detail. These writers placed stone after right-angled block of stone on a firm foundation in an easily comprehensible way, not without clues pointing to the classical tradition they were extending. Even when Brecht tried to turn his conceptual system upside down with a play like The Decision, he gave up soon enough, making it easy for later interpreters to smooth over this phase of breaking away.

  The secondary literature on these two writers is enough to make bookshelves sag and splinter. Soon Brecht, like Kafka, will be interpreted out of reach altogether. Döblin has been spared such abduction into the Olympian realm. This antic
lassical writer has never had a community, even a community of enemies; the edition of his works selected for Walter-Verlag by Walter Muschg sits dead in the warehouse.

  Generations “indubitably” grew up with Thomas Mann and his vocabulary. The word “Kafkaesque” escapes our lips the moment we run into any bureaucratic difficulty. Our Brechtomaniacs can be easily recognized by their German-word-compounding-inclinations. Only Alfred Döblin occasions no conferences, rarely tempts our industrious literature professors into exegesis, seduces few readers. Even the famous Alexanderplatz has not been able to celebrate its homecoming in today’s Berlin: However often we find ourselves wanting to run into Franz Biberkopf at this or that corner pub, he has stayed in East Berlin, although the job of distributing the Berliner Morgenpost must be tempting for the sometime seller of the populist nationalist newspapers from back then.

  All of this is why your lecturer today would like, if he may, to leave Mann, Brecht, and Kafka respectfully to one side, along with all the long shadows cast by their oft-discussed greatness, and instead express the gratitude of a student to his teacher. I owe much to Alfred Döblin; to put it more strongly, I cannot imagine my own prose without the futuristic elements of his books, from The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun to Wallenstein, Mountains Seas and Giants, Berlin Alexanderplatz. In other words: Since writers are never self-made, since we all come from somewhere, let it be said outright that I come from Döblin—from one who, before he grew out of Kierkegaard, had grown out of Charles de Coster, and who, in writing Wallenstein, openly confessed this derivation.

  Like de Coster’s Thyl Ulenspiegel, Wallenstein is not a historical novel. Döblin sees history as an absurd process. No Hegelian world spirit comes riding across the battlefield toward him. His heroes struggling against absurdity—whether Franz Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz or Edward in the Hamlet novel—have one thing in common with de Coster’s Thyl: Kierkegaardian “integrity,” of which there is admittedly little trace in Wallenstein, the epic directly influenced by de Coster. In Wallenstein, the historical course of absurd events—an absurdity exaggerated to a truly visionary extent—is dissected coldly and impersonally, as though without an author, then repeatedly hurled down and shattered.

  But [. . .] let us try to place this book among Döblin’s others.

  In one of his last essays, “Epilogue,” Döblin discusses, in fact dismisses, his own work. Backhanded, perfunctory, impatient, he lists off his titles and at the same time renounces them. The only book that matters to him is his last, Hamlet; or, The Long Night Comes to an End [Tales of a Long Night]. He has become a Catholic; more than that, with the uncompromising rigor of a convert to Catholicism, he sees his own work as nothing but vanity. Having already turned away, he casts a look back: “Our wicked soul cannot remain still. . . . Satan walks among us.” The fantast of reason, the cool impartial observer of driven masses and contradictory reality, the instrument registering simultaneous, self-retarding, mutually annihilating movements, the utopian world creator who gave us the blockbuster de-icing of Greenland on the widest possible screen, had been beaten by faith. Now I can no longer follow him.

  There he is—Döblin the émigré—reading Kierkegaard in the Bibliothèque Nationale and beginning to turn first Christian, then inexorably Catholic. Someone else reads, what do I know, the Bible and turns Marxist. As a fourteen-year-old, I read Crime and Punishment, understood nothing, and understood all too much. The usual gleanings from a book? Hardly. More like the book as a time bomb: Lit by the author, it explodes in the reader’s head. Still, since we can assume that Döblin always had a detonator at the ready—just in case, one day, as if by chance, in the course of hunting down atlases and travel books, alone in the way you can be alone only in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he should come across the Kierkegaard dynamite—a book’s effects, even if often delayed for decades, must be at least intimated from the start. For we know very little about the effects of books. Even less does the author know where his own words will fall.

  On the one hand, the worldly, practical man who shrewdly looks the masses in the face, who puts spoken dialogue into direct and indirect conflict with inner monologue, especially in Berlin Alexanderplatz. On the other hand, the inventive brain of a man whose visions and utopias are always in transit, in search of mystical rapture. Where is the author? It’s a duck-rabbit problem, a vase or two silhouettes.[...]

  This much is certain: Döblin knew that a book must be more than its author; that the author is merely a means to an end, namely the book; and that an author needs hiding places, from which he emerges to pronounce his manifestos, and to which he then returns to take refuge behind the book.

  The opening of Döblin’s “Epilogue” is as follows: “Here we have a pile of books—but ‘here’ is a false word, we should say: the pile exists, the books were written within a span of five decades, but not here.”

  After the early-expressionist stories, later collected in the book The Murder of a Buttercup, he published his first novel, The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun, in 1915, and already he was “here,” if without immediate success.

  Wang-Lun, leader of the weak and defenseless, tries to elevate weakness into an ideology and so becomes guilty. The atrocities of the weak and lazy in the Manchu era are comparable with the atrocities of the rulers; Wang-Lun, the gentle berserker, fails and is wiped out. But for all that this thesis fits perfectly into the best German tradition of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas and Schiller’s The Robbers, what is new—admittedly not without ornamental links to Jugendstil—is the language. New in this novel, and startlingly revolutionary, are the presentations of the crowd scenes: people set in motion storm mountains, become moving mountains, the elements storming with them. With The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun, Döblin gave us the first futurist novel.

  From that point on, the expressionists around Horvath Walden saw Döblin as a defector. But Döblin, in his open letter to Marinetti, rejected the futurist writers too (not futurist painting, which he continued to admire). He agreed with them insofar as it was a question of getting closer to reality, but Marinetti reduced reality: For him, technology, the naked world of machines, alone was real. Döblin is against any categorical decrees, against a monomaniacal amputation of syntax, against the need to stuff prose full of images, analyses, metaphors; Marinetti should refrain from images, he says, for refraining from images is the task of the prose writer. In Döblin’s actual words: “With or without long periodic sentences, I don’t care. But I don’t want to hear just ‘trumb trumb, tatetereta, etc.’ fifty times over. That requires no great mastery of language. . . . I don’t want any theories to rob me of the particular breathless reality of a battle.”

  The passionate letter ends abruptly: “You tend to your Futurism. I’ll tend to my Döblinism!”

  A year later, the confident doctor would dabble in no less categorical decrees himself. He published his “Berlin Manifesto,” with its fierce attack on novelists perpetually concerned with the “problems of their inner shortcomings.” For Döblin, “Writing literature is not nail-biting and tooth-picking but a public matter!”

  He declares: “The novel’s subject matter is soulless, inanimate reality. The reader, totally independent, is confronted with a formed and finished sequence of events. He may judge it, the author may not.”

  Döblin demands, prohibits, lays down rules: “Periodic sentences, permitting the encapsulation of both synchronous complexes and rapid sequences, are to be used extensively. Rapid outpourings, jumbles of isolated key words—seeking as always to achieve the greatest possible exactitude with suggestive turns of phrase. The book as a whole must not seem to be spoken, it must seem to be concretely there.”


  Döblin always wanted to retreat behind his books. In 1928, he answered a newspaper questionnaire by saying: “I as a doctor am only very distantly acquainted with the writer who bears my name.” An autobiographical sketch reveals that he was born in 1878 in Stettin. And: “Medical school, some years as
a mental doctor, then transfer to internal medicine, now a practicing specialist in Berlin-East.”

  Certain key words accompany our search for this author. To what extent was he shaped by his father, a Stettin tailor who abandoned his wife and five children at age forty and set out across the ocean? Ruminating over his father’s motives, Döblin offered many variations on the story of the father in flight, with biting sarcasm, while indulging his own desire to travel, his need to break away, only on maps and in archives. Prussian rigidity kept him chained to Berlin-East. In April 1923, tempted as he was to venture a short escape and take a trip to Leipzig, he retreated into his obligations and left to posterity only a sigh of regret: “Oh, you’re lucky to be in Leipzig. I have to go back to Ziethen and Scharnhorst.”

  So, someone who made do. He found his technology in Siemens and Borsig; homemade manifestos supplied him with his myth of the turbine for Wadzek’s Battle with the Steam Turbine. A world creator with a permanent residence? A new German Romantic, a new Jean-Paul, among the card catalogs?

  Still in search of the author. . . . He remains short, nervous, jumpy, shortsighted, and nonetheless a man engaged with the politics of the day, unafraid of getting his hands dirty. Member of the Independent Social Democratic Party from 1921, later of the Social Democratic Party. His Prussian character enabled him both to patiently pursue all the tedious minutiae of party activity and also, later, when the Social Democrats helped pass the 1926 antiobscenity law against “filth and trash,” to leave the party, without needing to announce that he had been radicalized, had burned his bridges, had been greatly disappointed.

  Döblin dared to live with his contradictions. The fashionable dance move so diligently rehearsed down to the present—the dance of distancing oneself from things—was not his style. He made the case for the Social Democrats in countless essays. However much he admired the “clear historical and economic penetration of reality” in Marx’s writings, he saw the Marxism of the twentieth century as nothing but a doctrine of harsh centralization, blind faith in economics, and militarism. The licensed doctor in Berlin-East admitted that he belonged to neither a German nor a Jewish nation: His nation was that of the children and the mad.

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