Bright magic, p.2
Bright Magic, p.2Alfred Doblin
So, a philanthrope and daydreamer? A productive crank? An active Social Democrat, singing a hymn to mystical India in his free-verse epic Manas? What else? He was a verbose despiser of art and a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts; an emancipated Jew and a Kierkegaardian Catholic; a sedentary Berliner and a restless armchair traveler until Nazi writers like Erwin Kolbenheyer and Hans Grimm seized power along with Hitler and he was driven out, set in motion against his will by the emigration.
He returned home as a French officer with his last novel, the Hamlet novel, which no one in West Germany would publish. Only in 1956 did it come out, in the GDR. How does that hackneyed saying go in the “Land of Poets and Thinkers”? Forgotten in his lifetime. Döblin just didn’t sit right. He didn’t come across. He was too Catholic for the progressive left, too anarchist for the Catholics, too lacking in concrete arguments for the moralists; he was too crude for late-night television, too vulgar for school radio. Neither Wallenstein nor his science-fiction epic Mountains Seas and Giants could be easily consumed, and Döblin the emigrant had ventured to return in 1946 to a Germany about to prescribe itself a stiff dose of consumption. So much for his market position. Döblin’s value was and is not quoted on the exchange. A piece of his inheritance has fallen to one of his followers and students, in the form of fame, and today, with the small change I have, I am trying to pay him back.
Despite discussing only his futurist output here, following only one path through the many strands of the Döblin universe, a system of production that remained productive to the end—despite drawing your attention to Wallenstein as a futurist novel and thereby downplaying the political Döblin, the essayistic Döblin, the Catholic Döblin—I hope that this tribute, ten years after the death of my teacher, will at least do its part to make you curious, to lure you to Döblin, so that he might be more widely read. 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.
THE SAILBOAT RIDE
THE OSTEND dike lay in the flashing noonday sun. The men and women in their finery strolled past one another on the wide sea promenade, laughing. The windows of the beach houses sparkled affectionately up from under the reflections on the immeasurable water. The unceasing roar of the sea rolled away from the stone embankments, swelled back up again, swelled away again every time.
The heavy Brazilian walked with an open mouth among the men and women in their finery. He walked right next to the promenade’s sea railing. His head was bowed, as though standing under a shower; his full lips were moist. Black hair streaked with white hung over his ears. He inclined his head with its Panama hat to left and right, to meet the onslaught of the biting wind. He cast a happy glance now and then at the gray-green water. His yellow-brown, puffy face twitched; his eyes, sunk in gray caves, shimmered; he tried 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. He was a little cold; he looked down along his white shirtfront, white sunshine flowing over it, and for a moment the thought that his gaze might be casting shadows made him nervous. He sighed and pushed his way deeper into the crowd of people.
He could still feel within him the shuddering of the railroad train that had brought him to the seaside from Paris the day before.
He had left Paris in great haste, sailed in great haste on his yacht from his homeland across the ocean, out of hopeless happiness, suddenly conscious of his forty-eighth year. In Paris he had endured the debaucheries of art for four months—the polished concert halls, the bestial dances; pneumonia laid him low; he was in the hospital for weeks, given up for lost. When he left the hospital one Sunday, knees weak, he tugged up the collar of his loden cape, climbed into an open carriage, and drove to the station. He spent a day slinking, doubled over, through Bruges, the dead city. Then he picked himself up and hurried to Ostend in the July heat.
He raised his gaze from the thin sand pulling away under his feet.
She glided past him a second time—rust-colored hair beneath a broad-brimmed white hat. A gray gaze from an intelligent, no longer young face shrank back from him. She was perhaps in her mid-thirties. He could still hear a high melodious voice behind him.
Copetta turned around at the sound of this voice. Just then, the wind stopped slicing. She was talking to an old woman, supporting her arm. The Brazilian pushed back his hat; just as his gaze passed over her narrow shoulders, black shawl over dark blue silk, he lost her. The white hat bobbed over the crowd of people and disappeared around a corner.
Copetta ambled into a café, drank spoonfuls of hot chocolate. The sea rolled incessantly against the stone embankments, soft scratching of grains of sand, wind striking with thin stilettos.
In the afternoon, when it was time for the concert at the resort, the heavy Brazilian walked in a long gray frock coat along the dike. The music wafted over, light and brazen. As he pounded the ground with his thick yellow walking stick, step by step, in front of the resort, a gray gaze shrank back from him again. The old woman spoke to her. Her face was thin, her cheekbones jutted out sharply, her small eyes under their thin red brows looked out decisive and sober, she had freckles above the bridge of her nose, crow’s-feet extended from the corners of her eyes. She swayed as she walked.
The Brazilian rubbed his forehead and eyes, involuntarily stopped, ambled on.
Around evening, he was sitting on the terrace of his hotel. As he picked up the wine list, it struck him that he had seen a woman three times that day, rust-colored hair beneath a hat bobbing up and down; three times, a woman, black shawl over dark-blue silk; a gray gaze. He silently shoved his chair back, and sighing, smiling, staring into space, pulled out his wallet and carried his wide visiting card into the villa into which he had seen her disappear and handed it to a girl. As he felt the sea breeze on his neck again, he asked himself what the point of it actually was. He resoundingly slammed the door to his room shut behind him, threw himself into a desk chair in the dim room, tore the pictures of his two children into little pieces, picked up a pair of nail scissors, took off his gem-encrusted wedding ring, put it on the blade, and held it over the flame of a burning candle. The gems carbonized; the scissors got hot; he dropped them. He burrowed with both arms into the two large buckets of beach sand he had had brought to his room, stood up with a groan, blindly strewed sand across the floor and the carpet, and softly cursed those dogs, the porters, who had not brought enough sand. Fell asleep in his chair.
When, at midday, again on the terrace, lying back in his chair, he breathed in the brisk air and dizzily closed his eyes, the image of the walking woman stood before him—very thin faded face, clear determined gaze aiming right at him. She had sent a request that he not visit her during the day. He threw the thin blanket off his feet, shoved his hat down over his disheveled hair, and walked ponderously, arms folded over his chest, down the stairs and across the empty sunny promenade up to her villa, a one-story building with narrow, closed windows. He squeezed through a dark corridor and knocked lightly on the door that had a visiting card with her name on it. Not a sound. He flung open the door.
She was lying half in bed; to jump out she had to throw the blue blanket back toward the wall. Two full womanly legs were just making contact with the floor with their delicate toes; a very thin, severe body in a simple loose nightgown straightened up, a serious thin face under loosened hair.
Distressed, the dark Brazilian stopped in the doorway. She smiled, covered herself, and asked him to come back in fifteen minutes. Deathly pale, without saying a word, he picked his walking stick up off the floor. The girl held out her hand to him; he looked into small sober eyes.
That evening a messenger from his hotel arrived at her house; he was inviting her on a sai
She was out her door at the break of dawn and she ran to him in thin shantung silk; she leapt down the narrow stone staircase and hurried down to the murmuring beach; she threw mussel shells back at him and saw, when she turned toward him, a passionate trembling in his face. He was dressed all in white linen, bareheaded, left hand bandaged at the wrist; he said he had cut a vein last night when he fell on some glass. He sent a small rowboat gliding into the water with a single shove, lifted the squealing woman onto its bench, jumped after her, and rowed in leisurely fashion toward a sailboat floating in the men’s bathing area by the wooden bridge. They jumped aboard; Copetta was already pulling up anchor; her bare arms held tight to the rudder bench, the wooden rings clattered softly on the mast, the mainsail bellowed open after a puff of wind; the boat headed out to sea.
They moved through the beach spray into the gray-green sea. A white glow came over the sharp horizon line, stronger every moment and climbing higher. They sailed fast and smooth on the strong morning wind. Then the Brazilian crouched down on the deck next to the boom and secured the rigging. Laughing wildly, he stood up with legs spread, swung a thin rope around his head like a lasso, and threw it over her; caught, she shivered, jerked herself free, balled up the rope and flung it against his chest with a girlish giggle. She had quickly tied the rudder in place and leaned overboard; she scooped up cold seawater and splashed it over her face, and, one foot on the rowing bench, sleeves dripping, threw two big handfuls at him. He caught the salt water in his open mouth, savored, swallowed. They let the boat take its course in the squalls of wind and it started to shiver like a restless animal. They chased each other across the deck. The thin woman leapt onto the rowing bench with a hoot and beat her fists against the rigging. She pulled off her thin coat, whistled, and spun around. Her thin-lipped mouth opened often in short, childish laughs.
The broad-shouldered Brazilian sat downcast on the edge of the boat; he listened, distressed, to her laughter, held her head with his lips trembling and eyebrows raised as she laid it on his knees and looked at him curiously. His rock-hard hands pushed away her upward-striving shoulders; he shook his head no, back and forth. The waves crept up overboard, lapped gently down at them on the deck like little dogs. The wind picked up strength. The boat tilted heavily to one side, the fringe of the mainsail started to flutter, they shot ahead before the wind. The Brazilian’s dark, almost glassy eyes looked off into the distance over her dripping hair, the girl sought out his mouth, his neck, with her head bent back, she felt around at his chest. His puffy wrinkled face was calm, as though a solemn promise filled with happiness were constantly circling him. The boat rocked with no one at the helm; wave after wave rolled in. Copetta sat on the edge of the hull. When a high wall of water crashed into the boat, he spread his arms wide and leaned back into the wave as though into a pillow. The cushion slid back. She heard him murmur something; she saw the intoxicated, incommunicative look with which he disappeared.
A jolt of the boat threw her against the mast. She felt no pain in her bleeding arm. She screamed for help to the place he had been, let out long shrill cries. They soon found her in the drifting boat. Back on land they were expecting her. They knew everything; Copetta had sent a telegram to the authorities.
She stayed with the old woman another week in the one-story villa. Then she was told that she had thrown herself onto the floor-boards in the middle of the dining room in front of other people, several times, clutching the air with her hands. That the maid had watched from outside how she stood in the middle of her room in broad daylight, spinning around. On the afternoon of the day she was told this, she and the manservant packed her bags and she put on a black dress, left her mother, and went to Paris.
She took a small room and walked the streets. She wore her red hair up, her lips and cheeks made up. She did not come home for days at a time. She denied herself to no one. It was a pleasure for her to throw herself into the arms of every desk worker and cattle hand. With an indifferent laugh and a shake of the head, she made herself the prey of any disease that came her way and passed it along with kisses, yawns, and ardor. After a few months, she was slipping into the glittering ballrooms in black silk dresses. Her face had grown fuller; her small eyes glittered from the atropine. The young men called her the Hyena. She had an unusual way of moving in the ballrooms. The dance was clearly born from an awkwardness in the dancer, showing itself from her first step out onto the parquet. She shoved away every hand reaching for her, swayed her hips side to side in front of her partner, but slowly, like a sailor rocking his weight from one leg to the other. Then she wrapped her awkward feet around her partner and now they were swaying together, hip attached to hip, but he jumped back from her raised arms, she sought him, bent down over him, and eventually they were no longer waltzing, she was letting herself be half carried by her partner while her feet barely brushed the floor and she closed her eyes.
She let a year pass over her. One evening, when the mailman brought her a letter along with a gigantic bouquet of flowers, she turned the substantial sheet of notepaper back and forth in her manicured hands. She threw the flowers in the trash, tugged her lemon-yellow kimono closed over her chest, sat down at the desk, and fiddled with the heavily perfumed piece of paper. The messenger was still waiting at the door, he had already put the cap of his uniform back on, when she stood up and asked him to send a cable. She seemed as though illuminated; she adopted an imperious air. She telegraphed Ostend: TO MR COPETTA OSTEND HOTEL ESTRADA EXPECT ME TOMORROW NOON. WIRE REPLY REQUESTED. She stood trembling on the steps for an hour, awaiting an answer. She packed hand luggage. After three hours she sent for a carriage, put on a thin yellow shantung silk suit, drove to the station. The train ran overnight, many long hours, via Brussels, Ghent, Bruges; finally, early the next morning, Ostend. She rattled through the familiar narrow streets of the city. Suddenly, between the buildings, the sea shone forth, the gray-green sea. She stood upright in the rattling droshky as the gusty wind lavished a hail of stilettos on her. She screamed with homesickness and bliss, standing up in the carriage, she raised her parasol and waved hello to the gray-green sea. She set foot in her old room again, half heard that her mother had died in this house, many months ago already. Her face was still; when the pension lady asked her, outraged, why she was sitting there laughing like that, she answered, “Because I’m happy, my dear woman, why else does someone laugh if not from happiness. What were you saying?”
Then, with gentle movements like a beautiful young woman’s, she picked up her white parasol and walked down to the sea. The dike lay in the flashing noonday sun. The windows of the beach houses sparkled affectionately up from under the reflections in the immeasurable water. The sea roared without cease, threw itself against the stone embankments and lay down flat. She pushed deftly through the crowd of people in their finery, slipped into the hotel lobby. The porter gave her the telegram; he told her that the gentleman had had an accident on a sailboat outing a year ago. She clutched her chest: “In the ocean here?” And then she pressed a coin into his hand, dashed a few lines with her address onto a sheet of paper, whispered in his ear to keep this note anyway and give it at once to the gentleman who had had the accident, if he should happen to come in this evening. She walked out onto the promenade with a smile, past the astonished porter; accepted a young man who followed her; and listened, face beaming, sipping hot chocolate with him at the chapel that afternoon, to the brazen light music of the concert at the resort.
Evening arose. The full moon hung white as snow above the tremendous water.
She stood at her window and waited. Night fell; she had already impatiently put the floppy w
The wind blew hard across the open water; fat raindrops fell; no sail, no boat, as far as the eye could see. Her boat crawled up the high curved walls of the waves, plunged several feet down, crawled on undaunted. She looked around in all directions; fear overcame her. She screamed, crawling on her knees, shrieking his name out across the seething water from the crest of every wave, but now it wasn’t gentle puppies lapping over the side of the boat—like rockslides the waves crashed onto the chest of the breathless woman wiping her eyes. Already flagging, she laid down the oars, broke into furious sobs, and was desperately beating her breast when a dark shape rose up from the water next to the boat. On the crest of a wave the dark shape swung into the boat. The Brazilian sat silently on the edge of the boat and let his legs hang down onto the rowing bench. He was swollen shapeless; his white suit bulged over his body. His gray-white hair was thickly crusted with salt; black-green seaweed hung in tufts over his dripping wet, yellow-brown face with its quivering mouth. Thin white sand and mussel shells trickled off his broad shoulders, ran out of his sleeves. He exhaled loudly then breathed more quietly. Slowly he raised his right arm and warded off the woman exultantly jumping up from the floor. His deep dark eyes looked questioningly at her, her full womanly face, her ripened lips, her small lively eyes beneath their red brows, now beaming inspired and longingly. Then he looked past her. 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. The cushion slid back. She saw how he slowly turned his head toward her, saw the intoxicated, communicative gaze looking at her, leapt after him, and now they entwined their thick swollen arms; now she laughed, gurgling, and pressed her head against his bloated one. And as they touched the wet waves together, his face turned young; her face turned young and youthful. Their mouths did not let each other go; their eyes looked at each other’s under closed lids. A mass of water, strong as iron, sent the immeasurable gray-green sea toward them. A giant’s hand lifted them up into the racing clouds. The purple blackness closed over them. They swirled down into the raging sea.
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