Thursday 10 November 2016

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin was a titan of modern German literature. This collection of stories--astonishingly, the first collection of his stories ever published in English--shows him to have been equally adept in shorter forms.

Included in its entirety is Döblin’s first book, The Murder of a Buttercup, a work of savage brilliance and a landmark of literary expressionism. Mortality roams the streets of nineteenth-century Manhattan, with a white borzoi and a quiet smile. A ballerina duels to the death with the stupid childish body she is bound to. We experience, in the celebrated title story, a dizzying descent into a shattered mind. The collection is then rounded off with two longer stories written when Döblin was in exile from Nazi Germany in Southern California, including the delightful “Materialism: A Fable,” in which news of humanity’s soulless doctrines spreads to the animals, elements, and molecules of nature.

Goodreads description

Alfred Doblin is not as well-known as he should be. It is a sign of how insular English-language publishing has been and how easily it is for magic realism lovers to get a distorted view of the history of the genre and its major writers. This collection of his short stories published in the NYRB Classics series and translated by Damion Searls starts to address this. The style of magic realism you get here is a sometimes dark fabulism shot through with humour. I do not know how much Doblin's work was influenced by Kafka's. Is it merely a coincidence that two of the stories, The Metamorphosis and The Little Fable, have the same titles as two Kafka stories?

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 consists of twelve short stories written between 1904 and 1911. Part 2, Later Tales, were written between 1935 and 1945. I don't usually mention the dates of the works, but I think it is remarkable that Doblin was playing with forms, such as flash and micro fiction, which I tend to think of as modern. Not all the stories are short; indeed Traffic With The Beyond, about how a medium is persuaded to contact the spirit world in order to solve a murder, novella length.

The early works tend to be dark, often displaying Doblin's fascination and discomfort with women's bodies. In The Ballerina and the Body the central character learns to tame her body to her will: how to compel her elastic ligaments, her too-straight joints, but then her body is stricken with a terrible disease and she is unable to compel it to do anything. Of course this story is still relevant today. Young women are still compelling their bodies and becoming sick with eating disorders as a result.

Whilst you will find Doblin's humour in the early stories, it really shines in the second half of the collection. Sometimes the humour comments on politics and society as in The Little Fable (the people... to the south celebrated freedom so much that they kept it locked up in an undisclosed location in the ruler’s own castle and never let anyone get near it).

And sometimes the humour is basically absurd - as in the story Max, in which a mother adopts a hippopotamus as a brother to her daughter.

I am very grateful to NYRB classics for allowing me a copy in return for a fair review and I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in European magic realism.

No comments: