New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016. 210 pages. $15.95.
The surrealistic and disturbing stories of Alfred Doblin’s Bright Magic range from tales describing parallel universes and their distinctive organizing principles, to moralizing fables with their fanciful elements and judicious dealing of punishment to the immoderate and the unprincipled, and to character sketches of neurotic individuals following their unseemly fascinations to their fateful ends. For their self-referential nature and obliqueness, these unappreciated but influential stories belong in the modernist tradition, typified by works of Borges and Nabokov.
Doblin’s most mannered works resemble historical accounts of events, as in “She Who Helped,” or sensationalist reportage, as in “Traffic with the Beyond.” One is conscious that these events have already occurred and that the narrator is discriminative in his manner of inclusion and exclusion. In Doblin’s stories, there is always a quality of playfulness, of withheld knowledge, of the manipulation of events by an omniscient narrator. In “She Who Helped,” a coffin-maker’s associate is recognized as death incarnate and brought to trial for murder. In “Traffic with the Beyond,” a medium is roped into summoning the murdered to bring his culprit to justice. These are highly controlled, plot-driven stories that eschew investigations of psychology or emotional states. Curiously, “Traffic with the Beyond” approaches a conventional detective story whose absurd turn of events and ironic, wry tone always keeps us doubtful of the seriousness of its lofty metaphysical concerns. The apparent course of the story is one of disillusionment, the exposure of spiritualism and the business of communicating with the dead as a hoax. Despite its hackneyed plot and cheap thrills, the story transmits a terrifying version of the afterlife, in which listless and desultory bodiless souls, untethered from their memories of life on Earth, wait centuries for the most incidental event to stir them from their inertia. However, when Doblin throws into question the sanity of the medium, the parallel world is exposed as potentially a fiction within a fiction. What most disturbs our notions of reality is when the distant, apparently rational narrator, who has to this point been soberly tethered to the facts, clings obstinately to its existence.
The typical Doblin character commits immovably to an extremist view of the universe. In the fragment ‘The Library,” a chimney sweep’s great respect for books keeps him from any reading. In the “Memoirs of a Jaded Man,” the narrator engages in numerous affairs to prove that love is a delusion invented by both men and women. In “Astralia,” a self-professed scholar and a member of an occult group celebrates the coming of his God. These characters are often solitary, living out their assembled realities while inattentive to all evidence to the contrary.
Doblin releases his characters to wildly wander into the realm of the absurd and pathological: in “Memoirs of a Jaded Man,” the narrator is afraid that “there will be no end of the laughing at me if I admit that I also treated with reverence those inanimate objects that the German language classifies as feminine. Though only sometimes. I frequently eyed the green table Lampe in my room with respect, kept my distance from her, took care not to touch her, and even draped a white sheet over her at night because I was ashamed to undress in front of her.” Doblin condemns these tragic characters to lives on the periphery or in virtual isolation. They are often unintelligible to others or the source of ridicule. The arcs of the story are conventional: characters, with incompatible and grandiose visions, punished for their hubris.
For Doblin, man’s hubris is a central theme, one most purely expressed in the accomplished work “Materialism, A Fable.” Here the human theories regarding the atomized composition of matter are overheard by nature in all its forms. Its beasts, its plantlife, its most fundamental elements of water, metal, and sunlight are all given human qualities of volition and feeling. Nature, in all its representations, having discovered that all its mysterious workings have been reduced to chemical and mathematical formulas, descends into depression and anomie: water flows “sluggishly slow and stagnant,” the tiger bemoans the aimlessness of chasing antelope, and the grass “covered themselves with a callus, which they turned in a little bamboo stalk.” Later on, nature desperately resists this sobering reality by engaging in something akin to humanism, in the dogged fulfillment of their potential, however limited. The animal world circulates the saying “Start with nothing, end with nothing, that’s the best way to live.” What is unusual is that the form of nature’s rebellion against humankind’s apparent mastery is mild, temperate, and in many instances, even considerate for their human counterparts. Bullets fall halfway in flight, cannonballs return to their chambers, all in an attempt “to surpass and improve humanity,” to demonstrate the ludicrousness of killing. Elsewhere nature is more vengeful, as when a group of bees begins to territorialize a region of the forest. What is curious is that at the conclusion of the story, the entire episode is basically forgotten: “People quickly forgot the stupendous events, the revolution in a Nature that had come to believe in humanity.” This fiction accomplishes something greater than the typical fable admonishing against technological progress. Doblin’s apparent theme is that reason and understanding of the world should not deprive us of wonder at its elegant workings. But the cycle of nature’s depression, resistance, and retreat back to its predictable behavior is also a metaphor for our living with our mortality: “In the meantime, people went around firmly, with gravity and force, doing whatever they managed to do however they wanted. That they had to get their own fun, enjoyment, and diversion wherever they could was the one that was certain, yesterday, today, tomorrow, and fixed for all eternity.” The most impressive movement of the story is the elaborate method by which the author humanizes the elements of nature. The story is a more benign variation of Orwell’s Animal Farm: nature attempts to overthrow a tyranny perpetuated by human masters but in the process, becomes human, in its acceptance of the drudgery and the miracle that is an existence with the faculties of reason.
Doblin’s more compressed works vary between the shamelessly didactic and the frustratingly cryptic. Some remain fragmentary character sketches, as in “Five Incomprehensible Stories,” a disconnected collection of scenes describing the habits of eccentrics and fabricated details about arcane subjects. Others are fabulistic tales with religious reverberations, as in “A Fairy Tale of Technology.” For the most part, the shorter works parody the conventions of the fable by inhabiting their arcs with irony and self-awareness. In the latter work, a rewriting of a Biblical passage becomes a sardonic treatment of blind faith among the fervently religious.
The author’s declared ambition of writing “formed and finished sequences of events” seems almost an ironic statement or at least a form of misdirection because though these stories seem tidy and conclusive, they often subvert themselves by throwing their own plausibility into question, through the unreliability of the narrator, the levity or knowingness of tone, or the absurdity of their parts. In this way, Doblin unsettles us because his reality is always tenuous, potentially fabricated, or seeming never to have existed.