Essential anthology of short works by the master of German literary expressionism.
Berlin Alexanderplatz, the sprawling saga for which Döblin is best known, is long in the telling but without much narrative trickery. The stories gathered here, including the whole of his 1912 debut book, The Murder of a Buttercup, are another matter; many seemingly seek to defy all expectation. The opening story begins with realistic resolution: a Brazilian man finds his way to a Belgian beach and there takes an interest in a woman with rust-colored hair. A gloominess has settled over the story from the outset, with the suggestion that Döblin is working toward a rejoinder to Death in Venice, but if he is, in the end it is by way of Ovid as man and woman sink beneath the waves of the North Sea: “And as they touched the wet waves together, his face turned young; her face turned young and youthful.” Wet waves? Young and youthful? Never mind, for Döblin is off to another fantastic vignette reminiscent not, in the end, of Thomas Mann but instead of Jorge Luis Borges or perhaps Stanislaw Lem. Some of the metamorphoses are literal, some figurative, but which is which is not always clear: does Mary really turn “into a ripe blossom” (and are blossoms ripe, strictly speaking?) when, sitting alongside Joseph, she says to her blessed son, “I love you, I love you, you pledge from God”? That story, “The Immaculate Conception,” exemplifies Döblin’s quiet interest in religious experience, though it is more cheerful, all in all, than most of the stories, which, if quirky and sometimes oddly funny (cow’s cheese, anyone?), end up with the demise of someone or another: “Even in death, the ballerina still had a cold contemptuous look around her mouth.” “Then Death stood up and pulled the canoness by her cold little hands behind him, out through the window.”
The humor is dark. So is the general outlook. Still, Döblin’s stories are uplifting in their elegance and beauty.