Adrian Nathan West at The Quarterly Conversation:
Two years before his death, Alfred Döblin, author of seventeen novels and a dozen volumes of stories, essays, and memoirs, complained, “Whenever they mentioned my name, they always followed it with Berlin Alexanderplatz.” That there are worse fates a writer could suffer is a fitting rejoinder in the German-speaking world, where his novel is ranked among the milestones of literary modernism and readers can relish its seediness, its bewildering structure, and its vertiginous language in the original. In translation, however, the book has been cut and bowdlerized, and its formal innovations tamed; and the slang and sudden shifts in linguistic register, which are among its signal pleasures, drift from dated to incomprehensible. A new version by Michael Hofmann, due out this year, will doubtless do much to address these lacunae, but in the meantime NYRB Classics has issued translations of two seminal works of Döblin’s: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and Bright Magic: Stories, selected and translated by Damion Searls.
Bright Magic opens with the complete text of The Murder of a Buttercup, Döblin’s first collection of short fiction. He wrote these stories between 1903 and 1905, and in 1906 submitted them to the publisher Bruno Cassirer. There, they were read by the comic poet Christian Morgenstern, who turned them down, declaring that they gave him an “unsettling, morbid impression,” and intimating that their author was of unsound mind. They finally appeared in 1913 in a series of expressionist prose that included Gottfried Benn’s Brains and Georg Heym’s exquisite, neglected The Thief.