Alfred Döblin’s many imposing novels, above all Berlin Alexanderplatz, have established him as one of the titans of modern German literature. This collection of his stories —astonishingly, the first ever to appear in English—shows him to have been a master of short fiction too.
Bright Magic includes all of Döblin’s first book, The Murder of a Buttercup, a work of savage brilliance and a landmark of literary expressionism, as well as two longer stories composed in the 1940s, when he lived in exile in Southern California. The early collection is full of mind-bending and sexually charged narratives, from the dizzying descent into madness that has made the title story one of the most anthologized of German stories to “She Who Helped,” where mortality roams the streets of nineteenth-century Manhattan with a white borzoi and a quiet smile, and “The Ballerina and the Body,” which describes a terrible duel to the death. Of the two later stories, “Materialism, A Fable,” in which news of humanity’s soulless doctrines reaches the animals, elements, and the molecules themselves, is especially delightful.
About the Author
Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) was born in German Stettin (now the Polish city of Szczecin), to Jewish parents. When he was ten his father, a master tailor, eloped with a seamstress, abandoning the family. Subsequently his mother relocated the rest of the family to Berlin. Döblin studied medicine at Friedrich Wilhelm University, specializing in neurology and psychiatry. While working at a psychiatric clinic in Berlin, he became romantically entangled with two women: Friede Kunke, with whom he had a son, Bodo, in 1911, and Erna Reiss, to whom he had become engaged before learning of Kunke’s pregnancy. He married Erna the next year, and they remained together for the rest of his life. His novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun was published in 1915 while Döblin was serving as a military doctor; it went on to win the Fontane Prize. In 1920 he published Wallenstein, a novel set during the Thirty Years’ War that was an oblique comment on the First World War. He became president of the Association of German Writers in 1924, and published his best-known novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz,in 1929, achieving modest mainstream fame while solidifying his position at the center of an intellectual group that included Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, and Joseph Roth, among others. He fled Germany with his family soon after Hitler’s rise, moving first to Zurich, then to Paris, and, after the Nazi invasion of France, to Los Angeles, where he converted to Catholicism and briefly worked as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After the war he returned to Germany and worked as an editor with the aim of rehabilitating literature that had been banned under Hitler, but he found himself at odds with conservative postwar cultural trends. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease in later years and died in Emmendingen in 1957. Erna committed suicide two months after his death and was interred along with him.
Damion Searls has translated books by Rilke, Proust, Hermann Hesse, Christa Wolf, and others. For NYRB he has edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal and translated Nescio, Robert Walser, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Patrick Modiano.
Günter Grass (1927–2015) was born in the Free City of Danzig, to a German father and a Kashubian Polish mother. He published The Tin Drum in 1959 and soon became one of Germany’s most prominent postwar intellectuals. Throughout his life he was an outspoken Social Democrat and critic of German reunification. He went on to publish numerous novels, including Crabwalk and two sequels to The Tin Drum: Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. In 1999, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in Lübeck at the age of eighty-seven.
“Bright Magic is the work of a sorcerer, an indispensable translation welcome in any cabinet of wonders.” —Publishers Weekly
"Essential anthology of short works by the master of German literary expressionism...Döblin's stories are uplifting in their elegance and beauty.” —Kirkus starred review
"An indisputable, though often overlooked, pioneer of modernism is Alfred Döblin...remarkably, Bright Magic: Stories, translated by Damion Searls, is the first publication of Döblin's short fiction in English...[There is] always a courship of the absurd, and language that is as vivid as Technicolor and as jarring as a car crash." —Christine Smallwood, Harper's Magazine
“Page by page, sentence by sentence, the writing moves from the humorous to the grotesque to the philosophical to the tragic, offering small and lasting pleasures of the kind we don’t often get from a 500 page novel or a 15-hour long TV series. Döblin’s stories echo and reverberate with all of 20th century German literature, and the more we read, the clearer it becomes that other writers are echoing Döblin.” —Ben Sandman, Full Stop
“Without the futurist elements of Döblin’s work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable...He’ll discomfort you, give you bad dreams. If you’re satisfied with yourself, beware of Döblin.”—Günter Grass
“I learned more about the essence of the epic from Döblin than from anyone else. His epic writing and even his theory about the epic strongly influenced my own dramatic art.”—Bertolt Brecht
“As we look back over the rich literary output of this great writer, as we look back over the long and fruitful life of this fighter and this friend of man, this perennial spring of spiritual life, we venture to ask: When will the gentlemen [sic] of the Nobel Prize jury discover him?”—Ludwig Marcuse, Books Abroad
“[A] major writer who grappled with the roots of darkness in our time...”—Ernst Pawel, The New York Times