‘Considerable variety’

My favorite story in [Alfred Döblin’s] Bright Magic is “The Other Man.” It begins when a Boston gynecologist named Dr. Converdon hires a blond secretary named Mery, who has “beautiful braids.” He sleeps with her and discovers, to his dismay, that she is a virgin. Converdon’s behavior becomes erratic and brutal. He forces Mery to dance in a cabaret so that other men can ogle her; Mery enjoys the performance, but he doesn’t allow her to do it again — instead, he marries her. Shortly thereafter, Converdon receives a letter from an acrobat named Wheatstren, declaring his love for Mery and advising Converdon to save everyone a lot of hassle by killing himself. After considering the matter, Converdon consents. Wheatstren tires of Mery and pimps her out at the racecourse and the theater. This is the last line: “She, however, praised him at every turn, because he offered her the greatest thing that there is on earth: considerable variety.” It’s a love story.

Döblin is a true master — a scientist and a mystic whose characters, battered by a senseless world, cling to what today we would call existence or integrity but what he would have called the soul. They are alternately crude and fragile, suckers and saints. They hope and dream in excess of reason but are tethered to solid ground. In the very funny “Traffic with the Beyond,” a society of spiritualists is duped by a murderer. The fable “Materialism,” written after the author’s conversion to Catholicism, tracks the havoc unleashed when nature, including bulls, the grass, and water, learns of the primacy of matter. “Everything we do is meaningless,” thinks the tiger. “How could I have been so blind. It’s chemical reactions and reflexes wherever you look. . . . I started a family and brought seven rascals into the world for this. It’s sobering. A waste of time.”