(1) A Feast
When the Bohemians were defeated, no one was better pleased than the Emperor. Never had his teeth worked away so nimbly at a pheasant, never had his little eyes in their wrinkled setting flashed so wolfishly from sideboard to plate, plate to sideboard. Had it been feasible between the ponderous droopheaded ox on his left, the grey Prince of Caraffa, Girolamo, and the haughty guzzling slurping representative of His Holiness in torrid Rome – shimmering red his buttoned-up silk soutane, purple socks and shoes on the legs beHis supreme neath the table, alongside the German Emperor’s fidgety snow-white feet – then Ferdinand would have greeted every one of the serving-lads order-takers carving-men hastening through the curtains, the august looming black-staffed Privy Purse, with a “Halloo” and a wave: “This way! Closer! No dawdling, my good fellows, haha. Here he is.” Chew, nibble, bite, tear, grind, crunch. The High Steward of the Kitchen moved over the yellow silk carpet, glanced with a sly smile through the poles of the baldachin at Ferdinand’s muscular lips: pirates boarding oncoming men o’ war, cheeks bulging left and right, seizing booty, emptying like sluices, abetted by the squeezing tongue.
A harp strummed softly, a fife shrilled. Leap this way, that way, look lively, bring more jugs; the guzzler is no friend of pauses; must wash down what he’s swallowed. Ferdinand’s lips wanted wet, his throat wet, they’d earned it, threshed their corn.
In the Empire – what need to say it – in the Empire there was satisfaction. The Bohemians defeated, the saints Ludmilla and Wenzel had withdrawn their hands from their deranged worshippers: now they sat in the dust, haha, along with Hus, all their fraternities, their forest witch Libusa, the Elector Palatine Frederick. The Palatine – what need to say it – the Palatine now hauled his princely garb in a sack on a rope behind him, at his heels through winter mud, crying through the streets, unskilled balladeer in marketplaces, villages: “Will no one here provide a bite to eat? Ten children and no end in sight, will no one fill our stomachs? Wife the daughter of the English king, I once was king in Bohemia; that ‘once’ rings not well in poor Jack’s ears.” Who could say a word at such a time.
Let him toddle on, sweet bold forked creature, they’ll delouse him till his pelt is scoured hairless. Ah, but Malvasier. But Alicante. Ah, Bohemian wine from Podskali. And green Bisamberger, Traminer from Tyrol; and Bacharach and Braubach, moist tinkling pointy-shoed from the banks of Rhine. Apples on the pressed boar’s head: but Molsheimer and Andlauer to chase it down; Alsace, wonderful Alsace.
Who is offended by ginger, ginger in the haunch of venison, so that he’d despise it? Hens have been slaughtered, borne in on silver platters, lit by slim white candles. The adoring gaze of twenty tyrants and princes directed their way: rumps and little legs and necks wobble in almond milk, raisins for nibbling scattered around, stuffed into their candied beaks. Mouths pouting, lips salved with spittle, it flowed in streams, bucketed from every spring.
Here comes cider from the Palatinate. The fire-spewing musket, splendid allegory for a wine-decanter: easy to find, the knave who thinks to die here. Even the Elected Roman Emperor, say: a shot must come now, this minute, from the great musket resting on the shoulder of the head cup-bearer; the Emperor readies aims fires, straight into the gorge of the capering Fool, prancing laughing goblin in drab cap and bells, while His Highness gives his white cuffs a shake, sinks back in his chair, calls for a napkin almost swooning in his fervour: “More!”
Trumpets, a half dozen, blared down from the choir, the balcony’s golden cage; the war-drum beat boom. The Emperor sat amid the music behind a wild boar roast in pepper, white hat with heron’s feather on his balding head, ears not hindered by his crunching teeth from following the tune. Sansoni, cornettist, performed his high-pitched duty; unseen trebles castrati piped and trilled and warbled, played around the steady calm of the bass and the low voice answering, imploring.
To the left of the melancholy Spaniard Caraffa is a narrow cheekless goat’s face, crab-red satin scarf above a bulky leather cape-collar, spidery reaching from tight green sleeves towards the millefiori glass: Karl of Liechtenstein, Castellan-in-chief, governor in Prague, was speaking of Heidelberg and the fugitive Winter King, how the weather was still frosty, changeable, and all the roads a heavy going, especially for someone in a hurry. An abbot chewed a leg off his capon, and as he crunched totted up the abandoned Palatine silver plate that pious Walloons had delivered to him in Bohemia. And even old Harrach, nibbling at his fieldfare, rocking benignly in his chair, gracious, bald-headed, held forth on trials and confiscations in the defeated land, they were dead now, Peter von Schwanberg, Ulrich Vchynský, Albrecht von Smiřický, fled away, would not dream of coming back.
Lusty trumpet blasts. All the nobles glanced up for a moment, those in Spanish ruffs, those in embroidered pointed collars from the Netherlands on bright fur-trimmed jackets, those in tight-laced Hungarian doublets, in frilly French waistcoats and purple capes, cardinals, abbots, generals and princes, and a shudder went through them as if what they heard was a clarion call to battle. At once the music and the mood relented. Every heated nerve experienced a delicious thrill as the ghostly armies of defeated gorgeous blond-curled Frederick marched through the hall, rode through the clink and roar of voices cups plates, down from the tapestries hanging from the choir on towards the two blazing chandeliers, thundered against curtains that flapped with the comings and goings of marshals and guards: splendidly dismembered Palatine corpses, headless torsos, sightless eyes, wagons, wagons laden with corpses, pulled by donkeys, enveloped in a fog of powder and stink, jammed into caskets like limbs from trees, teetering tottering hup! hup! through the air.
Oh, how good they tasted, the baked mussels, the little tarts and conserves of His Imperial Majesty. Shame and scandal if an earl prince archduke becomes Roman Emperor and his stomach does not match his rise; the throat can’t swallow more than it can hold; this goes for all of them: sly Abbot of Krems-minster and Emperor alike, Prince Eggenberg, Liechtenstein and Emperor alike, High Steward of the Plate, oratory server, seneschal, carver, custodian of carpets, doorkeeper of the kitchen and Emperor alike, Marquis Hyacinto di Malaspina, Ugolino di Maneggio, Thomas Bucella, Christoph Teuffel, the organist Platzer and His supreme anointed Imperial Majesty of the Holy Roman Empire – all alike, all crunching in unison on their waffle.
Oh how the Tokay in its Venetian glass delighted the Emperor under his white plumed hat. How he smacked his thigh, buried himself deeper in his chair; face, betrayed by laughter, hidden in his lap.
(2) “Doctor” Jonas
During these days the Capuchin monk Valeriano Magno, a creature of Bavarian Max, arrived at the court in Vienna after many weeks on the road, to request on behalf of his prince the promulgation of a charter transferring the outlawed Palatine’s Electoral rights to Max. Ferdinand silently waved him away to Abbot Anton, who reported that the monk was said to have come from Paris, where Secretary of State Puisieux held Bavaria in particular regard. “And why not?” snorted the Emperor. “Why not?” Abbot Anton crossed himself.
“Sing me something,” the Emperor roared to Giovanni Valentini; and the choir had to stand for hours in the antechamber, singing. The singers were exhausted, the tenor Pichelmayer gave up, the Emperor wandered restlessly up and down along a wall where hung a Gobelin depicting the impregnation of Io; if the choir stopped, he would quickly shout towards the benches: “You are to keep singing.” He had Tyrolean wine brought; then the violins and flutes had to play; he was tireless in his pacing. None of the trusted gentlemen of the chamber could come near; Secretary Frey encountered nothing but outbursts of incomprehensible rage.
One noontime when Ferdinand, face swollen, eyes staring, glanced through the window onto a little courtyard, there beside an empty wagon sat his Fool Jonas, alone on the cobbles in his dun cap and bells, working away at something. Ferdinand quickly closed the window, and waving away his servant descended the spiral staircase. Courtyard overgrown with grass, hot, bare. A heap of sand lay near a shed. Unobserved by the Fool, the Emperor sat down hatless in his loose grey jacket on a barrel at the doorway of the shed. It did him good to sit here; how he had hurried down; it did him good. He leaned his head against the post, thought of nothing, stared ahead. Then it occurred to him it might be possible to snooze here; he pushed himself deeper into the little shed, breathed deeply, and as soon as he closed his eyes was already sound asleep, just what he needed. After a while the Fool tugged several times at the Emperor’s shoe. The Emperor stirred, opened his eyes.
The old mischief gurgled secretively, eager to know: “You been watching me, Ferdie?”
He said nothing.
“It figures, you were watching me. Tell me, what d’you think?” When no answer came, the dwarf attended again to his business.
After a while Ferdinand’s shadow loomed from behind over the Fool’s drawing-board; the dwarf slyly raised a finger: “It figures, you were watching me. I’m working, I’m working.”
“What is it?” The Fool had laid big sheets of blank paper on a packing-case board on the sand; he carefully poured ink from a little jug over them, brushed the ink attentively with broad strokes into the corners, along the edges. “I am composing.”
“What’s the ink for?”
“I’m composing a great work on the stars, Heaven, witches and the Devil. Soon be done.”
How strange: the Emperor did not smile, looked long and hard at the sheet of paper; surely he was still asleep.
“If the sun shines warm and bright this week it’ll be ready. It all depends on the sun, Ferdie, it’ll never be finished in the dark.”
“What is it?”
“If you won’t betray me, green lion, I’ll tell you. And if you’ll give me something.”
“What is it?” He stepped closer. The Fool whined: “They snatch every morsel from under my nose. If only you’d seen yesterday, with the trout. I hardly had any.”
“Come with me.”
The dwarf stepped behind him, grizzling, after covering everything carefully with a sack: “I can’t sleep for worrying. Yet I’m better than the lot of them.” He beamed up at him: “I’ll show you. You can come again. I’m writing a great work about spirits. Wisdom must be spread among the people. But it all takes so long, I see that now, years and years for one book. Many wise men die, green lion, before they finish their book. And that’s why -.” He watched as Ferdinand sat down again on the sand, asked anxiously: “But you won’t betray me?”
“There are some that deny me everything, they’d like to do away with me.” Timidly he drew the little ink-jug out from under the board, showed it: “See for yourself. My book, if Lord Peter in Heaven wills it, is almost finished. I’ll let you see it first.”
And the little man poured a stream of ink over a fresh sheet, began to brush it, chattering in delight: “See how it goes. See how it runs. I do it all at once. There, a whole sheet all at once, a wellspring from the little jug. Right now. Brush it into the corners, one, two. I’m not stupid – sharpen a quill, dip it in the ink, fish out tiny drops! Aye, believe me, you can fish a long while till the jug is empty. And if the jug doesn’t dry up, they fish around in it for three years. See how I do it. That’s the whole joke. Swift and spry, right now. See, Ferdie, down here.”
Six little jugs stood in the sand. “Since yesterday,” the midget whispered confidentially, quickly covered them again. “I fetch the jugs from your Chancellery, they curse when they find them gone; tomorrow I’ll put my first little book in front of them, with the little jugs: how their eyes will pop. It’s about ghosts, witches and all the seven heavenly bodies, I’ve thought it all through properly and written it all down quick as a flash. Oh what they’ll all read in it; about you too, Ferdie, and my enemies! All in there.”
“Now I must be sure, dear Jonas, to award you Doctor with no need for studies or exams.”
Delighted, hands clapping: “Oh, when will you lay on the feast? Oh, you’ll see, there’s better to come. If only you won’t betray me.”
“Let’s drink to it, Jonas. Let’s celebrate here and now; show me the way to the cellars.”
“Come, I’ll take you.” He tucked his things away like a mother. Close by the shed a low door disguised as a packing-case had been let into the wall, he gave it a shove; stairs led down; a heavy cool smell drifted out.
“Where are you, Jonas?”
“Ssh. Quiet. I’m down below. Someone might hear. Come. Here.”
“Are you alone?”
“Who is with you?”
“The wine, Jonas and you. The three of us.”
The Emperor felt his way down. “Sit yourself down here at the steps, Jonas, in the corner. And leave the door open so we can see.”
“Ferdie, can you drink from the spigot?”
“Fetch me a beaker from somewhere, quietly; there are people everywhere.”
Long silence in the dark. Huge outlines emerged: black barrels, vats, ferkins, ladders; the cellar extended deeper away.
“Here’s the nice little beaker. I’ll pour for you.”
“We shall celebrate you, Jonas, tomorrow I’ll present you with your barley-sugar.” They drank, drank. Sometimes Jonas let a laugh ring out, soon the Emperor joined in. Jonas cried: “Mister Rector, Your Worship, where is your red robe. You show me no proper respect.”
“Jonas,” said Ferdinand after a pause, “fetch me my dog.”
The dwarf was already away. “Here, Ferdie, here’s the little dog.”
It was a cat. The Emperor took it in his arms, wrestled with it. “I can’t keep a hold.” Jonas seized it by the neck, pressed it to his breast; it lay quiet.
The Emperor’s big blue eyes, the creature’s bright slits. “Give me your knife, Master Doctorandus. The kitten must sell me its skin for a red robe.” He immersed himself in the frightened lurking gaze, suddenly went to grab it by the throat. The cat struck out, but the dwarf had already slit its throat with the sharp knife. As it wheezed, sprayed, struggled, twitched on the flags, he slit the pelt, squealing grinding his teeth, slit it from throat to tail, ripped it left right from the warm wet body, the quivering legs.
Ferdinand gulped down his wine. He laid the steaming bloody pelt over his shoulders, wiped his fingers.
A clock struck in the courtyard above. “Jonas, run up before we begin the ceremony. Quick, make haste. Tell my manservant you have an errand from me. Tell the men in waiting in my antechamber, if anyone’s looking for me, I’m unavailable for meetings, they should consult Abbot Anton. Here’s my ring, bring it straight back.”
The Fool waggled his head: “I’m not to tell them where you are?”
“Don’t tell them, Jonas.”
“What will my poor hump say to that?” he whined.
He came running back breathless. “They were right behind me. I lost them.”
“My ring.” The Fool was wearing it.
“Wretch, give me the ring.” Ferdinand spat as he shook the rascal: “Drink, fellow. Whatever you have. I’m thirsty, fellow.”
Jonas wiggled free, stayed aloof, slurped loudly nearby. Ferdinand stumbled over to him in the corner where a lantern gleamed; there the gnome was scoffing radishes, dry bread. Ferdinand roared laughing: “Damn the pig,” grabbed the basket; the rascal screamed, held fast to the handle, they scoffed tore gulped spat tugged. The cat’s pelt kept slipping, Ferdinand kept adjusting it on his left shoulder. He held his beaker out for refills, slurped, his head was spinning, pulled the basket to his chest.
Suddenly the Fool jumped back, crawled with his basket away ten paces, hissed venomously: “You’ll have no more! You can drop dead, you’re disgusting, you thief.” He sat hidden in the dark.
“Will you give me some radish, dog?”
Ferdinand crawled on all fours, head lolling, called hoarsely, threatened begged. The rascal drew back further. Slyly the Emperor suggested: “A little bite, sir Doctor, just a little bite.”
“Nothing, nothing at all. Not even a crumb, you villain.”
“I want some,” roared the Emperor, “I can’t drop dead in this place.”
“You thief, I’ll show you.”
“What did I ever do to you, Jonas?”
“Nothing. Drop dead, drop dead!”
“A little bite.” Ferdinand sat under a barrel with a dribbling tap, snivelled: “He gives me nothing. Look at the fellow, that Jonas. Has a whole basketful. He’ll never be a doctor.”
Now Ferdinand turned onto his belly, slithered on the cat’s carcase, feet struggling; roared full-throated, raised his hands, slammed them to the ground, anointed his face with dirt, rose to his feet: “This is how you treat me, treat me this way. I’ll bring charges.”
In a rage the dwarf rushed forward, dashed the basket against his legs from behind. “Charges? You, against me? You thief.”
“He’s killing me. Help. Dire danger. What did I ever do to you.”
“Slanderer, bring charges against me!”
“Leave my legs alone.”
Scolding voices up above, people came down casting light into the space.
Jonas the dwarf gabbled in delight: “See now if you get the better of me! Haha. In front of them! You fatty.” Bawled into the vaulting: “I’m over here! Seize the thief!”
Crawled away dragging his empty basket, bleated contentment; clapped with his master’s left shoe, creeping close to him he turned a spigot; a stream of wine rattled onto the flags. Catching sight of the empty basket the Emperor howled at the two cellar-boys, who raised threatening fists, then hauled the smeared slobbering man into a sitting position.
“He ate it all. He’s bad. He’s no man of learning. He’s a guzzler, he’s callous. Told me to drop dead. Seize him. Cold-blooded rascal. May God preserve us.”
This Modernist fictional epic, written in the latter years of the First World War and published in 1920, presents a savage panoramic tapestry of the Thirty Years War which had ravaged Central Europe three centuries earlier. A creative re-imagining of history, it gives not a single date, yet is not “merely” fiction, for Döblin as usual absorbed an enormous amount of background reading; many phrases and passages have the flavour of contemporary documents. Döblin depicts ruthless and greedy powers, temporal and spiritual, manipulating and being buffeted by the transition from an expiring feudal order to the tumultuous new world arising from the Reformation. The language is vigorous, noisy, colourful, many-voiced; moods shift rapidly from one paragraph, even one sentence, to the next.
“A historical novel is firstly a novel, and secondly no history,” declared Döblin: the rare case of a creative writer who was also a cogent theorist of his art. In Wallenstein Döblin tested to the limits his theory of literature’s task in the radically changing 20th century world of industry and technology – and industrialised warfare.
How to render decades of political, religious and military catastrophes in a coherent fictional form that somehow reflects the modern age? Not by imitating the Romantic-naturalistic narrative of War and Peace, and not by retreating into the obscurities of the Symbolists, or art for art’s sake. Rather, fiction should embrace the reality of the world, without imposing on it the author’s subjectivity. Döblin advocated a Tatsachenphantasie – a factually-inspired poetics, in which objects and facts come to the fore. In Wallenstein the narrator has become a cine-camera, now panning across huge landscapes and crowd scenes, now zooming in on swords and muskets, on doublets and goblets, on machinations behind closed doors. Scene after scene in rapid succession, always vivid with objects and voices. The words and phrases and sentences – as demonstrated in these excerpts – often call attention to the language itself, as well as to the represented world.
The historical Wallenstein was a new phenomenon in 17th century Europe: brilliant administrator, savvy financial operator, and military genius – an entrepreneur of war. Twice he raised enormous armies for the Emperor; twice he was dismissed by officials fearful of his dynamism and power. In the end (in 1634) the Emperor ordered him assassinated.
The novel Wallenstein starts with the defeat in 1620 of the Protestant Bohemian rebels by the forces of the Catholic League led by Max, Duke of Bavaria. The recently elected Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, broke and lacking an army, resents his obligation to Max; so when the newly-rich Bohemian upstart Wallenstein offers to create him an army, he responds with enthusiasm. The tensions among these three men constitute perhaps the main thread of coherence within this enormous vivid noisy challenging Cinemascope epic. There is much to savour in almost every scene, as the language makes real a world of court intrigues, religious intolerance, battles, war-ravaged populations, fatuous elites unable to cope with a changing world. But the enjoyment of the viewer/reader probably depends on some prior awareness of this European cataclysm, three centuries before Verdun and the Somme. (Wikipedia is your friend!)
Excerpt 1, the beginning of the novel, depicts a victory banquet following the defeat of the Bohemians – a bravura example of Döblin’s Expressionist style. Sixty densely-packed pages later (excerpt 2) a grotesque parody of a feast takes place in the Castle cellars, featuring only the Emperor, beset with political worries, his Fool, Jonas – and an unfortunate kitten.
Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles. One of the most important figures of German literary modernism, he is much less known to the reading public than his contemporaries Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, or Franz Kafka. English readers know him, if at all, for only one work: his big city novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). His complete works include a dozen epic novels ranging from 18th-century China (The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, 1915) to the distant future (Berge Meere und Giganten (“Mountains Oceans Giants”), 1924) to the European conquest of South America (Amazonas, 1938). He also wrote several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays; a travelogue; philosophical treatises; and many essays on politics, religion, art, and society. Döblin was in exile from the Nazis between 1933 and 1945—first in France, from which he had to flee in 1940, and then in the USA.C D Godwin
C. D. Godwin’s translation of Döblin's first epic novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun is published by NY Review Books. His website https://beyond-alexanderplatz.com offers translations and background on several other Döblin works that are otherwise unavailable in English, including the epic fictions Wallenstein, Mountains Oceans Giants, Manas, and the Amazonas trilogy.