DÖBLIN’S MARVELLOUS BUT MOST NEGLECTED NOVELManas - Introduction
MANAS – AN INTRODUCTION
“How on Earth did you come up with this?” exclaimed the dismayed publisher, Samuel Fischer, who was already reducing the monthly stipend to his productive but still far from best-selling author Döblin. (This was two years before Berlin Alexanderplatz exploded on the scene, and more or less obliterated all that came before and after.)
Fischer’s consternation is perhaps understandable. The verse-epic, for millennia a staple of European literature (think Homer, Virgil, Dante, Pope, Pushkin, Goethe, Byron), had gone out of fashion by the middle of the 19th century. India was a favourite exotic setting for Germans, fed on lavishly illustrated travelogues and translations of Hindu scriptures; and Hesse’s Siddhartha, published just five years earlier, was a modest success. But here’s Döblin mixing Hindu myths with European psychology and philosophy, without a word of introduction or explanation!
Döblin could be his own worst enemy when it came to engaging with his readers. The early epics (before THAT book) present a wall of text, with scant divisions into ‘Parts’ and ‘Chapters’. No signposts, no introduction beyond a rather cryptic ‘Dedication’. (Manas doesn’t even have that!) He plonks a slab of brainfare down before us with a ‘Guten Appetit!’ Some readers, alas, suffer indigestion.
And the Lit Crit industry has been no help at all. Even though Döblin stated bluntly that Franz Biberkopf, the ‘hero’ of Berlin Alexanderplatz, is ‘Manas with a Berlin accent’ (Manas auf berlinisch), almost no one so much as mentions this work (in German, let alone in English). How any scholar can claim to be an expert on THAT book without placing it in the context of Manas and the other early epics is a mystery of the trade… And because even the scholars ignore it, the outer circle of literati in the media never think (or dare) to explore it, so potential readers never hear of it, and publishers won’t touch it because it’s ‘unknown’.
But Manas…! When I started reading (I found a first edition in a secondhand bookshop just below Albert Einstein’s old apartment in Bern, 40 francs; there was no modern edition in print just then), I couldn’t believe my eyes! Such vivid scenes! Such energy! Such vigorous direct uncluttered dramatic language (nothing of the noisy chaotic soundscape of the Berlin book)! Constantly shifting voices and moods! And the plot… whatever next?!!
As I translated I kept imagining Manas as a graphic novel… a stage play… a Bollywood film… Once I’d finished, I thought: right, let’s try to put this out there in a form that will immediately appeal. So I adapted it as a Play for Voices. Just right for BBC Radio 3 or 4, I thought.
I bounced the script off several producers with radio experience: Sorry, BBC’s changed, they won’t be interested. A BBC competition was announced for new radio drama ideas, hurrah! – but when the rules were published (very close to the deadline): ‘no translations, original ideas only’.
I sometimes think there’s a wicked sprite somewhere, making sure Döblin never receives his due. (Thomas Mann, are you hovering?)
Anyway, here’s a taster of this most readable and exciting and totally unjustly neglected work. And here’s the pdf download of the Play for Voices. Please download it! Pester your local AmDram society to give a reading! Let us know how you get on, via the Comment box.