Alexander in Babylon was published in Germany in 1904. The English edition, translated anonymously, appeared in 1949.
In dealing with the final days of Alexander the Great, Wassermann eschews traditional theories about the cause or causes of Alexander’s death. Rather than speculate about possible illnesses or murderous plots, he imagines an existential crisis in which Alexander realises his conquests have amounted to nothing. This realisation – as much as any physical affliction - precipitates his demise: the death we witness is, at the same time, both a reduction - of an historical figure to the status of ‘ordinary’ mortal - and an elevation to something symbolic.
Alexander’s crisis begins – properly - with the death of his friend Hephaestion. Until then, Wassermann suggests, Alexander had existed in a kind of dream, his life seemingly blessed, the world unable to touch him:
‘Intoxication and frenzy were in his being, a reaching for the stars, a contempt for the common lot, a shunning of the ordinary, daily, hourly existence – the yearning for immortality. Often it was like an exuberant dream around Alexander when the swords clanged and the shields rattled, and the earth shuddered under the heels of the armies, and the heavens crimsoned. Often he had been impelled, at the screams of the dying, to sit among them and read his Homer.’
With Hephaestion’s death, however, the spell is broken and Alexander becomes self-aware. He strives in vain for some sort of consolation. His former vigour and resolve desert him, leaving him indecisive and anxious:
‘Each night nature revealed a new image, and on each occasion he sought to decipher in its calm or stormy features his own uneasiness. He saw himself deserted by all human beings. He searched for a God and could find none... [h]e followed the trail of a falling star and rose to catch the hand that had thrust it into space. Or was that arc only a phantom to which the gleaming dot was fixed? Who bestowed knowledge and moodily snatched it away? Who could, at any moment, in thoughtless, effortless, indiscriminate play, crush every being into dust?’
Finally faced with his own mortality, he realises that his military successes, his power and wealth, count for very little. He has a presentiment that after he is dead the world will be essentially unchanged:
‘Perhaps before this very summer ended, his heart would be stilled. And why had he stormed off to conquer enemies, to slay men, to found cities, to issue laws, to dethrone kings? Why had he lost friends, insulted the Gods, lain awake nights, made plans? Why beauty, wealth, hatred, love? Why tears, why laughter – if everything must be so, as it always was?’
This perception – that his supposed greatness becomes insignificant when considered in the grand scheme of things – is then reinforced by the appearance of his half-brother, Arrhidaeus (who will eventually succeed him to the throne). Hitherto, Alexander has been strong and Arrhidaeus weak. But now Alexander sees in the other’s face a reflection of himself as he could have been, or might be, or may still become:
‘Again Alexander thought he saw his own image in that gaunt face with its half-open, nearly toothless mouth, his own features gruesomely contorted, as though a shadow had borrowed his own features to enact a mysterious and tragic play.’
Arrhidaeus is no longer Alexander’s opposite but his shadow; almost his doppelgänger – a further hint that Alexander is about to die. It hardly matters whether he was poisoned or whether he contracted a fever, Wassermann implies: the significant thing it that he was, for the first time in his life, vulnerable.
Alexander died when he was thirty-two. Alexander in Babylon was published when Wassermann was thirty-one. This might be a coincidence. Or it might not. It would certainly explain why Wassermann chose to write about this particular period in Alexander’s life. It would also explain his preoccupation with themes of disappointment and doubt, with the frustrated search for meaning.
The book sits uneasily alongside Wassermann’s other fictional works. As an experiment it does not quite succeed: the narrative trajectory is too linear - a straight line down ('the trail of a falling star'). There is little in the way of suspense or tension; the pervasive mood is one of decline, of things grinding down to an inevitable, anticlimactic conclusion. In place of characterisation and incident, there is a dark phantasmagoria of moods and sensations. The overall tone is one of weariness and disillusionment at ‘the corrupt state of this world and all its bizarre insipidness.’
Yet, for all that, it is a bold attempt to reproduce what was perhaps for Wassermann a similar period of crisis. The ennui and despair he describes are possibly as much his as Alexander’s. Thus when Wassermann writes of Alexander –
‘He was amazed at his own hesitation, at the fatal tarrying that resembled the gropings of a man lost in the dark...’
- we can see a frustration with himself. The narrative we are presented with is one that, for all its skill and invention, has effectively stalled. At its heart is an awareness that no achievement, however great, can last; that eventually all empires, real or imagined, will turn to dust. Fortunately, Wassermann found a way to carry on writing. His literary output, from then on, became far more significant – the quality of his writing far better.
From Jakob Wassermann, Alexander In Babylon, (Ziff-Davis, 1949)