The Drinker

Hans Fallada would probably not feature on a list of my favourite writers, and yet it is noticeable that he is a writer I have written frequently about – five times, in fact, since the publication of Alone in Berlin. Certainly there is a rawness to his work, including a willingness to peel back to the emotional core of his characters, which is almost hypnotic, but, perhaps more importantly, his narratives are compelling, frequently depicting a desperation which drives his protagonists from one crisis to the next

The Drinker is no exception, a story of alcoholism and madness much of which is drawn directly from Fallada’s own life. The narrator, Erwin Sommer, begins as a respected businessman, but Fallada quickly identifies the series of events, each minor in itself, which cause him to turn to drink. His business is not as successful as it once was, and his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, with frequent quarrels. Exacerbating the situation, his wife is also his business partner, a role which has diminished over time and which even he is aware is a direct cause of the business’ current failings:

“In actual business dealings I was inclined to hold back as much as possible, not to force myself on anybody, and never to ask for anything. So it was inevitable, after Magda’s withdrawal, that our business went on in the old way at first, nothing new came in, and then gradually, slowly, year by year, it fell away.”

The catalyst, however, is the absence of a door mat, and a trail of muddy foot prints which causes his wife to criticise:

“The obvious injustice of the reproach took my breath away, but I restrained myself.”

The thought of wine is a casual one, but a glass and a half immediately cheers him and, he believes, repairs his relationship with his wife. In fact, it has only altered his perception – “the alcohol transformed the whole world for me.” Soon after, when he loses a major contract, his first thought is to have a drink, a visit to an inn introducing him to spirits:

“I felt it going down, burning and acrid – and suddenly a feeling of warmth spread in my stomach, an agreeable and genial warmth.”

The feeling is also emotional – “My cares had fallen way from me” – Fallada perfectly capturing the allure of alcohol’s escape. Of course, Fallada is equally accurate when it comes to the resultant hangover:

“I get up stiffly. My whole body feels battered, my head is hollow, my mouth is dry and thick.”

The novel follows Sommer’s descent from respectability to destitution. What makes it compulsively readable is that this fall is both resistible and inevitable. Taking on the tone of tragedy, his every step takes him further away from his previous life, tragic because at every point he has the power to prevent it. He believes that as long as he does not appear drunk, his drunkenness is above reproach, asking Magda “have you ever seen me stagger about or heard me stammer?” Fallada captures the classic delusions of the alcoholic: when his wife attempts to help him, insisting he see a doctor, he regards her as the enemy. She arranges for the doctor to pick him up in his car – he declares it is “a cleverly laid trap” – which he escapes from when it pulls over.

This ‘escape’ places him in the hands of a dishonest landlord, Lobedanz, who quickly strips him of his possessions in return for lodgings and alcohol until he is driven to rob his own house. Fallada dramatically demonstrates the disconnect between Erwin’s view of his actions and the perception of others when he is found in the house and the maid declares, “He wants to kill his wife!” He is not only dismissive of her reaction, but cannot see the danger for himself.

In the novel’s second half we see Sommer both in prison and in an asylum (in fact, he agonises over which is the better option for him), environments which Fallada knew well, and which are therefore presented in convincing, often excruciating, detail. We follow him because we know that, at heart, he is not a bad man, for example giving Magda the power attorney and naming her the sole beneficiary in his will. Fallada also never glamorises his addiction, nor glories in his disgrace.

Though it was written in 1944, the story of The Drinker continues to take place today, as we increasingly witness in the homeless on our streets. It is a tale of addiction as powerful and important as any.

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9 Responses to “The Drinker”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    This sounds like a very subtle and nuanced depiction of a slide into alcoholism, which is, I would imagine, how it actually happens. Very interesting.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    As you say, there is a timeless quality to this type of story, so much so that it made me think of two other writers (or novels) that touch on the destructive nature of drinking to excess, albeit in different ways – Richard Yates, whose work you know very well, and Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, which I read earlier this year.

    Compelling seems to be the word for Fallada’s fiction. I only got around to reading Alone in Berlin (Every Man Dies Alone) a couple of months ago, but I found it so absorbing. Have you read Nightmare in Berlin? If so, would you recommend it as a follow-on read to Alone.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I’ve read Nightmare in Berlin. Although I wouldn’t say Fallada is a writer I’ve gone out of my way to read, I seem to have read a few of his books. I think the only two I’ve yet to read are Iron Gustav and Wolf Among Wolves.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    IMO This is the only book about addiction that is worth reading. Contemporary efforts don’t interest me at all, but this one is, as you say, compelling. Jacqui, I would recommend anything written by Fallada. I’ve read 6 of his and they were all brilliant.

  4. Tony Says:

    I’ve still only ever read one Fallada book (‘Kleiner Mann, Was Nun?’), and that was for my A-Levels! I must get around to trying more at some point…

  5. GLM VIII: Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] 1 2 Elsberg Zero 1 Enzensberger Where Were You, Robert? 1 Fallada Once A Jailbird 1 The Drinker 1 Funke Inkheart 1 Goethe Elective Affinities 1 Iphigenia on Tauris 1 Gläser The Book Jumper 1 2 […]

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