Archive for the ‘Hans Fallada’ Category

Nightmare in Berlin

October 11, 2016

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If I could have read any book published in 1947 for Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club I would probably have started with Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement or Jose Saramago’s Terra do Pecado. Unfortunately neither seems to have been translated into English (if you know differently, let me know), but fortuitously another previously untranslated work from that year has recently appeared: Hans Fallada’s Der Alpdruck. Nightmare in Berlin (translated by Allan Blunden) is Fallada’s penultimate novel, written shortly before Alone in Berlin, which was also published that year.

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Jenny Williams (author of Fallada biography More Lives Than One) has described it as “The book that cleared the way for Alone in Berlin,” and we see something of that in the novel itself which is largely autobiographical and makes reference to the central character, Doll’s, crisis of faith regarding his writing. We can find an accurate summary of the novel in the notes on Fallada’s life provided at the back:

“Marriage in Berlin to the 22-year-old Ursula ‘Ulla’ Losch, who also has a history of morphine addition; because of the ceaseless air-raids they…move out to [Ulla’s] wooden chalet in Klinkecken, on the outskirts of Feldberg; when the war ends Fallada is made mayor of Feldberg by the occupying Red Army; in August the couple suffer a breakdown and are hospitalised; they return to their apartment in Berlin-Schoneberg which is partly destroyed, partly occupied by others…”

Much of what Fallada writes in Nightmare in Berlin is therefore almost contemporaneous with events around him. The novel begins with Doll and his wife Alma awaiting the arrival of Russian troops after the SS pull out of the town. As other villagers consider hiding in the woods, Alma announces:

“We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not hiding anything away; my husband and I are going to welcome the long-awaited liberators at the door of our house!”

Doll, however, is not feeling so optimistic: yes, he is pleased at the defeat of the Nazis, but at the same time he despairs for his country:

“…he knew, at least in theory, that ever since the Nazi seizure of power and the persecution of the Jews, the name ‘German’, already badly damaged by the First World War, had become progressively more reviled and despised, from week to week and month to month. How often had he said to himself, ‘We will never be forgiven for this!’”

He has a recurring dream (or nightmare) in which he is trapped at the bottom of a bomb crater:

“He was lying at the bottom of a huge bomb crater, on his back, his arms pressed tightly against his sides, lying in the wet, yellow mud. Without moving his head, he was able to see the trunks of trees that had toppled into the crater, as well as the facades of houses with their empty window openings, and nothing behind them.”

This sense of helplessness pervades the novel, a helplessness which is exacerbated by the Dolls’ use of morphine. Despite the threat of an occupying army Alma ventures out to “replenish her supply of gallbladder medicine,” going as far as to ask one of the Russian soldiers to open the chemist’s shop for her.

Morphine addiction also haunts their return to Berlin, as we see when Doll finally finds a doctor to see his wife (who has injured her leg). She refuses to go into hospital but is happy instead to be treated with morphine at home:

“The effect was immediate: no sooner had the needle gone in than Doll saw the relaxed, almost happy, expression spread across his wife’s face.”

Soon they have numerous doctors coming at different times in order to receive more and more of the drug.

After each of these periods of addiction Doll regrets the time wasted in what he calls their “bed-graves.” This fear of addiction may explain the inclusion of a lengthy detour which recounts Doll’s confrontation with Dr Wilhem, a vet reduced to alcoholism.

While addiction may not characterise every survivor, Fallada paints a vivid picture of life in the aftermath of the war. Doll has to come to terms with the fact they are little more than beggars:

“Now the Dolls, too, were down and out, with only a small suitcase to their name, homeless, dependent on the help of friends, strangers, maybe even public assistance.”

Every time they meet an old friend they discover that each of them is so eager to tell the story of their misfortunes they have no patience to listen to the other. Fallada is particularly good, as he is in all of his novels which I have read, at detailing the minutia of hope and despair, the small victories and defeats which characterise a life of struggle. This, more than anything, gives the novel its dramatic force.

Nightmare in Berlin may not be as great a novel as Alone in Berlin, but it is a powerful testament of the time in which it was written. That strength is also perhaps its weakness, mined from life in reaction to the fear Doll expresses that “Maybe I’ll never write another book. Everything looks so bleak.” Even its last few pages, however, contains many wonderful moments, from Doll’s nurse, Truller, who asks everyone leaving the hospital, “And if you should hear anything – you know what I mean – you’ll let me know at once?” in reference to her missing son, to the young girl Doll spots in the street:

“Her dress appeared to have been made from a couple of flour sacks. When the wearer made it she still retained a little bit of hope, despite her wretched circumstances; she had added some crudely embroidered decorative trims and a little white collar, as if to say, ‘I’m young, you can still look at me, even if I’m only wearing a dress made from old sacking!’”

And, of course, we can enjoy Doll’s friend and fellow writer, Granzow’s, remark that “one day you’ll write the book that everyone is waiting for!”

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Tales from the Underworld

February 16, 2014

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Michael Hofmann’s translation of Hans Fallada’s Iron Gustav seems to have been delayed until later this year, but in the meantime we have this collection of Fallada’s shorter fiction, Tales from the Underworld. As Hofmann points out, these stories take us through Fallada’s writing career, beginning with his first published story, ‘The Wedding Ring’, from 1925, and ending with ‘The Old Flame’, published after his death in 1946. Also included are a few pieces which did not appear in print until the 1990s. (These are found at the end of the anthology which is ordered by publication but with reference to their probable dates of composition). Disappointingly, for those who know Fallada through his most famous work, Alone in Berlin, there is a gap between 1935 and 1945, and therefore nothing which touches on the subject of that great novel.

Above all, Fallada is interested in poverty and the struggle to earn a living: words like ‘revenue’, ‘pension’, ‘cheap’, ‘job’ and ‘fifty marks’ are scattered throughout the titles. One story is called simply ‘Food and Grub’. In the slightly gothic opener, ‘The Wedding Ring’, the ring may hold symbolic value to the husband, but to the other characters, the man who has found it and the wife, who offers fifty marks for its return, it is a commodity. ‘I Get a Job’ tells of the struggle not only to find, but to keep employment during the depression. The narrator finds work selling subscriptions to a newspaper on commission, a precarious income in itself. The job is lost on a customer’s whim, leaving him very much where he started:

“I had nine marks left. I would go to the city and try to find something there.”

In ‘Happiness and Woe’ the unemployed husband spends the rent money: “It was like an illness. I don’t know what came over me.” It is his wife’s matter-of-fact forgiveness, however, that makes the story surprising. ‘The Lucky Beggar’ is another story that explores the desperation of the hunt for work. This is not to say that all the stories are gloomy and depressing, but even the happiest, like ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ tend to be about making ends meet. In fact, the ‘happy ending’ in this story is literally represented by a balance sheet.

In all these stories relationships are important: rarely are Fallada’s characters loners facing their problems alone. Generally, and perhaps sentimentally, these relationships tend to survive poverty unscathed. In ‘The Returning Soldier’ the main character returns from the war with an injured arm that won’t bend. He tells his fiancée that they can no longer marry but “She was adamant that she didn’t want to let him go.” In the ensuing embrace, his arm begins to move again. Both the early story ‘Passion’ and the late story ‘The Old Flame’ (twenty years separating them) are about characters who cannot forget their first love.

While a number of the stories are well crafted, others are closer to sketches. Many have an autobiographical or documentary feel. When Fallada begins one with the line:

“There was once a young man – not to put too fine a point on it, it was I, the author of these lines…”

we feel that this could apply to a number of the stories. Others read as stories Fallada has been told, and are presented in unvarnished form as such. ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’ is literally an answer to that question; ‘On the Lam’ is the written down tale of someone Fallada met in prison. But it is this urgent realism that is often their main attraction. Few writers have described the lives of this in the ‘underworld’ as Fallada has, and this collection provides an excellent overview of that talent.

A Small Circus

March 9, 2012

The success of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is a reminder that literature in translation can prove popular, even if outwith the detective genre. It shouldn’t be a surprise: Fallada was a determinedly populist writer, and his characters were deliberately ordinary. He was a writer who attempted to dramatise the pressures of everyday life, though at an admittedly extraordinary time for Germany. With Melville House having already released new translations of The Drinker, Little Man, What Now? and Wolf Among Wolves, Penguin have followed the success of Alone in Berlin with the early novel Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben, again translated by Michael Hofmann. Though the title literally means something like ‘Farmers, Politicians and Bombs’, Hofmann has opted for the more poetic A Small Circus. This is apt, not only because the novel begins with a circus setting up near the town of Altholm where it is set, but because the events of the novel present the political situation in Germany as a circus, with much posturing among the parties, tricks and slapstick, and an undercurrent of danger.

The real circus causes offence to the local paper, The Chronicle, within the first few pages, refusing to advertise in its pages due to the fact that “No-one reads our fish-and-chip paper!” The editor, Stuff, takes his revenge by writing a poor review of the circus having never seen it. Fallada worked on such a newspaper and has a keen eye for its struggle for survival and the cynical shortcuts it takes to produce copy. Each of the local papers also has a political slant and there is much leaking of information from politician to journalist, as well as non-reporting of inconvenient stories. It is one of many areas where the novel retains a relevance to the present day.

During the Weimar Republic, Germany found itself struggling economically and heavily in debt (sound familiar?) The question, then as now, is who to tax? The novel opens with a wonderful scene where two tax officials attempt to recover oxen in lieu of unpaid taxes. This time, however, the farmers are ready for them: they refuse to buy the oxen at auction and when the officials lead the animals away, they block the roads with fire. Fallada keeps a neat balance between comedy (one official is experienced and determined; the other new and naïve) and tension. The farmers’ political activism leads to a protest march through the town. The movement, however, contains agitators like Georg Henning (in the Dramatis Personae there is a section for Troublemakers); a flag he creates is objected to by the police and he is badly hurt when they try to confiscate it. As a result, the farmers decide to boycott the town.

This brief summary, however, does not even begin to do justice to all the novel contains. Fallada creates a vast cast of characters covering all sides in the dispute. He takes us everywhere we might want to go, from the Mayor’s office to a prison cell. His approach is almost documentary, something emphasised by his extensive use of direct speech, at times to create the effect of a chorus:

“Then ten voices shouted all at once: ‘It’s awful, Your Worship!’
‘I won’t be thrown off the bus.’
‘I’ve paid my fare.
‘Sitting down here himself, what a way to behave.’
‘That’s the police all over. Of course we’ve got no flaming rights.’”

A Small Circus lacks the sympathetic characters of Alone in Berlin. Each of them – journalist, politician, farmer – is plotting or scheming in one way or another. However, they are all identifiably human: for all his satire, Fallada does not resort to stereotypes. Fallada may not be the most artful of novelists, but here is a novel which is bursting with life.

Little Man, What Now?

June 6, 2010

The success of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin has been astonishing, capturing the attention of the general reader in a way that other well-received revivals, Sandor Marai or Stefan Zweig for example, have not. Hopefully, at least some of those readers will be drawn, like me, to investigate some of Fallada’s other work, including this new translation of Little Man, What Now? by Susan Bennett, which began this reappraisal of his novels. As Philip Brady’s excellent Afterword reveals, Fallada’s popularity should not surprise us as the novel was widely read in its day, translated into numerous languages, and made into a film both in Germany and Hollywood.

As with Alone in Berlin, the focus is very much on (as the title implies) characters that seemed marked out by their very ordinariness. Whereas that novel centres on an elderly couple who lose their son, this one begins with a young couple who marry when they discover that are going to become parents. Ironically, they discover this when consulting a doctor about contraception – needed because they can’t afford to have children. Pinneberg’s reaction to the news emphasises this:

“ ‘Doctor,’ said Pinneberg and his lip trembled, ‘I earn one hundred and eighty marks a month! Please, Doctor!’”

References to money are a constant throughout the novel: it opens with Pinneberg speculating that the doctor must “earn a packet”, and lingers over the fifteen mark payment the couple must make to him. It doesn’t take long before the reader has a fairly accurate idea of just how much a mark is worth in Germany in the early thirties. This verifies Fallada’s almost documentary style, but does not tell the whole story. The couple’s poverty and struggle to survive are set beside their love for each other. Again, we see this from the opening scene, when Pinneberg looks towards Lammchen:

“How beautiful she was! thought Pinneberg yet again; she was the greatest girl in the world, the only one for him.”

The use of the pet name ‘Lammchen’ throughout, even in the narrative, suggests their love, and Pinneburg soon decides, on discovering Lammchen’s pregnancy, that they should marry:

“Her eyes lit up. She had dark blue eyes with a green tinge. And now they were fairly overflowing with light.”

From this point on, the novel follows them as they attempt to make ends meet, often accounting their income and expenditure mark by mark. This struggle is marked out by anxiety and powerlessness. Pinneberg must keep their marriage secret as his job relies on the possibility that he might marry the boss’s daughter. Inevitably, when they are discovered, he loses the job, and the impossibility of finding another one with millions unemployed is slim until they receive a letter form his estranged mother. A friend of hers finds Pinneberg work in a department store in Berlin, but there he is constantly threatened with sales quotas. However, as I have already mentioned, this grinding poverty is counter-pointed with moments of extravagant love, for example when Pinneberg buys Lammchen a dressing table they can’t afford:

“Pinneberg looked at it, at length. He stepped back, the forward; it was just as beautiful either way. The mirror was a good one too. It would be lovely to see Lammchen sitting in front of it in the morning I her red and white bathrobe…”

Fallada lingers over the purchase and the delivery of this gift that symbolises Pinneberg’s love for his wife, and at no point does she upbraid him for this spendthrift action.

Fallada also highlights the couple’s honesty, in contrast to characters who are better off through less legal means, like Pinneberg’s mother and her boyfriend Jachmann. Pinneberg’s friend, Heilbutt, also does well for himself selling nude photographs when he loses his job as a salesman, but Pinneberg finds he cannot do this when given the chance. Even towards the novel’s end, when times are particularly hard, he refuses to go stealing firewood. Fallada is not condemning the others, so much as pointing out that those who suffer most are often those who play by the society’s rules.

Fallada is not a great stylist, but he has a knack for making his characters live and breathe, and his storytelling is gripping. This is a novel which still has the power to show us what it is like for the ‘little man’, struggling to survive from day to day, and the love which makes it worthwhile.

Alone in Berlin

February 10, 2010

Almost all European fiction finds it difficult to make inroads into English, but German literature seems to struggle more than most. French novels are far more frequently translated – and often feted on the basis of the prizes they have won in France. In the post-war period, only Gunter Grass and, more recently, Bernhard Schlink, have become widely known outside Germany. Both made their name with novels examining their country’s Nazi past; but here is a novel by a writer who lived through that period, as a writer, and wrote in response to it almost immediately, in 1946. Hans Fallada was acutely aware of the dilemmas faced by his characters, having been pressured into altering his own work when the Nazis were in power. Although presented as a novel about resistance to the Nazis, Fallada gives us a much wider picture of life in Nazi Germany: for every character who protests, there is one who supports, compromises, or simply looks out for themselves. That Fallada is interested in all these characters is shown by the way that, from chapter to chapter, he moves among his cast to create a panoramic view of Berlin at that time.

Fallada presents his main theme to us quite starkly towards the end of the novel:

“Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one?”

This is the question that Fallada’s unlikely hero, Otto Quangel, answers no to. He is initially far from a hero, both in appearance and character. Our attention is frequently drawn to his “sharp, angular bird face”, and his most pronounced characteristics are his taciturnity and meanness:

“Quangel really seemed to feel every ten pfenning piece he was forced to contribute at collection time.”

His main reason for not joining the Party seems to be that he resents the extra dues he would have to pay. He is not, however, without more positive qualities. He has an innate sense of fairness and dislikes the Party for promoting those who don’t deserve it simply for being Party members. He also clearly loves his wife, something we are told at the beginning (“In his quiet, demonstrative way, he loves this woman very much”) and is equally evident at the end.

Otto and his wife, Anna’s, resistance takes the form of writing anti-Nazi messages on postcards and then leaving them for others to find. Not only is this a rather passive way to resist, but Fallada makes it quite clear that it is ineffectual – almost every postcard is immediately handed in. Their rebellion only begins when their son dies in the war. They are not the only characters who resist in the novel and, in a number of cases, this is linked to the loss of a child. Eva Klug’s resistance begins when she ‘loses’ her son to the Nazis, not through death, but because she discovers the atrocities he has been involved in. Trudel, once Otto’s son’s fiancée, talks of hiding a Jewish woman after she has a miscarriage. The motives of other characters who resist the regime, such as Judge Fromm, are less clear.

However, Fallada is not only interested in those who resist; the narrative spends an equal amount of time with those who either worked for the regime or sought to profit from it. In fact, Fallada quite cleverly weaves together this group of petty criminals and Nazis to emphasise their similarity. One particular example of this is the Quangels’ Jewish neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been imprisoned. Borkhausen, the basement-dwelling thief and blackmailer, is soon scheming how he can get his hands on her belongings, as are the local Nazis, the Persickes. Later, a member of the Gestapo also attempts to steal from the house. Although these characters are often ridiculed, Fallada is also capable of moments of sympathy, particularly in the case of Inspector Escherich, a detective who never quite belongs in the world of the Party.

Escherich provides one of the best examples of the atmosphere of fear that inhabits the entire novel. When, having failed to catch the Quangels, he suggests the case be given to another detective this is regarded as “desertion in the face of the enemy”, and he is taken to the cells to be punished. The fear that permeates every level of society is evident from the beginning when Borkhausen attempts to blackmail Otto:

“You know I can get you put in a concentration camp for defeatist muttering like that?”

We see it again when the first postcard is found by actor Max Harteisen:

“Sweat beaded on his brow, suddenly he understood that it wasn’t just the writer of the postcard, but also himself, who was in danger of his life, and perhaps he even more than the other!”

It is in the portrayal of this aspect of life under the Nazis that the novel is most successful.

It is not, however, simply a document, but a cleverly crafted novel, with a diverse cast of characters, flitting between farce and pathos, not unlike Dickens. It is also page turner, shifting perspective to increase tension. It certainly worth discovering, even sixty years later.