Posts Tagged ‘little man what now’

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.