April 9, 2009

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

Posted in Fallada Hans, Hofmann Michael, Melville House, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Midway through Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), a character gives up on reading a book. He’s asked if he isn’t enjoying it.

Ach, you know, not really … They’re all such terribly good people, and I get bored. It’s too much like a proper book. Not a book that a man can sink his teeth into. I’m looking for something with a bit more excitement, you know.

How kind of Fallada to incorporate that passage to make it easy for people like me to say: he should have read Alone in Berlin then. Here there is plenty of excitement to sink your teeth into – even though it is very much like a proper book.

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin

And the beauty of it is that most of the characters are not “terribly good people”: and we’re not even talking about the Nazis. Alone in Berlin is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” (Primo Levi), but it is its open-eyed realism which makes it shine. The characters are venal, selfish, chaotic, not types but real people. (Indeed, the book is based on true events.) There is the ineffectual and emotionally incontinent Enno Kluge; Emil Borkhausen, whose loyalty lies with the highest bidder; Karl Hergesell, former resistance organiser who gave up for the comforts of a secure home life (“My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing”). Even the heroes of the story, the Quangels, are deluded about the scope of their resistance campaign.

As the book opens, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in an apartment block in Jablonski Strasse, Berlin, in 1940, have just learned that their son has been killed when fighting for Hitler in the war. It’s a merciful release, in a way, from the ever-present fear for him (“After each letter from the front you felt better for a day or two, then you counted back how many days had passed since it was sent, and then your fear began again”). When Anna, distraught, blames Otto – “you and that Führer of yours!” – this sets off an emotional journey in Otto which leads him to undertake a modest but life-threatening resistance campaign across the city. This, incidentally, is where I began to see more sense in the UK cover design, which initially seemed to be a dramatic lapse in the normally good taste of Penguin (if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Comic Sans). I still have my doubts, however, about the UK title. On the one hand, aloneness, as discussed below, is a central theme; on the other, the US title, Every Man Dies Alone, is a closer translation of the original German (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) and has a brutal relevance, as a chaplain points out to Otto Quangel when he doubts the value of the resistance.

Of course, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain.

In fact the UK title and cover – and quotes on the back, where Alan Furst and Philip Kerr get precedence over Primo Levi – make clear that here, Alone in Berlin is being sold as a thriller. And it is: there is an excellent control of pace (over 570 pages), good and not-so-good guys in all shades of grey, and some genuinely thrilling moments such as the showdown between Escherich and Kluge at the end of part two.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone

Beyond that, Fallada displays an acute understanding of motivations. When Enno Kluge is being interrogated by a Gestapo man, he is so psychologically beaten by the experience that he offers a false confession as a “favour” – “he was terrified of antagonizing this nice inspector”. The inspector himself, knowing the confession is false, nonetheless comes to believe in Kluge’s guilt because “too many curious coincidences clustered round the fellow.” Fallada efficiently shows that of such illogical (in)humanity are life and death decisions made.

The book is not perfect. Fallada wrote it in less than a month, and it is an astonishing achievement with or without that knowledge. But sometimes his haste shows – tenses change mid-scene with alarming frequency – and too often his thumb is on the scales, with melodramatic chapter endings and authorial intervention. Even translator Michael Hofmann, never knowingly underpraised on this blog, makes a few odd choices, such as using words like “mate” which give the impression that the book has been translated not into English but into British. Curiously, the rough edges seem to enhance rather than detract, neatly meeting the book’s promoted status as an unearthed relic, written on the hoof (Fallada died shortly after completing it, having been incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum during the war). We should be grateful to have it in translation at last. It’s hard not to see Alone in Berlin becoming a widely read modern classic.

Solitude – being alone, in Berlin or anywhere else – is foremost in the minds of many of the characters. One character longs for it – “perhaps when she’s alone she will amount to more: she’ll have some time to herself, she won’t need to put herself last”, while wondering when facing time alone, “what will I discover about myself that I never knew?” In a Germany “jam-packed with uniforms”, all the resistance volunteers are made to feel alone together. “No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.” The sense of oppression is well done, and all the better for its contemporaneity, which gives it the essence of reportage and the ring of truth. “Danger’s not on the doorstep,” Otto Quangel tells his wife. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.”

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33 Comments »

  1. You had me at German resistance.

  2. John Self said,

    I am delighted to have completed you on this occasion, Candy.

  3. Year but is costing me. $17.00 to be exact.

  4. Paul Schultz said,

    Thank you for highlighting this novel. I had not heard of it, but certainly intend to read it. The story of anti-Nazi resistance from German people remains an under-reported aspect of WWII history. Despite recent attention to the subject (books on Dietrich Boenhoeffer, and films about Schindler, Sophie Scholl, and Vons Stauffenberg), too many are unaware of the heroic efforts of those individuals who had the courage to oppose the maniac leading their nation to destruction and international vilification. Too many paid for their bravery with their lives. Those interested in the period might want to check out my new novel, The Fuhrer Virus. It is a fictional WWII spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers and can be found at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheFuhrerVirus.html, http://www.amazon.com, and http://www.barnesandnoble.com.

    Thanks!

    Paul Schultz (no relation to Candy!)

  5. CR Fraser said,

    Excellent book and I particulalrly appreciated the fact that it is based on a true story and that some of hte Gestapo files are reproduced in the back. It would have been a shame if the real man and woman who inspired this story had faded into obscurity.

    Colin

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul – I’ll allow your shameless plug to stand as it does at least have some relevance to the book under discussion!

    Colin, can I ask you what edition of the book you read? There are no reproductions of Gestapo files in the UK edition (which is published by Penguin Classics) or mention of the real people behind the story (I read about them in another review) – indeed, there is no critical apparatus or introduction at all, which for me added to the impression that the book is being published and marketed here with the thriller aspect to the fore.

  7. JRSM said,

    I really loved this, despite its occasional flaws, and was also surprised to see people talking about the Gestapo files in the back. I assume these are in the Melville House version from the US: I bought the other two Falladas they’ve reprinted (both excellent), and they have a lot of useful extra information included.

    Fallada seems to have been an interesting chap, to say the least. How someone who wrote a book poking fun at the Nazis in 1932, and who had that same book turned into an internationally successful film by Jewish film-makers soon afterwards, and who was a morphine and booze addict, institutionalised by the Nazis, and whose own attempts at corroborating with the Nazi regime, when forced into it, seem to have been less than enthusiastic… how he survived the war is beyond me. Sorry about that last sentence getting out of control.

    • Carla Glowacki said,

      No apologizes allowed. now im more excited to get going on the work of this reborn(?) author. Ive just been in a frenzy of ” what shall i read next?”, and deciding whom of all those i havent read, i would. Now i have a name brand new to my ears and one who speaks of the German Resistance. Although it may have been small im elated to find out that there was one!

  8. Carla Glowacki said,

    i was so excited to hear of this resurrected German novelist on the Charlie Rose show. Now all i have to do is go out and find his work. Somebody must be on to this.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments Carla. And don’t forget about Fallada’s other most famous books, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now?, which are being reissued in English translation soon.

  10. Lorian Hayes said,

    I saw that Charlie Rose interview on the Goethe Institut site:

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10224

    Fascinating. It explained a good deal, especially hearing the American publisher speak. According to Rose he’s the one behind the Fallada revival and in the interview he says he has published The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? already. He must have given permissions for Every Man (how does that work?) to Penguin, but why on earth would they change the title? Isn’t that rather improper?

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks for the link Lorian. Great to hear Fallada and the book being discussed so enthusiastically. In relation to Dennis Johnson of Melville House’s comments (starting at around 10:20 in the clip), I interpret them to refer to The Drinker and Little Man, What Now?, which had been published in English long before but fallen out of print.

    When I started reading them, I became shocked that I was not aware of this writer before, and we decided that we’d gotta not only bring these books back but we’ve also got to right a literary injustice.

    This couldn’t refer to Alone in Berlin/Every Man Dies Alone as it wasn’t translated into English before so he couldn’t have been ‘bringing it back’. However he does confuse things by then referring to “these… three truly great books”.

    In fact it is my understanding that the translation of Alone in Berlin/Every Man Dies Alone was commissioned by Penguin UK. I also understand that although Penguin wanted to reissue the other two books as Modern Classics in the UK, Melville House decided to distribute them in the UK instead. I do think this means those two books will get less exposure in the UK than they might have done.

    However I’d also like to see the UK paperback introduce the afterword and additional material which appears to be in the US edition. And I don’t have any information on why Penguin chose a different title for the UK edition.

    • Lorian Hayes said,

      Thanks for explaining! Bravo Penguin! Bloody yanks … although he was impressive ….

  12. John Self said,

    Ah, not so fast Lorian! It looks as though I have been labouring under a misapprehension – no doubt due to a combination of lack of understanding of publishing minutiae as well as the softening of the brain which accompanies parenthood.

    You were right the first time: I believe Melville House acquired the English language rights and commissioned the translation. As well as The Drinker and Little Man, What Now?, they will also be publishing more Fallada in English both in the US and the UK.

    In any event both publishers are to be congratulated for making this fascinating book and brilliant writer available in English. I noted this weekend that the Penguin UK edition is already in its third printing: not bad for a 600-page, 60-year-old novel in translation which was published two months ago.

  13. John Self said,

    I have now got my hands on the Melville House edition of the book, titled Every Man Dies Alone. I have to report that it is a more handsome and substantial volume than the Penguin edition. There are coloured endpapers with a map of Berlin showing (on the front endpapers) the main locations in the book and (on the back endpapers) the locations where the postcards were dropped – though whether this last is accurate or just illustrative I don’t know. The paper seems slightly better quality and the pages are sewn rather than glued.

    The primary difference however is the additional material. At the end of the book there is a 17-page essay by Geoff Wilkes on Fallada, his life and works, and a 14-page account of the true story on which the novel is based, complete with samples of the postcards and extracts from the police files.

    I mentioned above that Penguin in the UK seem to be publishing the book as a thriller, hence the stark presentation, effective enough in itself. I hope though that when it reaches paperback publication next year, presumably in their Modern Classics line, that they will consider adding this material which helps to emphasise that this is a book which is going to be around for a long time.

  14. Finished this last night. It was very good but depressed me more than a lot of books about the Nazis. Maybe I am getting too saturated with this topic.

  15. It does sound very interesting actually, I’d rather missed this review first time round, Candy reposting to it reminded me of it. Interesting it’s being marketed as a thriller, one of my criticisms of the Furst novel I recently wrote up (The Polish Officer) was a weakness of characterisation. Furst was excellent on the realities of wartime intelligence work, on life under occupation, but the characterisation is a bit flat (something I could have brought out more in my writeup, looking back at it).

    That in a way is unsurprising, Furst is after all a writer of historical espionage fiction, characterisation isn’t the key concern (though his Dark Star was much better on that front), but were I a thriller fan I suspect I’d want more Furst-style tension and less emotional journey. Still, Furst and Kerr do write intelligent fiction (well, Kerr used to before he moved into the more lucrative straight-up thriller market) so it’s not the worst of company to be in, perhaps slightly misleading though as you bring out.

  16. Tony S. said,

    I am reading Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” (here in the US). Fallada has a very simple style that makes it very clear to see how Germany and the people of Geormany were so messed up during World War II. This classic book was first written in 1946 and should have been available in English a long time ago.. I wonder why it wasn’t available before. At least it has an excellent translator in Michael Hoffman. It is just what is needed, a clear picture of the German people in all their miserable infamy, probably as relevant today as immediately after World War II.

  17. John Self said,

    I agree completely, Tony, and I’m glad you’re enjoying it too. I have got hold of the other two Fallada titles which Melville House have reissued – The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? – and hope to read them soon.

  18. John Self said,

    I understand that the UK paperback edition of Alone in Berlin will have the facsimile documents and afterword that the US hardback has. That’s excellent news, and makes the Penguin paperback a must-have even if you have the hardback already.

  19. [...] Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody. [...]

  20. Mary Gilbert said,

    I’ve just finished this book and found it not unsurprisingly, very disturbing. I wasn’t expecting the almost cartoon like characterisation and the jokey scenes interspersed with real horror. The book is full of dialogue and exaggerated characters but there’s very little physical description of either the characters or their environment and that’s something I look for. It was a bit like reading one of the `bandes dessines’ so popular here in France and which often tackle really serious subjects. A very troubling read and I’m not sure I’ll want to read Fallada again at least for a while but thanks for pointing me in his direction.

  21. John Self said,

    An interesting response and comparison, Mary. I didn’t notice the lack of physical descriptions, and I think such things were plentifully supplied in the other Fallada I’ve read, Little Man, What Now?. Perhaps he felt that the Berlin of the novel would be well known to its readers, ie his countrymen and contemporaries.

    I do hope you’ll return to Fallada in due course as I think he is very worthwhile. I have The Drinker at home also, and recently Melville House reissued his novel Wolf Among Wolves, though I decided against buying it when I noticed that it was 900 pages long…

  22. jay said,

    dear John,

    thank you so much for directing my attention to Every Man Dies Alone. i received it and and read it immediately. in short, i loved it. (on this note, reading the afterword by Geoffrey Wilkes was a real let down – a classic case of a scholar out to prove he sees something the avergae reader doesn’t, while showing very little interest in what i take to be the author’s intentions. for instance, what does it matter that Fallada didn’t own a bible in 1923? does this mitigate or falsify the overtly biblical messages he and his characters are clearly trying to communicate?)

    in any case, i was moved by this book in a way that i haven’t been in many, many years. all i can do is repeat my sense of gratitude.

  23. John Self said,

    Jay, I am delighted to have been of service!

  24. jay said,

    John – 

    now i (briefly) have your attention, and have got a hold of feelings made rampant by the experience of reading Every Man Dies Alone, may i suggest a book that Fallada’s reminded me of? it’s Joseph Roth’s ‘The Radetzky March’. i see you’ve reviewed ‘The String of Pearls’ (‘The Tale of the 1002nd Night’, on this side of the pond), so you are familiar with the author’s exuberant style, which is one of the links i find between Roth and Fallada (courtesy of Hofmann?).

    another commonality is an obvious sympathy that exists between the authors and their characters, who come from the highest and lowest rungs of society, as well as a sense that, when the author is writing of the downcast, he is often writing from wrenching personal experience.

    ‘wrenching’ – okay, i obviously haven’t got a hold of myself completely. but it’s an indication of the effect the book had on me.

    so give it a try, if you get the chance.

  25. John Self said,

    Thanks Jay. I do in fact have The Radetzky March (in Hofmann’s translation) along with Roth’s Right and Left – I have resisted acquiring more of his titles until I’ve read those two. I must confess that I have been avoiding Radetzky, despite its clear reputation as Roth’s masterpiece, because of its length. However I promise to get around to it soon!

  26. [...] reviews: Asylum, Reading Matters, A Common [...]

  27. [...] reviews: Asylum, Reading Matters, A Common [...]

  28. Mary said,

    English and British are the same thing, no?

  29. “Alone in Berlin” is a thrilling read even if you are not interested in German history at all. But if you are, this book will keep you sleepless at night: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/alone-in-berlin-hans-fallada/

    • Nigel Jarrett said,

      Why would you want to be sleepless at night?

      • I guess you could avoid that by starting to read in the morning, but I usually only get to it at bedtime.


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