Fallada Hans

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

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.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?

Following the success earlier this year of Hans Fallada’s rediscovered novel Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone, I was keen to read more. Step forward Melville House, who have obliged by reissuing Fallada’s most famous novels, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? To me, the latter had always been a Morrissey song. In the song, the ‘little man’ is a faded star (a very Morrissey motif), whereas in the book, a glorious past is more than the central character could hope to attain.

Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?
Little Man, What Now?
was a success on publication in 1932, serialised in over 50 German newspapers and selling half a million copies worldwide in its first two years, by which time it had been filmed twice. This was surely due to its forthright presentation of the woes of millions of Germans in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, with massive unemployment and hyperinflation; Fallada presents the latter in the confused words of an old woman, who has her own explanation for where all her money has gone (“Can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?”)

‘I’m going to tell you. I now know that my money’s been stolen. Somebody who rented here stole it. But I can’t recall the names, so many people have lived here since the war. I sit and brood. I also realize it must have been someone really clever, because he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing.’

Listening to this are our little man, Pinneberg, and his Lammchen (‘little lamb’), his recently pregnant girlfriend with whom he now needs to set up home before their ‘Shrimp’ is born. He’s sure he’s in love with her: well, fairly sure. When she throws off his compliments about her prettiness (“Who’d want to dance with a nanny-goat like [me]?”), “[a] feeling he didn’t quite like came over Pinneberg. ‘She really oughtn’t to be telling me this,’ he thought. ‘I’d always thought she was pretty. Perhaps she isn’t pretty after all.'”

The main problems they face, however, are those which every little man of the day faced: the scarcity of work, the worthlessness of money, and the uncertainty whether their future would best be secured by the Communists or the promising-sounding National Socialists. The book was written before the rise to power of the Nazis, and they feature rarely in the book (Fallada would make up for that in Every Man Dies Alone). Instead, his concerns are the quotidian struggle. “Everything gets more complicated when you’re poor.” Even when Pinneberg finds work, and “he really is happy … behind that happiness lies the fear: will it last? No, of course it won’t last. So, how long will it last?”

Daily labour – one might say the pleasures and sorrows of work – is something which Fallada represents very well (and made me realise how rarely work is realistically represented in novels that are not explicitly about work). He gets a job as a menswear salesman, and the tedium, camaraderie, fear and occasional victories of working life are beautifully done. It has the ring of experience, as do Pinneberg’s struggles with fatherhood when (and just before) ‘the Shrimp’ is born: and my judgement on their authenticity is born of experience too.

The Shrimp screamed! The small bright room re-echoed with his screeching; his little voice was extremely loud and piercing. He was getting bright red. He’s got to draw breath some time, though Pinneberg.

There is comedy too – the essential comedy of hard times – with naturists, businessmen’s power struggles, and a surprising secret about Pinneberg’s mother. All that is seeded within the context of an immersive story, realistically appalling characters, and heartfelt empathy for the little man. Pinneberg buttonholes a famous actor who comes to the gentlemen’s outfitters, an actor in whose art he has found consolation, as millions of Germans would in Fallada’s book:

‘You know things aren’t going at all well for ordinary people like us, and it seems to me sometimes as though everyone and everything is making a monkey of us. Life in general, you see what I mean, and one feels so small…’

Included in this edition is an exemplary afterword by Philip Brady – at 20 pages, a mini-essay on Fallada and Little Man, What Now? which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book. It places the book in its social, political and literary context, and in a curious way was a highlight of my reading experience. As with their edition of Every Man Dies Alone, Melville House have done full justice to Fallada’s work.

One of the most affecting phrases in the book is not from the text of the story at all. After the slings and arrows suffered by Pinneberg and Lammchen (“Down the slippery slope, sunk without trace, utterly destroyed. Order and cleanliness, gone; work, material security, gone; making progress and hope, gone. Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offence, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect”) – after all this, after the relentless difficulty of everyday existence – particularly at this time, in this place – what most touches the heart is a chapter heading near the end of the book. it reads: “Epilogue: Life Goes On.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

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.”