EVERY MAN DIES ALONE
By Hans Fallada
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Melville House, $27, 543 pages
LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?
By Hans Fallada
Translated from the German by Susan Bennett
Melville House, $16.95, 400 pages (paper)
By Hans Fallada
Translated from the German by Charlotte and A.J. Lloyd
Melville House, $16.95, 350 pages (paper)
Reviewed by Bruce Allen
For even the most assiduous reader of literary fiction, the list of great German 20th-century writers generally begins with Thomas Mann and ends with Gunter Grass. Of course there’s Franz Kafka, a Czech who wrote in German. And some readers will have explored the symbol-laden “narratives” of Hermann Hesse (a didactic pontificator, in this opinion); the searching philosophical fictions of Hermann Broch or Alfred Doblin; the antic Joycean door stoppers of the bold experimentalist Arno Schmidt; or the more politically inflected books of such recently prominent figures as Uwe Johnson, Christa Wolf and the perpetually underrated Martin Walser (imagine an Upton Sinclair who writes like Marilynne Robinson).
Few will have heard previously of the once famous oeuvre of “Hans Fallada,” whose pseudonym was derived ironically by its bearer, Rudolph Ditzen (1893-1947), from an unusually disturbing Grimm fairy tale. This useful biographical fact, and numerous other ones, are provided in an informative afterword contributed by literary scholar Geoff Wilkes and an unattributed concise biography of the novel under review here (“The True Story Behind Every Man Dies Alone”).
Suffice it to say that Ditzen/Fallada, a would-be writer from early youth, led a deeply conflicted life shaped by the fatal shooting of his best friend in a duel planned as a double suicide; the survivor’s incarcerations for these and several later misdemeanors and crimes; a lifelong history of alcoholism and drug addiction; and the perpetual scrutiny of the Third Reich, which considered Fallada (whose books of the 1930s and 1940s achieved considerable success) at different times a threat to national unity, an inconvenient nuisance or an insignificant scribbler.
Of Fallada’s 20-some novels, two of the best known (which have, happily, been published together with “Every Man Dies Alone”) are “Little Man, What Now?” (1932) and “The Drinker” (1950). The former chronicles the struggles of a young married couple to survive in World War II Berlin. It’s an unsparing depiction of unalloyed economic misfortune redeemed only by its stubbornly hopeful protagonists’ unkillable will to live. Internationally praised and translated into many languages, this plaintive story also inspired two famous films, including an American one still recognized as a 1940s classic.
“The Drinker,” written in 1944 and published posthumously, is even starker: a nakedly autobiographical confession composed in diary form, it’s a work that also channels Fyodor Dostoevsky and August Strindberg - and, surprisingly, also spawned a highly popular feature film.
“Every Man Dies Alone” (aka “Alone in Berlin”) was written at white heat, in less than a month’s time, and published shortly after Fallada’s untimely yet easily foreseeable death. Set in Berlin in 1940-41, it relates the final days in the shared if sometimes combative life of a working-class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel (fictional surrogates for two real-life anti-Nazi activists, Otto and Elise Hampel). The fictional Otto is a carpenter and foreman in a furniture factory that will soon enough be ordered to construct crates for transmitting bombs, then inexpensive coffins for the war’s innumerable dead.
When Otto and Anna are informed by a coldly informal official letter that their beloved only son, “Ottochen” (his father’s namesake) has been killed while fighting in France, their former support for the Fuehrer (which has eroded precipitously as evidence of a declining economy has mounted) is replaced by their overwhelming sense of injustice and outrage. The novel then exfoliates dramatically (some will say melodramatically, but therein lies its seductive narrative velocity).
The Quangels begin to flood the city with anonymous postcards criticizing the Reich’s war policy and its ruthless disregard for German citizens’ rights. A harried police inspector (Escherich) is commanded to hunt down the traitors, and his pursuit of the guilty couple runs parallel to their own fearful alienation from their world. It’s a block of apartment buildings in a nondescript street, Jablonski Strasse - a world they share with their neighbors: some victims, others courageous protesters, too many collaborators and informers.
The stories of several of these other characters are told in counterpoint: the late Otto’s fiancee, Trudel, herself a passionate resistance worker; a retired judge (Fromm) who “incriminates” himself by protecting an elderly Jewish widow destined for imprisonment or worse; an orchestral conductor (the symbolically named Reichhardt) who openly criticizes the Nazis and is consequently jailed and sentenced to death; and several communist intellectuals, who articulate and analyze the inequities that the Quangels can only feel in their bones and know intuitively must be rejected.
“At least I stayed decent … I didn’t participate,” Otto consoles himself as the novel’s many strands pull together and his fate is confirmed. It’s arguably overexplicit, perhaps inartistic, but it descends on the reader like an unnoticed overhead door slamming shut, sealing one beneath whatever power lifted that weight and set it down where it has become immovable.
“Every Man Dies Alone” can be faulted for its headlong prose (whose argumentative intensity is never prettified in award-winning translator Michael Hofmann’s blunt English-language version) and its author’s habit of exclamatory digression. Fallada’s omniscient narrator repeatedly indulges in such declarations as labeling wartime Berlin a place where “the criminal is free, and the decent man is sentenced to death.” But who would gainsay any of this flawed great novel’s such assertions?
Criticisms and qualifications simply evaporate, overpowered by Fallada’s energetic social realism and impassioned reverence for simple human decency. Grateful thanks, therefore, for Mr. Hofmann’s vivid renderings of urban hyperbole and slang, and the vulpine eloquence of “official” communiques, among other verbal felicities. The same to Melville House for a publication of enormous importance. We’re told that more of Hans Fallada’s fiction is forthcoming from this publisher in 2010. One hopes the 1937 novel previously translated as “Wolf Among Wolves” will reach us soon. Fortunately, we know Hans Fallada’s eloquent, urgent voice could not be silenced; it will be good for all of us to hear it again.
Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer who lives and writes in Kittery, Maine.