This week we continue our project of reviewing books on Barnes & Noble's three for the price of two promotion—available in stores and online—with Hans Fallada's remarkable Every Man Dies Alone, a sixty-three year old book translated into English only last year.
There are few literary stories more tragic than the biography of German author Hans Fallada. A severe case of typhoid fever and an accident in which he was trampled and then kicked in the face by a horse—both occurring before he even reached adolescence—left him permanently disfigured and in constant pain. The pain contributed to his addiction to narcotics and also to his lifelong alcoholism.
Adolescence offered no relief from his mental anguish and physical torments, instead seeming to deepen them. Fallada made several unsuccessful suicide attempts. The most tragic involved a close friend who also wanted to commit suicide but who was ashamed of the act and its potential impact on his family. He and Fallada instead staged a duel, hoping that the mutually fatal shots could be written off as part of a more socially acceptable fiction. Instead, the friend missed Fallada, but Fallada's aim was true. The friend died. Stricken with grief and despair, Fallada shot himself in the chest with the friend's gun. He survived, again. The next several years were spent on a series of farms and in institutions. (The courts pronounced Fallada temporarily insane during the duel, but his periodic stints in insane asylums, as well as his drug addiction, both gave his biography two incredibly dangerous details that were to haunt him under the Nazi regime.)
Fallada began writing novels in the 1920s, publishing in between stints in prison related to his narcotic dependency. But his crowning literary achievement came in 1932, with the publication of Little Man, What Now? The book sold well outside of Germany, to popular and critical acclaim in the United States and United Kingdom. It was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1934.
For years, though, Little Man has been the only Fallada most English audiences new. It's been taught for decades in college courses on Germany and the aftermath of the First World War, in a kind of one-two punch with Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. While All Quiet is about how Germany lost the war and its innocence, Little Man was about how it lost the peace and the hope that the Weimar Government held out all too briefly.
It follows the story of Johannes and Emma Pinneberg. The two are deeply in love, and the sweetness of their trust in each other provides a refuge from the dislocation of Weimar Germany and rescue from the enormity of Germany's "Great Depression." Johannes works as a salesman in Berlin, but is pitted against other salesman and forced to meet an impossible quota monthly. Eventually, he and Emma have to flee the high cost of the city and settle in the country, where over a year of unemployment is not so immediately fatal. Here, too, Fallada has the Pinneberg's find comfort in the slower pace of the country, outside the press of buildings and crowds, an attitude that reflects the honest sense of connection Fallada himself felt on work farms as part of his institutionalization and imprisonment.
Unfortunately, Fallada's greatest success came just a year before Hitler's ascendance to the Reich Chancellorship in 1933, and thus, as a popular figure, he immediately came under the scrutiny of the Gestapo and SS. Although the class tensions and unrest of the book easily described the new democratic experiment of Weimar, the intra- and inter-class social darwinism, zero-sum thinking and social predation was just as evocative of the ills of the rising Nazi party. Worse, the Hollywood version of Little Man had been funded by Jews, which made him a suspect person. Little Man was banned from libraries, and Josef Goebbels tried to pressure Fallada into publishing anti-Semitic stories.
Doubtless this interest from the Nazis, as well as a few very obviously half-hearted attempts from Fallada, is partly to blame for his lack of popularity overseas. As was the case with Ernst Junger, many artists admired by the Reich suffered for it in the post-war years in Allied countries, even if the author was powerless to stop the admiration. It doesn't always make sense; it just sometimes happens.
It especially doesn't make sense in Fallada's case, as his last two books are intensely anti-Nazi, one of which—The Drinker—was written in code in a mental institution at the time the Nazis were torturing and exterminating the mentally ill. (Fallada likely only survived by claiming that the things he was writing was Herr Goebbels' precious racist novel.) The last one he completed before his death. Every Man Dies Alone, published posthumously in 1947, recounts the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who devastatingly but passively protested the Nazi regime by creating their own critical postcards and leaving them in public.
The story is, at times, emotionally rough to deal with. It's a true story (although the names have been changed), so there isn't the safe barrier of fiction to fall back on as the plot darkens. Any doubts about the veracity of what happens are dispelled at the back of the new translation, which features copies of Otto and Elise's SS documents. Still, it's told in Fallada's touching and simple, objective style.
There's something touching about the translation as well. Hans Fallada tried to take two simple heroes who had been buried by a perverted regime and restore them to the light. Over six decades later, an author who was tarnished by his proximity to the same has been deservingly restored to popular consciousness by scholars who recognized the value of his subjects and the fairness of his prose. It's a worthy translation and a worthy sentiment, and would do credit to anyone's shelves.