A Berlin tale conquering the world
More than 60 years after his death, Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’ has become a bestseller in translation. A remarkable writer with an astonishing life, why did it take so long to bring him to the masses?
IT HAPPENS, just not all that often. Huge book sales have been recorded time and again, frequently for works that many agree are not all that good. But when a great novel steadily sells, quietly, without the assistance of a living, never mind high-profile, author prepared to endure interviews, as well as book signing sessions, readers are the ultimate winners.
The success of Alone in Berlinby the German writer Hans Fallada is one such triumph of quality in a predominately commercial market place – not least because Fallada, born Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen, died in 1947, aged 53, and his novel, although published in Germany in the year of his death, was not translated into English until an independent US publisher approached a gifted translator, the poet Michael Hofmann, in 2006.
Melville House convinced Hofmann to undertake the project. Published in the US last year under the title Every Man Dies Alone, the British edition is entitled Alone in Berlin.
Based on a symbolic gesture by a real-life couple, it is a big book, written in 24 days by an ailing Fallada, without a superfluous word in any of its 568 pages. Recent figures confirm that the UK paperback edition, published earlier this year by Penguin Classics, sold more than 100,000 copies in the three months since publication. Never underestimate the power of paperbacks; the hardback, also published by Penguin, had been well reviewed last year.
Alone in Berlinhas replicated the achievement of Hungarian Sándor Márai’s Embers which was published in an English translation in the US in 2001, 59 years after its Hungarian publication, and proved a critical and commercial triumph.
Fallada is in complete control of this subtle, astutely paced thriller set in a city battered by war. Several of the world-weary tenants of a boarding house share a hatred of the Nazi regime. Among them is a shop foreman, Otto Quangel, taciturn and resigned to routine hardship. He has never tended to say much. When news arrives informing him and his wife that their son has been killed at the front, Quangel is unable to find the words to comfort her. His wife mourns their loss; he broods. But he is busy plotting his revenge, which takes the form of an ingenious propaganda campaign, planting subversive postcards with provocative, anti-government messages throughout the city. The authorities are baffled, a hunt begins. All the paranoia and suspicion of the Nazi era is conveyed in this most human of novels, and shaped by Fallada’s abiding theme, the revolt of the ordinary man.
Fallada, an inspired truth teller, was not a one book wonder; he had flair and a feel for tone and pace. He enjoyed enormous success in 1932 with Kleiner Mann – was nun?, the story of an Everyman character whose life is changed by his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy. It is a devastatingly perceptive portrait of a society in collapse and finally supplanted Remarque’s masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front(1929) in the German bestseller lists. Within a year Fallada’s lively comic picaresque, an interesting contrast with Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz(1929), a grim, highly cinematic polemic set during the same period, had been translated into English as Little Man – What Now?albeit in an abridged version. In 1996 Libris published Susan Bennett’s translation of the complete German text.
The Little Man of the title is the hopeless Johannes Pinneberg. On being informed of the baby’s impending arrival, he marries his girlfriend. The couple prove a likeable, mutually affectionate pair and remain sympathetic throughout a series of odd situations and petty deceptions.
Pinneberg’s only hope is his resourceful, optimistic wife, Lammchen, a wonderful characterisation who is driven to declaring: “Did you really think I could be all sugar and spice when I’ve been going out to work since I left school, and had the sort of father and brother I’ve had, as well as that bitch of a boss and those workmates of mine?”
Best of all though, in a novel of pathos and vividly drawn lost souls, is Pinneberg’s bossy mother, Mia, who lures the couple to Berlin with the promise of a job that doesn’t exist because she needs rent-paying tenants. He does secure employment in a men’s outfitters where he quickly gets into trouble for begging a famous actor to buy a suit. Fallada’s ambitious epic Wolf Among Wolves(1937, translation 1938) will be re-issued this month by Melville House as Penguin failed to secure the UK rights, having initially turned down Fallada’s other titles. It tells the story of Wolfgang Pagel, a young gambler who having lost his money and dreams abandons Berlin for the countryside to escape the despair and the food shortages. Set at the height of the panic that paralysed Germany during the Weimar years, it is panoramic yet also tightly plotted. The Nazis short-sightedly ignored the book as apolitical, while regarding Fallada with more suspicion than outright hostility.
It is a miracle that the alcoholic, drug-addicted, unstable Fallada, who took his pen name from the beheaded talking horse who tells the truth in a Brothers Grimm tale, ever wrote anything. From his earliest days, he had problems. Even more ironic is his preference for innocent victims, as he was never one. The son of a high court judge, he ran away from home as a boy; attempted suicide; and was guilty of writing obscene letters to the daughter of one of his father’s legal colleagues.
At 18 he made a suicide pact with a similarly troubled friend. The pair had masked their intentions behind a duel of honour being fought over a girl. It went badly wrong. The friend missed; Fallada didn’t. Having killed his friend, he then shot himself in the chest. He survived and was later charged with murder but escaped trial on the ground of insanity. His precarious mental health also excused him from military service, while his dependence on painkillers may have introduced him to drugs.
During the Great War he became addicted to morphine. His genius for writing was matched by a gift for survival. His parents, supported by his doctors, felt farming could provide a rewarding diversion. The work suited him as he enjoyed the countryside. He was also becoming a serious addict and stole to support his habit. Somehow he worked as a journalist, managed to write his first two books by the mid-1920s and found time to serve two prison sentences related to embezzlement. Luckily his publisher, the influential Ernest Rowohlt, who published Kafka, believed in Fallada and devised a part-time job to support his writing.
BY 1930 FALLADA HAD COMPLETED his third novel, Peasants, Bosses and Bombs, about a farming revolt in Holstein. It draws on an event he had covered as a reporter and remains one of the most sympathetic accounts of a local uprising ever written. How did Fallada survive the Nazis although they were hostile to his work? Possibly because his alcoholism deflected any suspicions that he could be a threat.
On divorcing his first wife, he married a widow who was a fellow alcoholic and addict. He later shot and wounded his first wife and was imprisoned, although his surviving son has recently disputed this. Despite his periodic binges, Fallada did succeed in settling his three children in a rural area and remained in Germany throughout the war.
Much of his personal story is there to be found in his final work, The Drinker(1950, translated 1952), written while in a psychiatric hospital. It was published after his death from an accidental morphine overdose, taken after treatment for alcohol poisoning. Fallada is a fascinating writer who avoids political rhetoric and polemic in giving sharp glimpses of the truth. Admittedly the events of his bizarre life would be too implausible for most novelists to even attempt. Yet the works testify to his extraordinary vision.
Alone in Berlinis published by Penguin; Wolf Among Wolvesis published later this month by Melville House Publishing. Little Man, What Now?and The Drinkerare also re-published by Melville House
'My father, he went to the limits'
LOUISE EASTmeets Hans Fallada's son Ulrich Ditzen, now 80 years old and still living in Berlin
‘IN THAT novel, my father stayed very close to the facts,” says his son, Ulrich Ditzen. “He had an understanding of people you don’t learn in school. Everywhere we went, I remember, he would talk to people, simple people, big people, everyone.”
Now 80 years old and living in a light-filled apartment in Berlin, Ulrich Ditzen was just 16 when his father, who had taken the name Hans Fallada, died. He flips through the pages of a photo album until he finds a picture taken at the family house in Carwitz, some 70 kms outside Berlin.
Ulrich is a fat-palmed baby, waving at the camera, his father a tall figure with a slight resemblance to Truman Capote. “There you have father. With the unavoidable cigarette.”
Did he smoke a lot?
“Fifty to 100 a day,” Ditzen says, smiling and shaking his head. “We’d find it a little excessive.”
To Ditzen, his father’s astonishing feat in completing such a complex atmospheric book in less than a month is hardly worthy of comment.
“When he was working on a book – those times, he was very strange. He woke up at around three in the morning, drank some coffee and sat down at his desk by four. He worked continuously until 10am or so and then it was over for the day. He had one devilish principle - never to write less on one day than he’d written the day before. You put yourself under such stress by having such a rule, but my father, he went to the limits.”
In writing, so too in life. As a teenager, Fallada made a suicide pact with a friend. They would enact a duel, each shooting the other to avoid bringing shame to their families. Fallada’s shot hit home, his friend’s didn’t, and Fallada was charged with murder. Instead of prison, he was incarcerated in a mental institution, a pattern repeated throughout his life until he ended up in a Nazi-run asylum after shooting at his estranged wife. Even there, the prolific Fallada managed to write a novel, The Drinker.
It was after the publication of an earlier book in 1932, Little Man, What Now?,that Ditzen moved his young family to Carwitz.
“The money just flowed in,” Ulrich says, pointing to photos of himself and his brother and sister holding up field mushrooms as big as their heads and jumping in the lake in front of the house. “We never made a very orderly impression. There was always too much to do. For me, it was a wonderful, wonderful chaos.” Beyond the smallholding at Carwitz, chaos of a very different kind reigned. Of his father’s decision not to leave Germany once the true nature of National Socialism became clear, Ulrich Ditzen says simply: “He hoped to sit it out. He thought, hoped, that eventually it would end. Which it did.
“We talked quite a lot about the Nazis. I reported to him what I had heard on the radio,” says his son. “At one time, I had a list of 52 foreign broadcasting stations I would listen to at night. I was a fool to do so – it was so very dangerous – but I wanted to know everything about the war.”
By 1946, Ditzen’s parents had divorced, and father and son were back living in Berlin. In November of that year Fallada embarked on the frenzied writing spree which would result in Alone in Berlin. Two months later, before the book was published, he was dead, his health broken by years of morphine and alcohol abuse.
“I was not yet 17,” says Ulrich Ditzen bleakly. “I hear from other people that it’s quite good to have a father at that time.”
QUITE WHY THE BOOK wasn’t translated into English, and even in Germany had all but disappeared from view, is a matter of debate.
“People here,” says Ditzen. “As far as I personally can judge, had heard enough about the atrocities. It just vanished from the market.”
However, eventually, rights were bought, the esteemed translator, Michael Hofmann was commissioned, and late last year, the book was published in the US to enormous critical fanfare.
“It is wonderful,” Ulrich Ditzen says of his father’s Lazarus-like publishing success. “Wonderful! It has completely mystified me after six decades of rest for the book.”
Days after finishing the book, I tell him, its atmosphere of fear and suspicion lingered in my mind, its strange reversals of morality pushing questions at me I wasn’t sure I could answer.
Ulrich Ditzen’s eyes light up.
“That is the art of Fallada! That is what he really can do.”