Monday, December 6, 2010

A Discovery: Hans Fallada

Somehow in 2009, I missed the fair amount of deserved attention given to the English translation of Hans Fallada's 1947 novel of Nazi-era Berlin, Every Man Dies Alone. The book -- I read on publisher Melville House's website -- was on the "Notable" or "Best" lists in the NY Times, the New Yorker, Sunday Telegraph, Toronto Globe & Mail, etc. Maybe I missed it because I wasn't paying attention to war-related books until the start of this year.

Every Man Dies Alone primarily tells the story (based on an actual Gestapo file) of a working-class, semi-elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who oppose the Reich by dropping postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler statements in various public buildings. This simple form of dissent has questionable impact, and it of course places the Quangels at extreme risk. Fallada also follows the thread of other characters' lives who come in contact with the Quangels -- their deceased son's former fiancee, a series of ne'er-do-wells, a retired judge, and others.

The novel also has a crime fiction element -- a Gestapo police procedural of sorts, with Inspector Escherich pursuing the Quangels and pressured by his superiors for results. He is an interesting detective who comes to admire the luck and intelligence of the mysterious postcard-dropping perpetrator (or husband-wife perpetrators, as it turns out).

On its own terms, the book tells a compelling story of resistance, determination, corruption, evil, etc. It is also especially notable on two counts: First, it captures slices of life in wartime Berlin (and a little in the nearby countryside) -- the fear, the bombing, the Nazi Party cronyism, rations, and so on. Second, the book arguably stands an an important and illuminating cultural response to the Nazi era in its immediate aftermath: Fallada wrote the book, apparently in just 24 days, mostly in October 1946 -- fewer than 18 months after Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies.

During the war, Fallada resisted to some extent and made compromises as well. He also spent time in a Nazi psychiatric asylum -- in part for treatment of alcoholism. Over 53 years, Fallada survived a childhood horse-and-cart accident, a failed suicide attempt, the Nazis, their asylum (often a death warrant), and the destruction of Berlin, but he died in 1947 of a morphine overdose shortly before the publication of Every Man.

Addendum: I should note that this book has a terrific Afterword by Fallada scholar Geoff Wilkes of the University of Queensland -- providing biographical, historical, and literary insight. I dropped him a note of thanks, and he followed up by recommending Fallada's Wolf Among Wolves for "the breadth of its social focus."


Evan Lewis said...

24 days! The guy deserves a belated NaNoWriMo certificate.

Doug Levin said...

It's a long book, too. He could've gotten a double or triple NaNoWriMo certificate.