Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hans Fallada

Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the name Hans Fallada, lived a chaotic life. Born in 1893 in Greifswald in north-east Germany, he was the son of a lawyer who was later appointed a judge. At the age of 18 he killed a schoolfriend in a duel, and spent much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers.
Fallada married in 1929, and for a while straightened out. His 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - was nun? ("Little Man - What Now?") brought him praise from Thomas Mann, international success, a Hollywood film and a small farm. Under the Nazis, Fallada wrote and published a series of gritty novels of the type that German critics call neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity. In 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.

At the end of the war, Fallada was embraced by the new East German literary authorities. In 1947, he published with Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein ("Each dies only for himself") which is here called Alone in Berlin. It was the first novel by a German author to take as its theme the small-scale domestic resistance to the National Socialists. The same year, weakened by years of alcoholism and drug-taking, Fallada died of a heart attack.

Traces of this unruly life are scattered through Alone in Berlin: brawling, delirium tremens, clinics and drying-out establishments, country idylls, theft, blackmail, morphine, and a vivid world of sub-proletarian swindling that exploits and is exploited by the Nazis. It is remarkable that Fallada, just months before his death, could compose a long novel that, after an overcrowded beginning, advances so confidently to its conclusion.

The paragraphs above are the open lines from the Guardian's review of Alone in Berlin [link], which Primo Levi called, The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis. Those paragraphs are also a neat introduction to the incredible life of Hans Fallada, who was run over by a horse when he was 16 and, during the Second World War, recruited by Goebbels to write an anti-Semitic tract (he never did).  There is also an article about Fallada at Tablet Magazine [link] and a good review of Every Man Dies Alone [link] (the US title) at the New York Times [link], which opens with this line: A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred [...].

Denis Johnson, the publisher at Melville House who rediscovered Fallada [link], did a radio interview recently with Leonard Lopate, for a segment called "Underappreciated Literature" [link]. He speaks well, giving some new and incredible details, about Hans Fallada's life and his republication in English (for example, Hans Fallada changed his name to avoid shaming his father who was a supreme court judge). It's a great interview, the date of which would have coincided with Fallada 117th birthday (he was born the 21st of July 1893).

 Denis Johnson on Hans Fallada:

The "Underappreciated Literature" [link] series includes some brilliant interviews with authors,  critics, scholars, translators etc. about obscure writers. The episodes on Louis Couperus, Henry Green, Robert Musil, Paul von Heyse and Andre Bely are the highlights.


  1. Thank you so much for the "Undeappreciated Literature" links!

  2. Second the thanks for "Unappreciated Literature." Also noted that the Guardian review you quote was written by James Buchan, who is always excellent. I've read a lot here and there about Fallada but this is the most interesting.

  3. Yeah, the interviews are great. Although, some of the interviewees are better than others...

    I would recommend Alone in Berlin, although I have my reservations. I'm going to read The Drinker soon too.

    I will keep my eye out for some more of Buchan's articles.