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"writing is the essence of my life" (2/3)


Part two of three




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[see Part one here]


It’s best not to trouble me with such things, because to calculate the meaning of the stars you have to use the higher mathematics, and of course I’ve already said that I’ve always been very bad at the higher mathematics. But naturally I was quite prepared to provide my former employer, who had long since become my friend, with all kinds of birth-dates, my own and other people’s, so that he could practice his astrological skills using those dates. So I asked my landlady about her birth-date and those of her daughters. She had three daughters, but none at home; that is, I was living in the room of one of them, the youngest, whom the health-insurance fund had sent on an extended cure for her kidney problems, and it had been agreed that I was to vacate the room as soon as she returned.

I got the birth-dates and gave them to my astrologist friend, and when I went back to see him on a later occasion he informed me that something very strange had happened to him. Because while he was working out the horoscope of the youngest daughter, in whose room I was living, my horoscope had been lying on the table too, and quite by chance he had put the two horoscopes side by side. Whereupon he had found such complete agreement in the stellar constellations, such mysterious relationships between them, that it was impossible for us not to meet, in fact we would have a great deal to do with each other in our lives, for good and ill, but mostly for good . . .

I had to laugh when my astrologist friend told me that. Because that very day my landlady, who despised me so much because of my diet of kippered herrings, had given me notice to quit the room, as her youngest daughter was expected home. I had to leave before she arrived, so there would be no opportunity for our lives to intersect for good and ill, as had just been prophesied to me. But my friend stuck to his guns and said that I shouldn’t be so silly, the stars didn’t lie . . .

I didn’t know anything about silliness, I just knew that I had my marching orders, and that was fine with me too, because I had lost my appetite for typing addresses and eating kippered herrings, the diet was much too meager, and I was determined to move to another town, where some kind of small position on a newspaper might perhaps be available, if all went well. But circumstances then decreed that I did get to see this daughter, the one who was driving me out, after all, just on the staircase, she coming up, I going down, and that we exchanged a few words. And circumstances or the stars or whatever it was further decreed that those few words on the staircase prompted me to travel from that other town back to Hamburg one Sunday, purely to see this daughter again, and that after seeing each other seven times we were married. It’s a most curious story, and you’d be tempted to believe in the horoscopes. Of course, many people will say that it was my astrologist friend’s effusions which awakened my interest and made me pay attention to the girl, that I was influenced unconsciously. But on the other hand I was no longer so easily influenced by that stage, I was already thirty-six years old, and my material circumstances didn’t speak strongly in favor of marriage…

I must leave this puzzle unsolved, like so many puzzles in my life, the word Chance seems to me too limited, and the word Fate too grand and expansive an explanation. But even today I can still see my friend, none too clean and covered in tobacco-ash, sitting at his desk (which was none too clean and covered in tobacco-ash) with the horoscopes in his hand, pointing at the astrological lines. And I can see myself standing on that sunlit staircase in Hamburg (the building no longer exists, the whole suburb no longer exists), and I have exchanged my few words with this daughter and see her long legs running up the stairs: tap-a-tip-a-tap-a-tip, and—puzzle, astrology, who cares!—I’m happy in these memories.

My position on the little newspaper in the province of Holstein wasn’t really a position, it was . . . You see, there were two newspapers in the town, a big one and a small one, a good one and a bad one, and unfortunately I was employed to represent the small, bad one. I was employed to represent it by going from building to building and apartment to apartment canvassing for subscriptions. I was equipped for this task with a notarized document attesting that my newspaper still had four thousand subscribers. But when I showed the document I preferred to hold my thumb over the date, because it was already rather too long ago, and our number of subscribers had sunk since then, I think we had fewer than a thousand left. From everyone I signed up I collected one mark and twenty-five pfennigs for the first month’s subscription, and that one mark and twenty-five pfennigs were my only wages, my only income. I believe that was an even harder way of earning a living than typing addresses for export firms in Hamburg, and in doing it I became familiar with what people call the fear of the doorbell. Of course, in the mornings I charged off with renewed élan, I had selected a particular part of town and was full of bright hopes. But when I had pressed the first twenty or so doorbells and spoken with only angry or brusque householders, when the door had been slammed in my face after only a few words, my enthusiasm dissipated, I became hesitant, I stared superstitiously at the name-plates and considered whether a particular name foreshadowed success, stretched my finger out towards the doorbell and pulled it back again. And after a while I stretched it out once more and pulled it back once more. And then I decided that this whole building was no good, and crept quietly down the stairs, and the next time I drew a blank I abandoned the whole street, and eventually it got to the point where I didn’t dare to ring a doorbell anywhere anymore. But I had to find at least four new subscribers every day, otherwise I couldn’t pay my rent and couldn’t eat, so I started ringing again and talking, and when the lady of the household took the subscription, I could see that she did so less because of the paper, which meant nothing at all to her, than just to get rid of me, and that wasn’t a pleasant feeling.

It got a little better later on, I was allowed to canvass for advertisements, and advertisements brought in more money, and the businessmen were much easier to persuade than the housewives. When Luehrs’s carpet store had taken a half-page ad from me, or the cinema an eighth-page one, I returned proud and happy to our little editorial office and felt like I had a proper job, because now I was sometimes earning as much as two hundred marks a month!

And I needed to earn that much too, because in the meantime we had got married, and even though we had agreed that our marriage wouldn’t change anything for a while, that my wife would keep working in Hamburg as I would in my one-horse town, fate intervened here as well, because my young wife fell ill, and if she had to stay in bed anyway, where was a better place to do that than in my home, in our home? We had a very strange attic apartment in the house of a drunken carpenter. The room on one side was rented by an ancient grandmother whose old-age pension not only supported her, but also helped out ne’er-do-well grandchildren, and the room on the other side was occupied by a woman who worked in a leather-goods factory, and whose life-long association with leather seemed also to have given her a tough skin and a stolid disposition. But we lived in the middle with our cat Hule-Mule, who had simply turned up, and who was and remained an alley-cat, always dirty, always decrepit, always on the verge of leaving in search of somewhere more congenial. The street we lived on was called the Kuhberg, and life there was mostly as bovine as the name implied, very much as you would expect from a Kuhberg, but none of that bothered us in the least. We were happy, and when I came home at night from my endless running around the town, with eight marks in my pocket or even ten, then we felt like kings, and made late purchases at a grocer’s shop, and sometimes on the way home we started to eat our supper from the paper straightaway, and it always tasted wonderful.

But I kept moving up in my little newspaper, I became the guy who does anything and everything, I didn’t just canvass for subscriptions and advertisements, no, I also started to write. I did reports about club meetings, I wrote film reviews (which of course always had to praise the movie, otherwise I didn’t get an advertisement for the next one), and eventually I was even sent to the police department and wrote reports about all the infractions which are committed in a little town like that. Back then, around 1928, times were bad in Germany, and we were grateful that we were making at least some kind of living. We lived for the day, and didn’t worry our heads about the next day, and so the days passed, one after the other, and although each brought its sorrows it brought its joys too!

And on one of these days our editor in chief, who was also our only editor, who was the guy that produced the paper, waved me over and said to me: “Listen, Fallada, the National Railways have sent me two tickets for a mystery day-trip. I don’t have the time, do you and your wife want to go? But you’ll have to knock out half a page about whatever the trip proves to be.”

I explained to the great man that I would have to talk with my wife first, because even if the tickets were free you still had other expenses on such a day-trip, and this question of expenses had to be gone into. But it turned out that we had five marks in hand, so we decided to risk it, which meant that on a beautiful summer morning we were sitting in the train and setting off for our mystery destination. This proved to be the island of Sylt, with the train running across the recently completed Hindenburg Causeway to the health resort and bathing place of Westerland. We alighted from the train there and wanted to go to the beach, to the sea. But the local authorities in Westerland had fenced off the sea and the beach, and would only let you in if you paid a health-resort fee of one mark per head per day. Paying two marks from our cash assets just for access to an overcrowded beach seemed rather too great a sacrifice to me, so I said to my wife: “Come on, let’s walk along the shore here! I mean, the fence has to end somewhere!” We set off, and after we had hiked far enough we found the beach and the sea and the seclusion we were looking for, and we enjoyed every bit of them, and when we felt hungry we moved on to the little village of Kampen and ate—I’ll never forget it—some marvelous roast duck, and we even had some of our money left!

But as evening was falling we went back to the seashore again, because we had decided to use the remaining money for the little local train from Kampen to Westerland. Standing at the seashore was a big man with a beret on his head, and for a moment we looked at each other doubtfully, the big man and I. But then each asked: “Fallada?”—“Rowohlt?”—and the author and the publisher saw each other again after many years. I had never thought again about the two novels I had disowned, but he hadn’t forgotten them, and he made searching inquiries about how we were living and what I was working on, and when I had reached the end of my hardly impressive report he said decisively: “But that’s not what you need, Fallada! That’s no life for you. Write to me in Berlin, telling me the absolute minimum you need to live on, and then I’ll see about getting a job for you there somehow, with a newspaper or a magazine or a publisher—so adieu!” Because our train was leaving, and we had to go back to the little town and to canvassing for advertisements and subscriptions and to writing little articles, and I “knocked out” something about this real mystery tour as well.

I don’t want to bore you with the details of how we oscillated between hope and despair in the following months, how the modest existence which before we had loved so much now seemed to have become unbearable since the great star of Berlin had risen on our horizon, how we fell into despair when finally we got the offer of work there, and suddenly were told that I (who had always appeared to be the most superfluous man at my little newspaper) could not now be allowed to leave at any price, how we scraped together the money for the journey, how we couldn’t find an apartment that seemed commensurate with our income anywhere in the great city. To cut a long story short, four months later we’re in Berlin after all, we’re living in a furnished room near the Criminal Court in Moabit, and every day I go to the Rowohlt publishing house and paste reviews of books onto green paper and record those reviews and write out addresses of the newspapers which are to be sent free copies, in other words I’m a minor, a very minor clerical worker, and when the bell goes and the office boy happens not to be there, then I open the door and announce the famous writers to the publisher Rowohlt, announce Herr Tucholsky, and Herr Emil Ludwig, and Herr Albert Ehrenstein, and Herr Everybody Else.

Yes, I’m only a very minor clerk in a publishing house, and I seem to be miles away from any literature and from any writing of my own. But there is one point which distinguishes me from my fellow clerks: Herr Rowohlt has decreed that my hours of duty are to end every afternoon at one o’clock, while everyone else has to stay in the office until five or six in the evening. I don’t know why that is, and at the beginning I just accept it as something pleasant, it is pleasant to go home as early as one o’clock and to have the whole afternoon free for yourself and your young wife. But later I discover that those afternoons are long, that the wife doesn’t always have time for the husband, that it’s boring just sitting around . . . Yes, what can you do? What on earth can you do if you have absolutely no talent for doing nothing and lazing around?

Yes, then it occurs to me that I’ve still got something on my mind, something that I haven’t resolved yet. When I was still with the newspaper in that one-horse town in Holstein, I eventually climbed so high up the greasy pole of reporting that I was even allowed to attend an endless political court-case, and to write about it. Farmers had thrown bombs at tax offices, farmers had organized a political demonstration, which had then turned into a big punch-up—and now the farmers were on trial. But because of the way things are at a newspaper, I was never allowed to report the events quite as I saw them, I had to write in accordance with the paper’s political tendency, and with my town readers’ expectations, in short, I had never been able to write what was on my mind.

It all came back to me again on my free afternoons. I had time now to catch up on what I’d left undone, but only catch up? Only to record what had happened back then, what I had seen in the courtroom? I thought that was too little, and I thought that wouldn’t really interest anyone anymore. A trial report has to be fresh, and after four weeks a straight trial report reads like a news report from a hundred years ago. And then I thought that as a third party I knew much more than had been said back then in the courtroom about the things which had happened out in the country and in the town, I thought that I could tell the story of the accused men’s and the witnesses’ lives, that I could bring this really big episode to life, as though it had only just happened . . .

I don’t know how long I carried these ideas around with me in Berlin, how they developed in me, took definite shape, until finally the word novel emerged in me. Yes, it turned out now that I wanted to write a novel, or at least that I wanted to try, because I had no idea if I could do it. Those two novels from before—inspired in me only by someone else’s insinuating personality—Heavens, there was no way that you could compare them with what I was planning now. Because I was planning to shape a whole world, to make dozens of characters live and speak, make countless events occur. To show consequences—no, that was something very different from what I had tried before, and then given up again.

Maupassant told once of how he took the great master of the French novel, Flaubert, as his guide, and how that had taught him to write, once and for always. I didn’t have a teacher, I had to be my own teacher, and I just had to try, regardless of how it turned out. I’m such a superstitious, such a secretive person that I didn’t say a word to anyone, not even to my wife, about what I was planning: Heavens, writing something or other about that court-case in Holstein, you remember, not worth talking about! No, at that time, when I was starting my work (which I always locked carefully away), I was particularly curt and unforthcoming, simply so that I wouldn’t be asked about my work, because it was something that I had to deal with all by myself, and no-one knew how it would turn out…

Ah, those wonderful hours that I spent in my room in Calvin St. when I started to put the things which had lived in me for so long down on paper! Ah, those miserable hours that I spent struggling with the problems of technique, because I didn’t know what parts of the story to tell first, how to lead up to an event, how to tell the reader afterwards about something that had happened before. Those endless dialogs with their “she said, he said, she answered, he objected” . . . How did I get out of that? How I cudgeled my brains as the plot became more and more complicated, and I couldn’t see any end to my difficulties! How often I went to bed late at night, long after my wife had fallen asleep, and knew for sure that I’d get stuck tomorrow, and wouldn’t be able to find a way out! You’re wasting your time, you pathetic excuse for a writer!

And tomorrow came, and I woke up in low spirits, trotted through the Tiergarten to my office, sorted reviews, pasted them up, opened the door and conducted more famous and more talented people into Herr Rowohlt’s inner sanctum—and enlightenment hadn’t dawned. There was just no way out!

But just as a spider sees his web broken over and over again, but always spins it anew, I always went back to my pages of manuscript, I sat down, my brain still steeped in ignorance, and began to scratch out something, some few words that could equally well have remained unwritten, but just for the sake of writing something . . . And suddenly the pen picks up speed, suddenly I know how to continue everything, suddenly the ideas are jostling each other, and my brain roars back to life, I can’t write fast enough, and I’m afraid I’ll forget the things I’ve just thought of for the next chapters. But I don’t have time to make notes, because first of all I’ve got to write down my ideas for the current chapter, and so my mind races off, for hours and hours and hours, and even though I come to supper when I’m called, I sit there as if I’m in another world, and I don’t know what I’m eating, and sometimes my wife must have thought that I was a madman.

Until the tide ebbs again, until I write more calmly, until it all comes to a halt three or four days later. And until I say to myself again: This time I’m sure I won’t find a way out.

And so, with all these ups and downs, I finally finish the novel, to which I gave the name “A Small Circus Called Monte” at first, and which appeared under the title Farmers, Functionaries and Fireworks later on. When I submitted the manuscript rather diffidently to my publisher Rowohlt, I was thirty-seven years old and had no thought of ever writing a second novel. I thought that I had done enough with this one, I had relieved myself of the unfinished business which was oppressing me, and that was enough. But the curious thing with writing books is that there’s something seductive about it. Whenever in the weeks afterwards I was walking around, and had nothing to do but just to walk around, whenever I looked at the desk at which I had written Farmers, Functionaries and Fireworks, there was a feeling of emptiness in my chest. And when I lay awake at night, as I often did then, because my brain no longer had anything to occupy it, then I thought about whether my life was supposed to consist of sitting in a back room at Rowohlt’s cutting out reviews and pasting them onto green paper, sending out free copies and recording the subsequent reviews. Was that why I was on earth? There seemed to be so little purpose in it all.

And then I thought again about the hours of elation which I had experienced while writing my first book. Often it had been a feeling like intoxication, but a feeling beyond all the kinds of intoxication offered by earthly means. Even the worst hours in which I had despaired totally about how the writing could continue seemed better to me than the most pleasant free hours I had now. There was no doubt about it: I had drunk of a poison which I could no longer expel from my body or my soul, and now I thirsted to drink more of that poison, to drink it always, every day, for the rest of my life.

I don’t know if I’m expressing myself clearly and comprehensibly. What I’m trying to say is this: That once I had started I couldn’t stop, that when I decided to write another novel (the book that later became a world-wide success under the title Little Man, What Now?) I was acting under a compulsion. I certainly didn’t write it for my readers. I never think about my readers when I’m writing a book. I only think about the book, about the characters in it, the fates in it. When I think about something other than those things, then I think very selfishly about me, I’m supplying myself with the greatest happiness which life has to give, making it flow into my breast and my heart: I’m writing, I’m writing every hour of the day and of the night, whether I’m sitting at my desk or walking around, whether I’m answering letters or talking with you here, everything becomes a book for me, one day it will have become a book, a little piece of this here, and that facial expression there, and those tables and chairs and windows. Everything in my life ends in a book. That’s how it has to be, it can’t be otherwise, because I’m the man that I became.

I’ve told you about my earlier life, when it really didn’t look, when for years it didn’t look like I would become a book-writer. I went around and did my work in the fields of the big agricultural estates and in the offices of the big cities like everyone else. I didn’t know myself that there was anything else for me to do. But after I had written my first book there was no stopping me anymore, and after the first came the second, and that was followed by the third, and so over the years I’ve become what you could call an old book-writer, and I have nothing but books in my head, and no longer any thought that I would be fit for any other occupation.

But I’ve got a long way ahead of myself, as they say, really we’re still only at the point where I’m rather diffidently placing my first novel in my publisher Rowohlt’s hands. Well, he read it, because he’s one of those publishers who reads all his authors’ books himself (which by no means all publishers do), and his chief editor read it, and his deputy chief editor read it, and more and more people read it, long before the decision to publish it was made, and while that was happening my diffidence gradually transformed itself into the firm conviction that I had written a novel, a real novel, one that would be capable of interesting the readers, and also of gaining favorable notices from the critics. So even without a master to teach me, even without the guidance of a Flaubert, I had succeeded in writing a real novel.

I won’t go any further, you see, I won’t go any further, because here I have to make a strange confession to you: That I have never been interested in what my readers or what the critics have to say about my books. I can assure you that I find nothing more deeply annoying than those people who tell me that they have read all of Fallada and then heap all their encomiums on me, and I actively detest the people who bail me up and start retelling episodes from my own works and exclaiming about how marvelous those episodes are. And what the newspapers write about me, whether it’s good or bad, doesn’t bother me, I haven’t read it for many years now, and if it happens to catch my eye I feel that it doesn’t concern me, it doesn’t interest me, it has nothing to do with me.

Perhaps that sounds very ungrateful, but I’m not ungrateful. You haven’t forgotten that I told you about the poison which has infected me since I wrote my first book, so that I always have to keep writing? And you also haven’t forgotten that I only wrote my books because of the characters in them, their fates, that I never thought about my readers? You see, that explains a great deal. Because I don’t write the books for other people, and I don’t write them to give pleasure to my readers, I write them only for my own pleasure, to feel like a little god and creator of worlds, that’s why I write them. I don’t deserve any thanks or any praise, so I don’t like hearing any thanks or praise. To be blunt, it’s as if someone had got quite gloriously drunk, and then people came up to him and thanked him for having sucked up the liquor so beautifully. No, no, they shouldn’t do that.

And the other side of the matter, the critics . . . ? Yes, perhaps it sounds very arrogant that I don’t want to hear anything from critics either. But I have to say that someone who takes his writing as seriously as I do—and my books may mean a lot or a little, but I do take them seriously—that a book-writer and novel-father like that knows his own child best of all. I know exactly where its weaknesses are, where the inspiration dried up, where I cobbled things together, I know all those things only too well. If it were in my power, I would change it, keep changing it, but unfortunately it’s not in my power.

(to be continued…)