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"More Lives than One"... and more reviews...



The Irish Times - Saturday, April 21, 2012

Faithful to Fallada

More Lives.jpg

INTERVIEW: A chance encounter with the work of Hans Fallada led Jenny Williams to be his first English-language biographer, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY 

BOOKS HAVE DIFFERENT ways of creeping up on us. There are those we have to read for school and university courses. Others are happened upon by word of mouth; those “you have got to read this” recommendations. Sometimes a book proves so good that only one response is possible – to read everything the particular author wrote.

But Jenny Williams, now professor emeritus at Dublin City University, has a different story. Her encounter with the German writer Hans Fallada (1893-1947), now internationally famous more than 60 years after his death following the success of his posthumous masterpiece, Alone in Berlin (1947), which was published in an English translation just over three years ago, was not typical.

Her engagement began more than 30 years earlier: “It was in 1978 and quite by chance one evening I watched an adaptation of a German novel on BBC. I was intrigued by the programme, if also a bit bothered.” Williams was understandably taken aback. Having completed a degree in German Studies at Queen’s University, she enjoyed the dramatisation of A Small Circus but was baffled as to why she had never heard of its author, Hans Fallada. “I was more than curious. I couldn’t understand how he had eluded me. I had specialised in the subject and here was this wonderful writer that I knew nothing about. I had to find out more.”

She not only found out more, she read everything then in print and began to research the man, his life and times and work; his family, his friends and most particularly his relationship with his publisher, Ernest Rowohlt. Her investigation led her to read every letter he wrote, of which there are about 6,000. “He was a very enthusiastic letter-writer, to his family and friends, his publishers and also to his readers.”

She traced his footsteps, first visiting the lakeside archive in lovely wooded Mecklenburg, in what was then the German Democratic Republic, where his papers and manuscripts are held. Then, after many starts and stops, she wrote an outstanding biography; More Lives Than One. The writing of that insightful, never flashy biography, with its Wildean-inspired title, is a story in itself. Hans Fallada is a Dickensian original, a writer comparable to the great Joseph Roth.

While Roth, the outsider, chronicled the story of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Fallada, the son of an ambitious judge and very much an insider, looked to the Germany of the doomed Weimar Republic. Williams is a calm Belfast woman, as deliberate as a surgeon, and possessed of a strong sense of irony, who is also quietly sympathetic but neither gushing nor defensive of her subject, who was odd to say the least.

Fallada was born Rudolf Ditzen – the name by which she refers to him – in 1893. From very early on in his life, he had problems. His extreme behaviour, culminating in a teenage suicide pact in which he failed to keep his side of the bargain, by surviving and killing his friend, was only the beginning.

He was interested in the struggles of ordinary people and was capable of unexpected kindness. His own difficulties were largely self-inflicted. “He was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a womaniser, a jailbird and a thief,” Williams says in a neutral tone. His father had had to declare young Ditzen insane to save him from a murder charge.

Ditzen was prone to depression, and haunted by his brave younger brother who had died during the first World War in which Ditzen/Fallada had been considered clinically unfit to serve. He was also a best-selling author in the early 1930s, a time when most Germans were preoccupied by more pressing matters than reading fiction. Little Man – What Now? the story of an ordinary man and his feisty wife, appeared in 1932 and was translated within a year. A Hollywood film version soon followed. Fallada was big in the 1930s.

Professor Williams is enthusiastic yet rarely raises her voice. She has lived with Rudolf Ditzen for a long time, almost since the night she watched that television drama. By 1984 she had already made three visits to the Fallada archive and had had several proposals for a biography rejected. It was disappointing. “I gave up on the Fallada project as there was obviously no interest in him in the English-speaking world. This seemed to me to be a real shame as he was not only a major German author, he was a really good writer.”

Time passed. Williams left the University of Ulster, where she had lectured for eight years, and moved to Dublin, where she had accepted a post at Dublin City University. During those years she was more involved with translation studies than literary projects. Ditzen/Fallada receded into the background.

It was not until 1991, after German unification, that Williams became aware of an independent British publisher, Libris, that was beginning to publish editions of Fallada’s books in translation. She discovered this while back in Germany at the invitation of the newly founded Hans Fallada Society. Libris had begun in 1989 by publishing The Drinker, the novel that was included along with his memoir in a coded manuscript of microscopic handwriting, composed while Fallada was being held in a Nazi psychiatric prison in 1944. “He had smuggled it out under his shirt when he was leaving as the memoir was dangerously critical of the regime.” Williams would, much later in 2002, spend six months transcribing the text of the memoir with a co-editor, poet Sabine Lange. Libris next published Little Man – What Now? in 1996. Williams advised on the translation.

Finally her biography was becoming a reality, only to again slip away due to that old reliable, an economic downturn. She laughs. “By that stage, I really had accepted it was not to be.” But, about a year later, the publisher came back and told her to go ahead.

“I was delighted. I had already collected a good deal of material over the years. And one of the fascinating aspects of writing about Ditzen at that time was that I was writing about an entire man, not just the writer, as there was so little written about him in English.” It was new territory. She had also had three very long interviews with his first wife during the early 1980s. Anna Ditzen, then in her 80s, was not bitter. “She was a tall old woman,” Williams recalls, describing her as physically almost imposing. Yet Anna in old age had remained the simple girl that Ditzen had married and left after 15 tears of marriage and four children, one of whom died at birth. “Anna Ditzen didn’t like tape recorders. She lived across the lake from the archive and I would cycle round to her and have tea and conversation, before cycling furiously back to the archive to write everything down.” It is ironic to consider the splendid Hans Fallada archive in its beautiful lakeside villa setting. The papers, now so secure, could easily have been lost during the eight years following the writer’s death in 1947. Fallada’s second wife, Ulla, was declared his heir. She was 28 years younger than him, very beautiful, a wealthy widow when he had married her, and a hopeless morphine addict; the wrong person to look after his papers. In 1949 she married a con man and the new couple financed themselves by selling off the papers. She gradually realised what her new husband was doing and divorced him in 1956, two years before she died of morphine addiction, at only 38. She had become friendly with a butcher and his wife. They felt sorry for her and helped her by gradually buying all the manuscripts, papers and the rights. The butcher died the year before Ulla, leaving his widow in charge of the Fallada archive. She did her best and from 1955 until 1978 anyone interested in Fallada’s manuscripts and papers had to go to Brunswick, now in west Germany, to the cellar of the butcher’s shop.

In 1978, all the Fallada material was purchased by the GDR Academy of the Arts and taken to East Berlin and then, in 1980, to Mecklenburg. The biography became a reality in 1994, as Williams finally began it some 16 years after that night she watched the BBC adaptation. Was she defiant or philosophical after all the delays and false starts? She laughs. “I was just elated at being the only English-language biographer of Ditzen/Fallada.” A part of her, however, remained conscious that she was the only person in the English-speaking world that seemed interested in Fallada. All that finished in 2009 with the triumphant response to Alone in Berlin, in Michael Hofmann’s translation.

But before that, in 1998, her perceptive biography was quietly, though respectfully published. The title More Lives Than One comes from Oscar Wilde’s A Ballad of Reading Gaol. “Ditzen always admired Wilde; both men shared an experience of prison life.”

After all the work, the time spent exploring this man and his writings, examining his mistakes, his errors of judgement, his deceptions, does she like him? “As a biographer, my approach was one of critical sympathy,” she replies with characteristic understatement. How does she feel as a reader? “I particularly like his gift for storytelling which was very much influenced by his reading of Defoe and Stevenson, and of course, Dickens. I think the subjects he focused on for his novels, such as unemployment, prison reform, the sustaining power and also the limitations of romantic love, his genuine commitment to human decency, are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s.”

Most of all, Ditzen/Fallada knew himself. In the final letter to his often bewildered mother, he conceded: “Some part of me has never been completely finished, something is missing with the result that I’m not a proper man, only a human being who has aged, an old grammar school boy . . . I know I’m weak, but not bad, never bad. But that’s no excuse, it’s poor enough at 53 to have become nothing more than a weak man, to have learned so little from my mistakes.”

More Lives Than One by Jenny Williams is published by Penguin. A forthcoming edition of Who Once Eats Out of the Tin Bowl (1934), under the new title of Jailbird, with afterword by Jenny Williams, will be published by Penguin in June