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Book review



Book reviews: A Small Circus | More Lives Than One

Published on Saturday 28 January 2012 00:00


Hans Fallada 1934.jpg

 Rudolf and Anna Ditzen (1934)


Crook, boozer, junkie, womaniser, lunatic – the compromised life of the man who chronicled Nazi-era Germany is as riveting as his novels

Hans Fallada may be the very best storyteller of the very worst times: wartime Berlin with its thugs and murderers and grasses, but also the times when inflation rages, nobody can get a job, governments cut and slash and keep saying they’re fighting off the Depression until the money stops moving altogether, people go hungry and being decent becomes a luxury. If that sounds familiar, that’s why we need Hans Fallada now.

We need the vein of optimism in his grimmest stories, a sense that it is worth struggling to be human however mad the world may be: that you go on living your particular life, not just the Depression, the inflation, the Nazis or the war. He’s thrilling, sometimes just a shade away from saccharine, absorbing as a soap opera. Most of all, he knows how to cut down horror to the human scale we can understand without ever trivialising it. He’s a 1930s best-seller who can touch our nerves – 400,000 copies sold of Michael Hoffman’s new version of Alone in Berlin – and we’re only just starting. We read him for the sense of running alongside history as it unfolds – wartime Berlin, the German countryside revolts of the late 1920s, the time of hyperinflation – but almost before you know it, you’re running, too. You recognise people. You’re living his story.

Nice men, correct men can’t do this kind of empathy. Fallada was a boozer, a junkie, a womaniser, a thief and an embezzler, in and out of jails and madhouses, the last time for trying to shoot his second wife who very wisely took the gun and brained him.

He shouldn’t have been on the margins; he was the son of a supreme court judge. He should have inherited his father’s ability to be decisive about rights and wrongs. Instead, he was compromised, ambiguous, and almost all his characters are the same way; their humanity stops Fallada becoming just a historical phenomenon.

He was never a chic writer: too sentimental, people said, wrote too quickly, sold too many copies. He has that journalistic trick of keeping things interesting, picking the vital detail, and sometimes that makes good writing seem simple, which it isn’t. He doesn’t philosophise, although he does tell you what people are thinking; his stories run forward like a good movie. He does dialogue like a playwright which he sometimes was. And he doesn’t ever write sermons, even when he’s showing you evil.

This can be worrying when a man published under the Nazis, lived out the war in Germany and did time as a local official in Communist East Germany; and kept rewriting his own life so his autobiographies are like his novels, fictions based a bit on fact. We owe much of the revival of Fallada, and our understanding of the man, to Jenny Williams, who bothered to investigate the fictional character of Hans Fallada and find the man whose real name was Rudolph Ditzen.

The revised edition of her 1998 biography is lucid, careful, as intelligent about the man’s whole context as his loves and crimes, and it is wonderfully unjudgemental. She can deal with Ditzen’s decision in 1939 to stay in Germany and be trapped in his role as Hans Fallada, purveyor of light entertainment to the German masses, without sermonising, which is quite something. Nazis denounced Fallada’s “destructiveness”. Liberals denounced him as a Fascist. Communists settled for terrible doubts.

He reckoned he had only one black mark under the Nazis, one crime which had to do with politics. He rewrote the end of Iron Gustav (a new translation is due in 2013) because Goebbels told him to take the family story to the triumphant rise of the Nazi party; Goebbels said if Fallada didn’t know what he thought of the Nazi party then the party would know what to think about him, which was not a subtle threat. Still, staying on and taking Goebbels’s orders was not enough to disqualify him when the Soviets needed a mayor for a post-war town in the East, although he suspected the Soviet commandant of deliberately overworking him so “he could get his hands on my 24-year-old wife”.

The beauty of Fallada is that he’s not innocent: no saint, no hero. He’s the melodramatic version of all those small men who scramble through his novels, whose business is staying alive, and staying just decent enough even when jostled and battered by an indecent world. “I know I’m weak,” he wrote in his last letter to his mother, “but not bad, never bad. But that’s no excuse…”

At 18, he killed his best friend in some kind of suicide pact that either went wrong or came out just as he wanted; the only certainty in the whole story is the bullet that went through his lungs. His criminal record, in the end, was wiped because he was considered to be mentally ill; but the really interesting pathology is much more general. There was a wave of suicides among schoolchildren in 1912 Germany, usually put down to the nationwide discovery that sex is confusing, maybe the same kind of romantic plague that would two years later leave citizens feel exalted and inspired by the prospect of a nice, cleansing war. Fallada was one among hundreds, except he survived; and he got a couple of early novels out of the hell that is puberty for a middle-class German male.

This pattern lasted; he knew exactly what he was writing about. The rat-like informers in Alone in Berlin once cost him his house on a false rumour in the first days of the Nazi regime, and then almost got him hanged for his drug addiction in the last, desperate years of the war. So he knew how to survive when law loses all its meaning. “I do not like grand gestures,” he said, “being slaughtered before the tyrant’s throne, senselessly.”

He’d lived, of course, the 1920s hyperinflation in Wolf Among Wolves, seen morale break and cities turned into “Oriental bazaars”, “dealers, beggars, strumpets, almost shoulder to shoulder they stood on both sides of the pavement”; “an age disjointed, mad and sick.” The Drinker, the novel he wrote in code when he was locked in a Nazi madhouse, is all about how you drink to push away the impossible world; it makes the cultish barflies like Bukowski look trivial. Fallada had already created sanitarium characters who had “no wish to be outside again in the world of the healthy”, not when that world was so manifestly insane. Herman Hesse thought the book was reporting.

Even Little Man, What Now? – his single most successful book, twice filmed in the 1930s in Germany and Hollywood, the financial salvation of his publishers Rowohlt – manages to stay real despite its slightly treacly warmth. It is the story of a small man with no hope of work, the white-collar man who tries to do a little more than stay alive, who is also in love: with the book’s most remarkable character, his wife. She’s devoted, ingenious, practical: she always copes in the most wretched situations. She risks becoming a saint. Fallada knew the Hollywood version had gone wrong when he saw that the make-do wife of an unemployed man during the Depression was wearing an evening gown.

She’s “little lamb”, which is what Fallada called his own first wife Suse. The whole book is “a mark of gratitude to a woman”, he wrote, “the woman whom I love, but also my mother.” To Suse he said: “I am your child.” What keeps the book alive is this passionate confession by a man who finally, for a while, found the family he had missed when he was growing up, and loved her.

The new book, A Small Circus, is about a farmers’ revolt against a state that keeps confiscating their livelihood, their boycott war against the smug socialist workers of the next town, and the daily discomfort of being a hack on a smalltown newspaper that’s failing; it twists your feelings ruthlessly in part because it doesn’t feel invented.

He was a farmer, off and on, or at least a farm manager, first as psychotherapy and then as career. He sold ads for a small town newspaper near Hamburg. He stole from the estates where he worked, and the story changed again: he was professional at making himself comfortable in the least promising of jails. Jails matter a lot in A Small Circus.

The book’s a panorama of all the hate and scheming of a small town, from the brothels to the bureaucrats, a slew of small men losing their way while a nation loses its. It ends with a kind of trial; it is as tense as any thriller but mostly it proves what we ought to have known in the first place: it is not the machinery of Alone in Berlin, the loners making their small and essential protest against the Nazis and the Gestapo hunting them down, that makes it a thriller. It is the sense of life, the risk on every page, the detail that stops you ever escaping the nightmare and the sheer forward energy of the story; the book was written, start to finish, in just four weeks.

In the editing, in postwar East Germany, everything became a bit more black and white in that book; we have the politically correct version, no working-class hero ever worked with the Nazis, although the newly rediscovered manuscript doesn’t seem to make a significant difference (a “lost” chapter will probably appear when Penguin reprint in 2013.) Perhaps, as Fallada himself said, A Small Circus should also have been cut. It is baggy but that doesn’t matter because you don’t ever get time to think about putting it down.

It seems odd that while German TV, East and West, was serialising Fallada like we serialise Dickens or Trollope – there are similarities in scope and sentiment – and there were musicals of one book, movies of the others, we lost sight of Hans Fallada, who was a hugely successful pre-war author in London and New York. Now we have him back, we have a chance to see a whole lost history more clearly. We also have utterly absorbing books which make you shiver, cry and occasionally laugh: books which don’t ever get euphemistic about bad times, even when they keep hoping and hoping against hope.

• The other books referred to here, including Alone in Berlin (Penguin £9.99), Little Man, What Now?, The Drinker and Wolf Among Wolves, are all published in the US by Melville House.