The cow, the shoe, then you

Philip Oltermann

  • More Lives than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada by Jenny Williams
    Penguin, 320 pp, £12.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 241 95267 2
  • A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
    Penguin, 577 pp, £20.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 14 119655 8

On Tuesday, 17 October 1911, 18-year-old Rudolf Ditzen, the future Hans Fallada, got up before dawn to meet his schoolfriend Hanns Dietrich von Necker at a tourist spot outside Rudolstadt in Thuringia. Some weeks beforehand, they had agreed to take each other’s lives in a double suicide, though they hadn’t been able to decide how to do it. Fallada was carrying a Tesching gun, Necker a revolver; each of them had fixed a red bow to his lapel, just above the heart, for the other to aim at. According to Fallada, the duel had been Necker’s idea: his mother was the widow of an army major and would find it easier to accept his death if it was the result of a duel. But Necker’s suicide note, written the night before, frames Fallada: ‘He casts a strange spell over me, and was able to make me completely submit myself to his will.’ With their first shots, they missed completely. With their second, Necker’s bullet missed, but Necker himself was hit in the heart, though he remained conscious enough to beg his friend to shoot him again. Fallada, who was short-sighted, fired three more bullets: one for Necker, two for himself. The first entered his lung, the other narrowly missed his heart. Stumbling back down the path to Rudolstadt, he was found by a forester who took him to hospital. His mother’s first reaction to her son attempting suicide and killing his friend in the process was: ‘Thank God, at least nothing sexual.’

Fallada was never convicted of shooting Necker – a judge certified him unfit for trial – but he was effectively barred from the bourgeois career his parents had in mind for him. School was never completed, a university degree out of the question; instead, there were stints in mental asylums and a fondness for alcohol and morphine. But the persona he created still drives sales sixty years after his death. Michael Hofmann’s 2009 translation of his last novel, Alone in Berlin, sold around 350,000 copies in the UK alone, 100,000 of them in the first three months after publication.

Much of Alone in Berlin’s success has to do with the way the story is told. Otto and Anna Quangel live in an apartment block in Berlin amid staunch Nazis and small-time crooks. After they hear of their son’s death at the front, they decide to write badly spelled anti-Nazi messages on postcards which they leave here and there in public places. For most of the novel, the scheme is reported in parallel with their neighbours’ bungled attempts at petty crime, which are less high-minded but just as hopeless. The atmosphere at 55 Jablonski Strasse is stifling: everyone is looking to profit from their neighbours’ missteps. Even Escherich, the cruel and calculating Gestapo officer who is put in charge of smoking out the postcard writer, is shown to be at the mercy of his superior. Just as Escherich’s net is closing in on the Quangels, Obergruppenführer Prall grows impatient and has him duffed up by SS men until he’s nothing more than a ‘miserable, terrified little manikin’. In the final third of the novel, after the Quangels have been arrested, the plot thins out and the thriller suddenly turns into something resembling a parable: the question is no longer whether Otto Quangel will die, but what it might all mean. As Quangel meets first a cellmate who pretends to be a dog, then a composer who has spoken out against the Nazis, then his priest, then his judge and finally his executioner, the novel turns into a meditation on dying and whether it is more elegant to die of your own free will, or to survive even if you are not in charge of your own fate.

Perhaps Alone in Berlin was such a success because it caught a wave of Anglophone interest in European totalitarianism and the space it afforded for heroes as well as victims and villains. Quangel has a hard shell and little faith in his own talent, but a good heart tells him to do the right thing. In this sense, it offers a National Socialist version of The Lives of Others, a story of good people who resist the depravity of their time. This is especially evident in the version of the text usually used, which doesn’t include some sections that complicate the Quangels’ relationship with the Nazi Party (Aufbau Verlag are publishing an unabridged edition of the novel in April). The key word on the cover of the paperback is ‘redemptive’, and the killer quote on the inside flap is from Primo Levi: ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. It is tempting to see Quangel as a portrait of the author, the untalented but persistent scribbler, but Escherich too is a candidate: the slightly arrogant deskbound functionary with his brilliantly plotted reports, who ends up staging a fake suicide for one of his suspects. Then there’s Doctor Reichhardt, the artist imprisoned for his ideals, but he is more of a Thomas Mann-style grand bourgeois. Perhaps the multiple self-portraits make sense: there’s always more than one Hans Fallada.

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