A signal literary event of has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. Published in , the book was written in 24 days by a prolific but psychologically disturbed German writer named Rudolf Ditzen, who spent a significant portion of his life in asylums for killing a friend in a duel, for threatening his wife with a gun , in prison for embezzling to finance his morphine habit and in rehab. The pen name fulfills its prophecy. Early in , half a year after the French capitulation to Germany, a Gestapo inspector named Escherich stands in his office on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, contemplating a map of the city into which he has stuck 44 red-flagged pins.
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Otherwise our image of the German resistance to Hitler might have been stuck in Hollywood, with Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform. Instead, we have Fallada's grimly realistic page mosaic of Berlin under Hitler, based on the Gestapo file of a couple's quiet rebellion against the Nazi regime that shipped their only child off to die fighting on the front lines.
In Fallada's retelling of the case, middle-aged, "bird-faced" Otto Quangel, whose furniture factory now makes coffins, initiates a secret protest with his wife, Anna. The deadpan everyman writes postcards denouncing the Nazi regime and leaves the cards around the city. The tale of their modest campaign that outsmarts the Gestapo for a while reads like a gripping thriller, yet Fallada never loses his grip on the story's moral core.
He leaves no doubt about the Nazis' savagery toward their own citizens, especially those who hint at the courage to resist. Fallada's perspective from within that society makes it unique.
It was Fallada's final novel, written feverishly in 24 days in , and published two months after his death in His troubled life had more drama than most fiction. Born Rudolf Ditzen, and institutionalized at 18 for killing a classmate in a duel he failed at his own suicide but was judged insane and acquitted of murder , he spent years working on farms before he took to writing, but not before alcohol and morphine led him to crime and prison.
His adopted name, Hans Fallada, combines two characters from "Grimm's Fairy Tales": Hans, a fool who sees every misfortune as a new blessing, and Falada, a beheaded horse who speaks the truth after a scheming maid switches places with his owner, a princess. The author added an extra "l. The film's U. His books kept selling.
Fallada turned down a chance to emigrate in , and his addictions took over. In , he tried to shoot his wife and was sent to an insane asylum. Fallada then accepted an offer by Joseph Goebbels a sometime fan of his books to write an anti-Semitic novel.
Instead, on paper the Nazis gave him, he wrote "The Drinker," a raging Dostoyevskian account of one businessman's personal ruin - a metaphor for Germany's descent into horror. In , the Soviet liberators saw Fallada as a cultural asset and briefly made him mayor of his hometown. Instead, they got "Every Man Dies Alone," his mammoth hymn to a worker's autonomous courage. It was anti-authoritarianism that Stalin could not have welcomed. The novel is rooted on Jablonski Street, a microcosm of the Third Reich where a mail carrier brings the apolitical Quangels bad news from the front.
The neighbors downstairs are loutish Nazi bullies, who plot to steal from a Jewish woman upstairs whose husband is already in a camp. Petty thieves and drunks hover around, sniffing for rumors and denunciations to sell to the police. With few exceptions, cynical Berliners curse the regime but are hopelessly corruptible. Fallada made his own compromises, visiting the French front with German troops in Berlin in the novel is a prison of scarcity and fear, where information is the next best thing to black-market coffee.
Fallada takes us from factories to the streets and eventually to Nazi kangaroo courts and the guillotine. His landscape of fear is part police report, part Georg Grosz , part Hieronymus Bosch. It reads not as horror from afar or from memory, but as testimony from a witness who can't turn away. Fallada's stunningly vivid characters form their own inhuman comedy, yet some German critics slighted the book as a reportorial example of Neue Sachlichkeit, an aesthetic movement that shunned ornamentation.
The writing can indeed be not only deadpan but also humorous and wildly dramatic, even in this translation, which flattens the original German. Fallada is a writer of observations rather than symbols, of urgency rather than contemplation, of hard-edged honesty rather than lyricism. He reaches heights of grotesquery in scenes where a Gestapo agent drunk on looted Armagnac tortures another for not finding Quangel soon enough, and where Quangel shares a cell with an SS murderer who barks and bites like a dog.
Quangel's episodic journey from protest to death row shows you anything but the banality of evil. What exploded out of Fallada in 24 days gets you inside Nazi Germany like no other novel. For Fallada, it must have been an exorcism. For us, it is a belated revelation. Breaking News.
Postcards From the Edge
At the age of 18 Fallada had narrowly escaped a murder prosecution following the death of a friend in a failed suicide pact, and this led to the first of many incarcerations in psychiatric institutions. Towards the end of his life he was again prosecuted for making drunken threats with a gun against Anna Issel, from whom he had recently been divorced. In any society Fallada would have struggled, but he had the supreme misfortune to be born at a time when writers who wanted to avoid the attentions of the Gestapo could choose between compromise, silence or exile. Fallada's choices led at one point to his arrest by the Nazi militia, and at another to close contact with Goebbels. His writing career was unstable and full of paradoxes, just as his life was lived in intimacy with humiliation and terror. The extraordinary texture of Alone in Berlin comes from the way in which everything is observed and represented as if "from below", from within this dynamic of humiliation and terror, and yet the representation is sharp, exact, ironic, devastating. This is history seen from the backstreets, and from its viewpoint Nazi Germany at war is both intensely rigid and intensely unstable.
'Every Man Dies Alone,' by Hans Fallada
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Review: Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada
Otherwise our image of the German resistance to Hitler might have been stuck in Hollywood, with Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform. Instead, we have Fallada's grimly realistic page mosaic of Berlin under Hitler, based on the Gestapo file of a couple's quiet rebellion against the Nazi regime that shipped their only child off to die fighting on the front lines. In Fallada's retelling of the case, middle-aged, "bird-faced" Otto Quangel, whose furniture factory now makes coffins, initiates a secret protest with his wife, Anna. The deadpan everyman writes postcards denouncing the Nazi regime and leaves the cards around the city.