It was my birthday recently—it’s okay, you weren’t to know—and as a gift my girlfriend’s parents sent me a copy of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. I had never heard of Fallada before reading this novel, and I found it quite a curious read in every meaning of the word curious (intriguing, strange, etc.). Published in 1947, the story opens in 1940s Berlin, in a Germany in the throes of National Socialism. Revolving around a couple’s humble resistance to the Nazis as they write and drop anti-Nazi postcards around the city, the narrative quickly spirals—either up or down, depending how you look at it—so that a myriad of characters are involved. It’s a little bit Dickensian (or for a more ‘now’ cultural reference, it’s like David Simon’s couple of TV series, The Wire and Treme) in that characters come and go, and you never know who is going to be central and who will fade away. And as such the most interesting element of the book is the realistic depth of these characters, in that not one of them is painted entirely white (good) or black (evil). Instead everyone is a slightly different shade of grey, and prone to change as the years progress, meaning that the maelstrom of grey people mixes and merges to create the hostile, jittery city that was the city of Berlin, then.
Despite my enjoyment of it, I’m not here to tell you whether or not you should read the book. You can figure that out for yourself. What I am here to share is the exceptional biography of the author. It is remarkable, and I only stumbled across it because following the end of the story is an afterword that gives some background on Fallada (birth name Rudolf Ditzen) and also a detailed overview of historical circumstances of the writing and publication of Alone in Berlin, as well as the rest of his previous ten or so novels. It is in this afterword that the novel is lifted another notch as we learn of just how the book came to be.
Early on the morning of 17 October 1911, eighteen-year-old Rudolf Ditzen and his friend Hanns Dietrich von Necker armed themselves with pistols, walked out into the countryside and fired on each other in the manner of duellists. Like many other young men in imperial Germany, Ditzen and von Decker had struggled to reconcile their developing sexuality with the prevailing social conventions, and were seeking escape in a suicide pact, but they staged it as a duel to uphold the honour of a young woman and to protect the reputations of their families. Von Necker missed with his shots, but he was fatally wounded by Ditzen, who then used his dead friend’s revolver to shoot himself in the chest. Remarkably, Ditzen survived, and he was charged with von Necker’s murder. However, Ditzen was declared unfit for trial on psychological grounds, and committed to a private sanatorium for the mentally ill. Although Ditzen had been studying for his university-entrance exams, upon his release from the sanatorium in September 1913 his parents and doctors decided that he should pursue and agricultural career, and he spent the next several years working on farms. These years were also characterised by the intermittent dependence on various drugs—alcohol, sleeping drugs, cocaine and morphine—against which Ditzen struggled against all his adult life. But neither his legal problems, nor the abandonment of a formal education, nor his substance abuse could extinguish his interest in writing, and in 1920 a small publishing house issued his debut novel, Young Goedeschal, which deals with the sexual and psychological tribulations of the eponymous male protagonist. Ditzen’s father urged him to publish the book under a pseudonym to avoid reviving public memories of how he had killed his best friend. So Rudolf chose the nom de plume ‘Hans Fallada’; the name was inspired by two Grimm fairy tales, ‘Hans in Luck’ and ‘The Goose Girl’ (the second featured a horse named Falada). In the next 25 years Ditzen/Fallada was twice convicted and imprisoned for fraud, worked for a newspaper and his own publisher, was denounced as an anti-Nazi conspirator, and accepted officially sanctioned writing commissions from the Nazis. He was neither an eager collaborator nor a resistance fighter; he cooperated with the regime and the ideology whilst at the same time quietly challenging it in his novels.
Although it’s a bit too complicated to really dig into and unearth here, the relationship between Fallada’s politics and his fiction is an intriguing one. The simplest explanation would be that he was a passive resistor, someone who—like many of his fellow Germans—didn’t agree with the Nazis per se, but was prepared to enjoy or/and endure the years of their rule. (Pretty much like many populations do now, everywhere – live under their current governments and not say or do a whole lot when they feel aggrieved, although the recent ‘Arab Spring’ is an exception to the rule.) But Fallada’s actions are never dispassionate; his politics, at least through a reading of his fiction and a brief look at the actions of his life, may seem erratic and disjointed, but he is never apolitical. As Rebecca Solnit said in a 2009 interview:
“Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is: how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.”
Solnit’s thoughts continually strike a chord within me, both because of who I am (white Anglo-Saxon male from a middle-upper class background) and because I struggle in my fiction writing to really imbue it with any substantial political ideas. Part of me wants to fall back on the idea of ‘anything I write will be ingrained with whatever my politics are so bugger off and just read my work and don’t analyse me’, but I also know that this is being lazy, and laziness in fiction never goes unpunished, either by the author or readers. Of course, Fallada lived in the fulcrum city of twentieth century politics, and it would’ve been almost impossible to write and not be political. But he didn’t seem to do it because it was easy, rather, his involvement was active and thoughtful. Is this something that every fiction writer or poet—or any type of writer—must do: to make every piece of writing an attestation of a political position? And how far does one take it? (For much more detail on this, browse through the many posts on the politics of writing on sites like Overland.)
Going a bit tangential now, the biography of Fallada also raises the notion of the classic eccentric-slash-esoteric writer. I wonder, is this kind of writer just about extinct in popular literary/capitalist culture today—bar the few and dwindling geniuses—because unreliability and kookiness is too risky in regards to sales? Fallada was in all respects mercurial (and that’s putting it mildly) but he was still popular, probably because most readers wouldn’t have known about his eccentricities (and in the Germany of this time, his criminality). There’s no hope of that today: you act crazy now, and chances are it’ll be on YouTube within a few minutes. Sure, some writers have benefited from acting crazy, but they are flash-in-the-pan types unless they have quality writing to back them up. In reality, some of the more popular ‘young crazy writer’ sorts, like Tao Lin or Blake Butler, are actually completely savvy and focused; one feels that a lot of their weirdness is planned and executed possibly simply to gain attention. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I’m interested in the idea that writers these days are selling themselves just as much or more than they are selling their product. Are we past the time when the words were what mattered?
Hans Fallada was able to write some quite brilliant novels that put German society under the microscope, and he was able to do this because he was an outsider in many respects. As his biography demonstrates he was a different type of fellow, and not being one to follow the rules, he was ostracised. It’s a lot harder today to stand outside the crowd, because the crowd is everywhere, and I wonder if this is changing the way we are being written about, and thus, how we understand ourselves.