Saturday, September 03, 2011

Reading group: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

John chose this book because of the huge attention it has received since the English translation appeared in 2009. Originally published in Germany immediately after the war, with the encouragement of the new Soviet authorities, and based on a real-life case, it concerns an act of resistance by an ordinary working-class and middle-aged couple under the Nazi regime, the writing and dropping of anonymous postcards attacking Hitler and the war. The book is promoted by the English-language publishers, Penguin, as having been 'lost', although James Buchan informs us that it has in fact enjoyed a certain continuing life in Germany with television and film adaptations. It has however only now been translated into English.

By the time of the meeting I had managed to read only fifty or so pages, and some time has passed since, so my memory of the discussion is sketchy, but I'll do my best.

Written in twenty-six days or so by a man weakened and dying after a tortured and dissolute life (Hans Fallada was the pen-name Rudolf Ditzen's father persuaded him to adopt after his first, youthful involvement in scandal), the book is a miraculously exuberant 600-pager, if somewhat baggy and at times florid. The discussion, however, did not initially touch on the novelistic qualities of the book, as people were so taken with the story itself, and the revelations in the book about society under the Nazi regime. Fallada was uniquely qualified to portray this last, having taken the decision, unusual for a writer, to stay in the country for the duration of the war, and, it seems, at times bowing as a writer to Nazi pressures. What emerges is a vivid and horrifying depiction of economic hardship and squalor bringing out the worst and most bestial in citizens, and a culture of fear permeating from the lowest members of society to the highest-ranking Nazis themselves, with people daily shopping each other to save their own skins, and, contrary to what we are often told, a general paralysing awareness of the concentration camps and the murders that took place there. There is no doubt for the resisting couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, that they will be executed if they are uncovered, and their act is all the more remarkable for the fact that before the event that triggers it, the death of their soldier son, they are entirely unpoliticised - as John said, it seems a deliberate authorial choice that they are the most ordinary of couples. Neither is there any guarantee that their action will have the desired effect - and indeed it leads to trouble for others and more than one death - but it is the shining focus of a good moral choice in a situation where good moral choices have become practically impossible.

John had found the book very important and Trevor had really liked it. Ann found it of great historical interest. I asked them what they thought of it as a novel and they all instantly said, Not much. Mainly they found the prose pretty primitive and thought there were too many characters - although I have to say that when I came to read the whole thing I didn't agree about the latter: in terms of plot, as the book progresses everything including the characters is pulled together. There is constant seemingly uncontrolled slippage of tenses, and some repetition, but apparently much of the book is written in dialect German, and I did relish Michael Hofmann's rough-and-ready idiomatic translation. Doug said that he thought the book was atrociously written and he just hadn't liked it at all, but had thought it worth reading for the political content. They all agreed that the characters weren't at all well developed - though I have to say I subsequently found the insight into the psychology of the Gestapo detective Escherich, for instance, quite sophisticated. However, it's true that often the prose and especially the dialogue, most notably that between the Quangels, is stilted and naive. On the whole I'd say that the book suffers from unevenness - which is perhaps unsurprising, given the speed with which it was written and the fact that Fallada died before publication - and I'd agree that despite its aesthetic faults, for political reasons it's a must-read.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

No comments: