How Hans Fallada Found Good Company

By Rebecca K. Morrison

The anniversary year invites a pause to consider NBG’s quietly determined role through two decades, its ear cocked for excellence, and a voice drawing attention to writers new or ripe for rediscovery. One such writer featured in the inaugural issue: Hans Fallada.

Often it is the chance conversation, a stray comment at a book fair or publishing trip, that sparks an idea, the ripples of which will still be felt years later. In the mid-2000s Adam Freudenheim, then publisher of Penguin Modern Classics, was reading much German literature again and was enthralled by two novels by this Hans Fallada: The Drinker – which has been described as ‘the best novel on [the battle with alcoholism] in any language’ – and Little Man, What Now? – described by Thomas Mann as ‘painfully true…and engaging’.

Fallada, Alone in Berlin coverAdam mentioned his enthusiasm to a Parisian colleague, Abel Gerschenfeld, who recommended he look at Seul dans Berlin, recently published by Gallimard. Adam contacted translator Michael Hofmann. They read the novel concurrently and were unanimous: this project had to happen and they, with Melville House in Brooklyn who had acquired the rights, would ensure it did. Hofmann recalls how he devoured the novel in two days, gripped by Fallada’s storytelling prowess, admiring the author’s particularly fine ear for dialogue. He was tempted to echo the author’s burst of creative energy and to translate the work in the same six-week stint – he was not far off! He reminds us of Fallada’s working method in 1947: ‘He made a pact with himself to always write at least the same number of pages on each subsequent day, allowing himself to write more each day, but never less.’ Fallada’s days were fuelled by various stimulants, and began earlier and earlier, in the tucked-away Mecklenburg home.

Hofmann’s translation, published in 2010 by Penguin Modern Classics as Alone in Berlin and by Melville House as Every Man Dies Alone, was a publishing phenomenon, reaping a plethora of glowing reviews and becoming a booksellers’ favourite, a word-of-mouth hit, selling well in hardcover and taking off in paperback – around 500,000 copies sold at the last count across all the English-language editions. In a graceful twist of publishing lore, the novel also experienced a rekindled life in former West Germany. One of the first titles of Aufbau Verlag, the publishing outfit established in East Berlin in 1945, and never out of print there, it is Hofmann’s contention that Alone in Berlin could even be regarded as the first East German novel, ‘with the adoptive family and the countryside at the end’. The ripples continue: last year new Fallada, Der TrinkerBerlin publisher Metrolit – an imprint of Aufbau – launched its graphic novel of Fallada’s Der Trinker, illustrated by Jakob Hinrichs, a homage to a writer whose own contradictions made him so uniquely placed to highlight the lot of “the little man”. For all the knocks Fallada received, Jenny Williams’s biography suggests he continued to have faith in the basic decency of many of the downtrodden, and in moral courage upheld against the odds. Dr Reichert, the benevolent conductor and Otto Quangel’s cell-mate in Alone in Berlin, comments: ‘… [at least we will] feel that we behaved decently to the end…Nothing in this world is done in vain...’.

On the ripples go: a conversation in Paris; a meeting of minds in London; a collaboration with Brooklyn; a respectful nod to Libris and and a newly established NBG part of the dynamic. Excitingly, two more ripples can be anticipated with relish: in the autumn Scribe will publish Allan Blunden’s translation of Nightmare in Berlin, Fallada’s other post-war novel. And Michael Hofmann is at work on a new translation of Little Man, What Now?, the 1932 novel considered a masterpiece by many, for Penguin Modern Classics. Forgotten no more, Hans Fallada, we salute you!

Rebecca K. Morrison was editor of NBG from 2005 - 2009. Currently based in Scotland, she works as a freelance literary critic, translator and writer.