Every Man Dies Alone
by Hans Fallada,
translated by Michael Hofmann.
Melville House, 2010.
Paperback, 544 pages, $17.

There’s a four-page passage early on in Hans Fallada’s masterful 1937 novel Wolf Among Wolves in which we meet a policeman. At first Leo Gubalke is a pure stereotype: He’s introduced washing himself in the bath, the correct way. (Top to bottom, if you were wondering, and Gubalke will explain exactly why if you can’t guess.) The word “order” and its variants are used six times in one paragraph. But then the cartoon peels off, and underneath, there’s this:

He sighed. If one considered the matter closely, the worldwas surprisingly full of obstacles for a man who believed in order. Hundreds of things which the less scrupulous did every day were out of the question for him. On the other hand, he had the pleasurable feeling, without which a man could not live, that he was not only keeping the world in order, but was in harmony with it himself.

And then Gubalke goes out the door and runs across a woman dressed only in an overcoat. She’s lightheaded from pregnancy, and her baby’s father has pawned her clothes in order to afford their wedding license. Gubalke arrests her because if he doesn’t bring somebody in he has no excuse for being late to work. And Fallada adds the stinger: “(Order often brings the paradoxical in its wake.)”

Page one: the ridiculousness of order. Page two: its sublimity. Pages three to four: the cruelty and chaos with which order is imposed. Lots of writers can give you the first thing, a few the second, but nobody except Fallada will give you all three.

Hans Fallada—born in 1893 as Rudolf Ditzen, taking his pen name from two Grimm fairy tales—began his writing life with adolescent romanticism, but quickly moved into social novels with hints of fantasy and satire. He made his name with 1932’s Little Man, What Now?, a portrayal of a man and his wife as they fall into white-collar poverty. The novel became an international hit (it got film adaptations in both Germany and the United States), and it still touches the heart today, in spite of a sentimental streak. Fallada wrote twelve novels overall; he stayed and kept working under both the Nazis and the East German Communists, complicit and compromised but never a mere propagandist.

What makes Fallada unique is not his historical circumstances, but his worldview. No other author I know so fully unites underclass experience with wholehearted bourgeois morality. Fallada’s own life was deeply marked by chaos: At age eighteen he killed a close friend in a suicidal duel (and shot himself, but survived); later on he received treatment for opium addiction and mental illness, was imprisoned twice for financial crimes related to his addiction, and spent four months in a Nazi criminal asylum. These experiences shaped his novels Once a Jailbird (also translated as Who Once Eats Out of the Tin Bowl) and The Drinker, in which the narrative voice identifies deeply with the criminal or alcoholic protagonist. But what comes through equally clearly in all of Fallada’s work is his moral worldview: What you are supposed to do in life is marry, have children, and work hard to support them. Do your duty; rise to the occasion.

Imagine Jean Genet with the soul of Ward Cleaver, and you’re getting close to the strangeness of Fallada’s literary voice. That contrast—and the sweetness of Fallada’s moral voice, the tenderness of it—give his work its lasting resonance and poignancy.

The shorter books are worthwhile, but not fully under Fallada’s control. Little Man and Once a Jailbird are both a bit preachy. Little Man has some wonderful bits—some lovely (the couple holding hands across the gap between their separate beds), some satirical (the buttoned-down nudist). It’s also a vivid portrayal of a workplace that becomes toxic after a management consultant is brought in. Fallada always cares about the details of how people do their work, and he always makes the reader care—Wolf Among Wolves will have you tensely flipping pages to find out how the accounting subplot resolves. In Little Man the workplace scenes force you to watch as “Sonny” Pinneberg’s self-confidence is slowly raised and then demolished.

Once a Jailbird is an even more relentless story of a man’s dismantling. Like The Drinker, it’s a novel of institutional life: how humans worm our way incorrigibly around the rules, and how the institution can become like a brace without which, eventually, their atrophied muscles can no longer walk. But most of the novel is an account of Willi Kufalt’s and his friends’ merciless punishment at the hands of an entire society. The narrative slides into second person when Kufalt completely gives up and starts assaulting women for their cheap handbags; it’s a powerful shift, shocky and isolated, and we only get back to third person when Kufalt finds someone to talk to.

Of the short novels The Drinker is the most single-minded. Written in code in that Nazi asylum (where Fallada was supposed to be writing an anti-Semitic propaganda novel, a commission he never fulfilled), it’s the tale of an unfulfilled middle-class husband who unrealistically descends into terminal alcoholism in about five minutes flat. Erwin Sommer’s descent is so headlong as to be perfunctory: We’ve got to get the man addicted so we can get him committed. The real interest of the novel is in its depiction of an asylum for alcoholics—a place where Fallada’s talent for phantasmagoria flowers. Hunger, filth, endless petty squabbles, violence, and sexual degeneracy all overflow on the pages, until the book ascends into pure nightmare. What humor there is in The Drinker stands out on its twisted flesh like a cold sweat.

In the same asylum manuscript Fallada also wrote out his memories of World War II. A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary starts with the tale of the night at the bar when his publisher, Ernst Rohwolt, did his usual party trick of eating a champagne glass (leaving the stem). And then a waiter rushed in to say that the Reichstag was on fire. This anecdote rolls off Fallada’s furtive pen with a steely edge of camp. The diary is a powerful mix of styles: self-justification and self-criticism, score-settling, depictions of village life under totalitarianism (Fallada takes up his mantle as the Breughel of brownshirts), and a final flight into a kind of self-lacerating fantasy of escape.

Fallada has three big novels: 1931’s A Small Circus (also translated as Farmers, Functionaries, and Fireworks), the Nazi-era Wolf Among Wolves, and the postwar Every Man Dies Alone (or Alone in Berlin, or my preferred title, Every Man Dies for Himself Alone). I’ve read only the last two. Wolf Among Wolves is a masterpiece. It begins in sweltering summertime Berlin, where soaring inflation means if you want cigarettes you’ve got to buy them before noon when they announce the new dollar rate.The action moves to a countryside in slow but steady economic and political collapse.

It’s a panoramic novel: about who rises to the occasion and who fails to serve, about the terror of inflation, about the decadence of the city and the cruelties of the country. (Fallada was accused of sentimentality about rural life, but it’s hard to see why. Wolf Among Wolves does have one memorable scene of a girl biking through the woods in an ecstasy of remembered and anticipated joy, but overall its depiction of the petty tyrannies of a country estate is unsparing.) It includes Fallada’s best women characters: Belinde von Teschow the rich religious despot, the ex-prostitute Petra Ledig with her idiot heart and iron backbone, the ecstatic schemer Sophie Kowalewski, and the heroic poultry maid with loose morals, Amanda Backs, among others. It depicts the intense, personal relationship unhappy people have with their beds, and the way it feels to be young and drunk in the back seat of a car, and the joy and peace of “obvious duties gladly performed.”

It’s hard to pick one favorite passage, but the confrontation between Frau von Teschow and “the Backs” stands out: The rich lady has called a prayer meeting specifically to punish Amanda for her promiscuity. Amanda, furious and humiliated, calls out everybody there for hypocrisy. The cornered creature stands and fights, and closes her speech by saying, with laughter that turns to tears, “It would be better if you paid us a decent wage.”

And then she flees in shame, “sobbing unrestrainedly,” because people often feel awful about the bravest things they do.

Wolf Among Wolves extends not only sympathy but empathy to people on almost every rung of the social ladder. Wastrel rich boys and nervous wrecks, streetwalkers and rag-pickers, painters and painters’ lonely wives, and even that thoughtless, doomed policeman: They are all strange and real, disappointing in their weaknesses but unpredictable in their sudden strength.

Fallada wrote his last work, Every Man Dies Alone, at the behest of a friend working in the East German government. Fallada was given the dossier of a couple who engaged in spectacularly unsuccessful anti-Nazi resistance, and asked to dramatize their story. I can imagine the conversation: “Hey, you like miserable middle-class married couples, right? I found one who fought the Nazis! Think you can do something with it?”

What he ended up with is something utterly typical of Fallada’s strengths. Alone is a social novel set in a totalitarian state. Everyone is terrified of showing even the slightest, momentary hint of discontent with the Third Reich.

A lot about what Fallada’s books are like can be gleaned from one change he made to the story of the anti-Nazi couple. In real life, this couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, had no children and were moved to sow anti-Nazi postcards through Berlin after the wife’s brother was killed at the Front. In Alone the man killed is the couple’s son. Children appear again and again in the book as the reason for resistance: On the very first page a postal worker thinks, “she’s of the view that you don’t bring children into the world to have them shot.” Alone is Fallada’s least sentimental book—even the couple’s marriage is silent and persevering rather than gushy—but care for children is the bedrock of his morality.

The mood of Alone is a kind of iron resignation, a white-knuckled grip on one’s own conscience. In the end this was not quite enough. The one note of real hope comes once the central couple have already been arrested. In the prison—another of Fallada’s horror-institutions, with its “green injections” for punishment and its prisoner who pretends to be a dog—there’s a Catholic priest, dying of tuberculosis, who because he’s already terminal is allowed to take a few liberties to comfort the prisoners. Fallada himself was not religious (he had to ask his publisher to check the priest’s quotations against the Bible, since he didn’t own one himself) but this priest is a keystone of Alone: a character who “loved even the very worst people,” who follows his conscience with gentleness rather than severity. It’s this gentleness that allows the priest to offer hope in an otherwise acrid, freezing novel.

The translator Michael Hofmann points out that one word recurs throughout Alone: “anständig,” which can be variously translated as “decently,” “properly,” “self-respecting.” Hans Fallada did not lead an obviously anständig life, and he lived in a spectacularly non-anständig time and place. Perhaps for these reasons, he is one of the great poets of both the beauty of decency and its insufficiency. 

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.