Reading Journal: "Every Man Dies Alone"
Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone. Brooklyn, Melville House. Paperback. 539 pp. (with afterword). $16.95. Originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in 1947.
Rudolf Ditzen was an alcoholic and a morphine addict. He was also, under the pseudonym Hans Fallada, a brilliant and popular author, who was intermittently in and out of favor with the Nazi authorities. He had come under suspicion when his 1932 novel Little Man, What Now? was made into a film by Jewish producers. But his 1937 novel Wolf Among Wolves attracted the favorable attention of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, who pressed Fallada to write an anti-semitic novel. Eventually, Fallada snapped from the pressure and ended up in a Nazi insane asylum. After his release near the end of the war, he sat down and feverishly composed the novel Every Man Dies Alone in a space of just twenty-four days. The novel is a masterpiece: a vivid depiction of life in Berlin under the Nazis, a detective story, a story of resistance, an affirmation of goodness and humanity in the face of overwhelming evil.
The story revolves around Otto Quangel, an austere carpentry shop foreman, and his wife Anna, who resist the Nazis by writing anti-Nazi postcards and dropping them in office buildings around Berlin. Most of the cards are immediately turned in to the Gestapo. The center section of the novel follows the efforts of Gestapo inspector Escherich to track down the writer of the postcards.
The conventions of the detective novel generally ally the reader on the side of the detective rather than that of the criminal. In this case, those conventions place the reader in an uncomfortable position. It's hard to resist the patient and methodical Escherich, who has a job to do and who does it well. But, of course, he's working for the Gestapo, and the criminals he seeks are not criminals at all, but ordinary decent people determined to stand against the evil of Nazism. But it's difficult for a reader not to fall into collaboration with literary convention.
Fallada's novel skillfully places the reader into a world turned upside down, in which the goodness and decency are criminalized, and the murderers are in charge. He makes the reader wonder, "What would I have done?" The novel brilliantly and disturbingly recreates the fear and suspicion that gripped wartime Berlin, and the arbitrariness of evil under the Nazis. Fallada's characters are all brilliantly realized, from the craven informers to the brutal thugs to the ordinary decent people whose plain humanity becomes heroic.
Fallada's writing is clear, calm, often wryly humorous. He never seems to raise his voice or become emotional, but his words are compelling and their impact quietly devastating. I found the novel nearly impossible to put down. Michael Hofmann's translation is astonishingly good. It captures the film noir feel and sound of Fallada's world, the patois of drunks and swindlers and Gestapo thugs, and the unsentimental striving of good people to hold onto their humanity.