More Lives Than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada by Jenny Williams

Last year (2011) I read Fallada’s final novel Alone in Berlin, after reading about it in various magazines – it seemed to be unanimously praised, and thee subject matter seemed interesting, so I gave it a go. I wrote a review of it for a former (and frankly less good) incarnation of this blog, which can be read here. It is a brilliant, brilliant novel. It is based on the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle aged couple living in Berlin during the Second World War. The death of Elise’s brother at the front, and the increasingly hard life they and their neighbours were living under Nazi rule led them to write and distribute post cards featuring anti-Hitler and anti-government slogans. They then deposited these in public buildings. This campaign of silent resistance went on for two years before they were caught. The Gestapo had a huge file on them by the time they were brought in for questioning. They were found guilty of treason and eventually executed on April 8, 1943.

It was after the war that this huge Gestapo file made its way into the hands of Hans Fallada via his friend and fellow writer Johannes R. Becher, who had contacts with the new Communist rulers of Northern Germany. Becher recommended the material for Fallada’s next project, and the result was Alone in Berlin. Fallada made certain changes, but the story remains essentially the same. It is a minute and thoughtful portrait of life for ordinary people in wartime Berlin, both those opposed to and in favour of the Nazi regime. It was published in English in 2009, despite having being written in 1947, and Fallada has since become a staple on the literary map once again. Now, Professor Jenny Williams, an expert on the life and works of Hans Fallada, has reissued her 1998 biography to include these latest developments.

2012 Penguin cover. (Image: goodreads.com)
2012 Penguin cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

Hans Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Williams refers to the writer as Ditzen throughout, and by the middle of the book the reader has become so familiar with the character of Ditzen that ‘Hans Fallada’ can in no way be viewed as a real person. He is the image of the writer, the public persona that Ditzen projected. Ditzen had a dramatic and eventful life, and it seems to me that Fallada is the ‘glamorous’ (or at least outward) alter ego of a man trying to change his own circumstances.

Williams writes in a rather academic style – every last detail is included, backed up and justified. At times this gets a little tiring, but mostly the reader is grateful for it, as it means that the whole context is explained and nothing remains a mystery. At times the amount of detail can feel like a list, but the overall effect is that the reader begins to understand the deeper character of Rudolf Ditzen. Much is made, though perhaps too much, of his miserable teenage years in which he seems to have been an absolute nightmare to have been around. Resentful and unkind, he rejected almost everything around him and became obsessed with death as the only escape route. This lead to a suicide pact with a friend at the age of 18 that resulted in the friend (Hanns Dietrich von Necker) being fatally shot in the chest and Ditzen being shot, also in the chest, but managing to stumble to a local house for help. Given his recent erratic and downright moody behaviour, as well as a spate of suicides of surly young men at his school, Ditzen was sent to a psychiatric facility rather than prison. It would not be the last time.

Once Ditzen moved away from his parents after his stay in psychiatric care, his life became a constant struggle to earn enough money and to find somewhere to live. He stayed with family, friends, had various jobs, but spent most of his twenties working on various estates as land manager, learning farming skills. These years also seem to have taught him a sense of responsibility and commitment to hard work, as well as providing material for his later literary work. Working and living in the country, Ditzen observed ordinary working class people trying to make a living and provide for their families; these were the basis of his idea of the ‘little man’ that features in much of his work. This is the image of the ‘decent’ working class man that Ditzen valued in society. He came to use the word ‘decent’ to describe how people should be that he attached almost philosophical significance to it – the decent man was the everyday German citizen that his readers could relate to. This idea is not examined in depth at any one point by Williams, rather it is highlighted whenever Ditzen mentions it in a letter or a piece of work. As the political situation in Germany becomes increasingly volatile in the 1930s, the image of the ‘decent’ little man becomes more and more important to our understanding of Ditzen’s attitude towards the changes in country. As the National Socialists gained more and more power, Ditzen hoped that the ‘decent’ people would still have a say in national politics. This, as we know, was not what happened.

Williams’ list-like details are in full force as she notes every piece of writing that Ditzen had published, and the many struggles that accompanied his work, mostly concerning payment. He worked with one publisher, Ernst Rowohlt, until the Nazis closed Rowolht’s business during the war, and though the two men fell out several times, Rowohlt seems to have been a source of stability for Ditzen. He was a friend as well as a source of income, and always encouraged Ditzen to write and work hard. It was not an easy life. Once he was an adult, Ditzen did not see his parents or his beloved Aunt Ada for almost twenty years, during which he was imprisoned for embezzlement, endured a constant struggle for money, married and eventually managed to buy a smallholding in the village of Carwitz. He and his wife Suse were to have three children there, and remained in Carwitz until the war ended; but health and money troubles were a constant battle, and their marriage broke down as the war ended. The strains of life on the smallholding as well as Ditzen’s numerous affairs were too much for Suse, and she asked for a divorce.

Suse and Rudolf. (Image: etpuisapres.hautetfort.com)
Suse and Rudolf. (Image: etpuisapres.hautetfort.com)

Suse (real name Anna) is an interesting character. A ‘simple’ girl from a country family, she was the kind of ‘decent’ person that Ditzen valued and married him despite familial objections. She agreed to have more children despite various ongoing complications from having the first one, and tolerated her husband’s sometimes difficult behaviour. She suffered through his morphine addiction, alcoholism, insomnia and money worries, as well as looking after things at home during his spells in various clinics to treat one or more of his ailments. As the children grew older, Suse left them in the care of nannies and housekeepers and made frequent trips to visit family and friends, which seem to have helped her to cope. However, one is not at all surprised when she asks Ditzen for a divorce in 1944. After they separated, she was able to make decent money from the smallholding by selling produce (they had always done this, but the war limited their ability to grow and sell) and taking in paying guests. It seems her life was made significantly easier with the departure of her husband. The only bump in the road came several months after they had divorced, when Ditzen was already involved with another woman, when he and Suse got into an argument in the kitchen at Carwitz. Drunk, Ditzen fired a shot past Suse. Unhurt, she grabbed the gun and threw it out the window. Ditzen was charged with attempted manslaughter and spent the last months of 1944 in prison, during which he produced a densely packed manuscript containing his novel The Drinker, several short stories, and a very frank account of life under National Socialist rule in the 1930s. This came to be known as some his greatest work, and signalled a return to literary output worthy of his previous status after years of average publications.

Alone in Berlin, despite Ditzen being reluctant to even take on the material at first, is surely his greatest triumph. The reader wades through this biography waiting for mention of it, but the fact is that Ditzen wrote it rather hurriedly at the end of his life. However it contains all his anti-Nazi feelings and his anger towards the injustices meted out to ordinary Germans that chose to stay in Germany during the war. Ditzen faced great criticism for failing to emigrate when war was imminent, and the futility of the Quangels’ resistance must have echoed some of his feelings of helplessness during the war. He wished to resist, but was forced to censor his work and make changes in order to earn money and please Goebbels’ Ministry for Enlightenment and Propaganda. Staying in Germany put a huge strain on his career and his family, but Ditzen had to live with his choice. It is Williams’ opinion that staying in Germany lead to his ‘downfall’, but no doubt it also lead to his best works.

This is an intense book, short and packed with detail, and often tragic. Ditzen’s life was just like this biography in that respect. His second wife, Ulla, was already a morphine addict when they met and she lead him back to his old addiction. They were hospitalised several times during their short relationship and in 1947 Ditzen was defeated by the drug, and died in hospital. Williams points out that not all of his work is worth the effort of the reader, but the novels in which he succeeds are some of the greatest of twentieth-century German literature. A troubled, difficult, and brilliant man.

*

Originally published by Libris in 1998, and reissued by Penguin in 2012 with updated material.

 

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5 thoughts on “More Lives Than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada by Jenny Williams”

  1. I like your site and thoughtful reviews of Alone in Berlin and More Lives than One. Note, the latter was first published by Libris in 1998 and this new, revised and updated edition by Penguin in 2012.
    Also, if you’re not already familiar with it, may I take a moment to make you aware of the publisher I’m about to take over – Pushkin Press. See http://www.pushkinpress.com for details. Keep an eye on us!

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    1. Yes, my mistake! Libris it was.

      I’m aware of Pushkin Press & went to a book launch of yours once (The Break by Pietro Grossi) – you guys do some pretty great stuff. Congratulations on becoming one of the new owners! Could I email someone about review copies? Get in touch at littlewordsreview@gmail.com and let me know! Thanks! Lizzi.

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