As some regular readers may know, I absolutely love Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, and re-read it in 2017 (post here). For some reason this remained the only book of his I had read for some time. I bought a copy of Little Man, What Now? a while ago, I actually can’t remember when, but it sat on my shelf unread. I don’t know why. Luckily, I recently decided to actually look at my unread books instead of buying new ones – and I landed on this novel. I have a lovely Melville House paperback and I was pleased with myself for finally choosing to read it.
One of the things I love about Fallada’s writing is his uncanny realism. Even though I read his work in translation and the language can sometimes sound a little stilted, Fallada just seems to have a knack for making everything in his work seem utterly true to life and utterly real. He makes of a point of making his characters believable, of making their lives ring true. Little Man, What Now? was published in 1932, at the height (or perhaps the depths) of a recession, precipitated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. As Philip Brady discusses in the Afterword to the Melville House edition I read, unemployment was at a record high in Germany, and Fallada, like many others, felt the strain of the recession on himself and his family. Like his main character, the ‘little man’ Johannes Pinneberg, Fallada had a wife and young son. The novel is a sort of statement of protest, an examination of the daily hardships of living with just enough money to get by, but never really enough, and knowing that what little you do have could be so easily lost. The fact that the novel was so hugely successful on publication shows just how much it struck a chord with people – it showed them their own lives, their own suffering, and exposed the deep injustices of life ‘just above the bread line’, as Brady puts it in the Afterword.
At the opening of the novel Pinneberg and Lammchen (a pet name meaning something like ‘little lamb’) find themselves expecting a child, unexpectedly, and quickly get married. They must find their own place to live, and from there we follow their ups and downs as a married couple. They have several different flats, and eventually move to Berlin, where Pinneberg gets a job as a salesman in a department store. As with his previous job as a clerk at a grain company, at the department store we see the competitiveness and pettiness of the employees and management, the desperation for success – or at least to keep the job – and the bureaucracy with which the white collar workers must contend. Pinneberg and Lammchen must count every pfennig and every mark, and make his salary stretch as far as they can. Their discussions about their minimal finances, and Lammchen’s very precise shopping list, should not be interesting, but Fallada fills them with such a sense of urgency, of desire and desperation, that as a reader you are completely engaged and entertained, and you care so, so much about these two characters. I think that is Fallada’s gift – to make the most ordinary, ‘little’, people seem like the most important people in the world, to make the reader care about the minutiae of their lives. The fact that Lammchen is pregnant makes their situation all the more desperate, and your emotions are increasingly ravaged as she nears the birth. Pinneberg’s anxiety, fear, and joy are all rolled together in a wonderfully vivid sequence in which he waits to hear of the birth of his child – he is not allowed to go with Lammchen into the ward and must ring the hospital for an update. It is yet another area of his life where he has almost no control over anything, and he switches between excitement, fear, and intrusive thoughts of what might happen if something goes wrong and he never sees Lammchen again. The fragility of their lives is palpable.
It’s funny – the plot of Little Man, What Now? is in some ways riveting, with the couple’s ups and downs; but it is also completely mundane and ordinary. And yet when you are reading the novel, you are never bored, you never wish for ‘something’ to happen. You are right there in the moment with Pinneberg and Lammchen, observing their hardships and struggles, and their little moments of happiness. Fallada goes between straight narration and a kind of free indirect speech, and then into moments where the narration speaks to the characters, in such a way that you are completely wrapped up in the story and feel like you know exactly what the characters are going through. It is simply masterful.
I can’t say I know a huge amount about Germany in 1932 beyond the basics, but I feel like Little Man, What Now? has given me a sort of snapshot. There are creeping shadows of what is to come throughout the novel, as Pinneberg encounters Nazis and casual anti-Semitism, and I couldn’t help but wonder what becomes of him and Lammchen, and their son, when the war comes. In theory they could remain in Berlin, or at least in Germany, as they are not Jewish or a member of any other group that the Nazis persecuted. But they would have even less money, even fewer prospects. The novel ends on a small hopeful note, but overall the picture is far from rosy. I can’t help thinking about the time after the end of the novel. The Epilogue is entitled ‘Life Goes On’, and it certainly does, but one would hope things improve for Pinneberg, Lammchen, and the little Shrimp – their affectionate nickname for their son.
I personally don’t know anyone else who has read and loved Fallada, and I worry that he might be an acquired taste, but I will certainly be reading more of his work – in fact I have a copy of his monster novel Wolf Among Wolves on my shelf. All 905 pages of it.
First published by Rowohlt in Germany in 1932. I read the 2009 US Melville House edition, pictured above.