Fiction, Reviews

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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(image: goodreads.com)

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.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Nietzsche’s sister, the Nazis, and Nueva Germania

I came across Forgotten Fatherland in the Recommendations section of GoodReads (surprisingly good!), and it instantly appealed to me, partly because it just sounded so weird that I needed to find out more about it. Essentially it is the story of Elisabeth Nietzsche, sister of the more famous Friedrich. I didn’t really know that much about Friedrich Nietzsche, but the name is at least a starting point to relate her to familiar history. Turns out she was a lot more influential than I realised – in her brother’s life, and in the fate of Germany.

Elisabeth was many things, but she was most certainly a racist. She was also manipulative, self-serving, and arrogant. She became famous partly due to her brother and her connection with his work (which she practically re-wrote and branded as fascist – but more on that later), but also because she founded a German colony in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Forster. This isn’t that remarkable, since there were already several German colonies in South America in the late 19th century, but Elisabeth and Bernhard’s was unique because it was specifically founded with a view to preserving the ‘pure’ German race and protecting it from ‘mixed blood’. It was called Nueva Germania. Really.

2013 Bloomsbury paperback edition

2013 Bloomsbury paperback edition

Luckily Ben McIntyre is a credible and good enough writer not to over-sensationalise the colony and its intentions. It is still amazing and slightly ridiculous, and this is nicely conveyed, with just a hint of a raised eyebrow, through the progress of the colony. It started off badly, and it got worse, with Bernhard descending into depression and madness, and the colonists becoming desperately poor. It is an utterly fascinating story, one I couldn’t quite believe was real. But the star of the story is Elisabeth, completely denying that her project was not a success, and convincing herself that she was to be some sort of queen, ruling over her group of pure Germans in their idyll.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Elisabeth did eventually return to Germany, partly because Friedrich was becoming more and more ill, and their mother couldn’t cope on her own. His illness doesn’t have a specific modern diagnosis, but from the evidence available, McIntyre surmises that it could have been a combination of the after-effects of syphilis, and the more widely accepted theory that he had some sort of cancer of the brain. This would explain his complete withdrawal from life, and his hours spent sitting staring into space. He also must have been, frankly, insane to let Elisabeth re-purpose his work and reputation for her own social gains. She presented herself as the guardian of her brother’s work and legacy, as if this was a noble venture, and used his renown to garner favour with the emerging National Socialist Party in the 1920s. Oh yes – she was friends with Nazis, with Hitler himself. The Party used this connection with the Nietzsche siblings as part of their campaign of preserving the German mind and spirit, and Elisabeth was more than happy for her brother’s work to be appropriated by these people. Crucially, she covered over his strong feelings against anti-Semitism, and made it seem as if his philosophical ideas supported the Nazis’ concept of a perfect German. Had he been compus mentus he would certainly never have allowed it. But Elisabeth convinced herself and everyone else that she was being a good sister, working to save Germany and preserve her brother’s work. Hitler probably never even read any of it.

This is quite a dense book with lots of bit of information coming together to form the story, but it is presented clearly and you never feel muddled or lost. There are also some fascinating sections about the history of Paraguay, and the circumstances that allowed Elisabeth’s colony, as well as the reasons for its failure. Paraguay is a country I knew nothing about, so this was genuinely fascinating for me. Most people who have ruled it, up to that point at least, seem to have been a bit mad.

I also loved the sections in which McIntyre recounts his visit to the colony in 1991, as part of the research for the book. As I read the history of the colony and its founding, I naturally wondered what had become of it. In 1991 McIntyre still finds Germans living there, some of them direct descendants of the original colonists. Most of them have never been to Germany, but fiercely protect their concept of Germanness – which is mostly that of Elisabeth Nietzsche and Bernhard Forster. I would have loved for the 2013 edition I read to have had some sort of update on the colony now. Perhaps McIntyre could write a follow up. He also includes photographs, both of the colony when it was formed, and as he found it, and of some of the people living there. The early German colonies, like Nueva Germania, were one of the reasons that many Nazis escaped to South America at the end of the Second World War. Arguably the most famous of these are Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele. On McIntyre’s visit he discovered that Mengele is a somewhat mythic figure in Nueva Germania, and many claim to have known or seen him in the years after the war. There is even speculation that he did not really die in 1979, and might still be alive. All of this is conjecture, but is in enthralling and grimly fascinating, like most of Nueva Germania. McIntyre points out that many people there might not even have know what Mengele did – he was just a famous German, a legendary figure in the fight for the purity of the German race, which of course all the people in Nueva Germania still believed in. On McIntyre’s visit in 1991 it was a surreal and slightly sad place – I wonder what it is like now.

*

First published by Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux in 1992; the copy I read was published by Bloomsbury in 2013.

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Fiction, Reviews

City of Women by David Gillham (2013)

Penguin 2013 paperback edition. Image: goodreads.com - I love the red on this cover!

Penguin 2013 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

Having read Alone in Berlin, and a biography of Hans Fallada (the amazing More Lives Than One), I came to read City of Women with some idea of the world I was stepping into. A world filled with conflicts, both political and social but also psychological, as ordinary Germans dealt with the often devastating effects of World War II on their lives. But of course I could never understand that world because I have not lived within it – the world of a German civilian in Berlin during World War II, in 1943 specifically, when Germany was edging towards failure. Fallada’s Berliners are grey and harried but still resilient and utterly determined; characters of this type appear in City of Women, some so similar they could have been Fallada’s (Egon and Ericha especially), but there is also great originality at work here.

Sigrid Schroder is a war wife, her husband Kaspar fighting on the Eastern Front. Sigrid is lumbered with not only a global conflict on her doorstep and an absent husband, but also with sharing a flat with his grumpy and often vindictive mother, who blames Sigrid for almost everything. She and the other older women in their building are of another generation to Sigrid, and it shows. They remember the Kaiser and how it ‘used to be’; and they are not willing to risk their routines and comforts for anyone. Mother Schroder is belligerent and angry, angry that her husband is dead and her son is away fighting, and all she is left with are furtive hours spent listening to illegal BBC broadcasts and a daughter-in-law she wishes she had never met. She is patriotic to the point of blindness, and yet she listens to the British broadcasts to try and find out if the news of the war that she hears from the Party (of course she is a member) is really true. A strange mix of staid belief and terrifying doubt, shot through with bitterness – Mother Schroder is no easy flatmate for Sigrid.

Much of this book is about what it means for Sigrid to be ‘Frau Schroder’ and the life she is supposed to be living, as opposed to the one she really has. She has a lover she longs for, long gone, her biggest secret; and she soon gets entangled in a side of the Home Front she never knew existed – protecting and hiding the people that the Gestapo and the Party would sooner shoot than look at. These people are of course mainly Jews, and it forces Sigrid to question the values of her society. What have these people ever done wrong? Not only the men, but the women, only housewives, and their children? Childless herself (another thing Mother Schroder blames her for) and married to a man absent from her both physically and emotionally, Sigrid cannot bring herself to let families be destroyed needlessly.

A Berlin hotel destroyed by Allied bombs, 1943. Image: potsdamer-platz.org

A Berlin hotel destroyed by Allied bombs, 1943 (image: potsdamer-platz.org)

She is an interesting character. At times meek and afraid, and at other times sharply determined and brave, with both reluctantly domestic and desperately reckless sides to her personality. She says Yes and No to Mother Schroder, but also has vitriolic arguments with her; she is pandering to the Frau Obersturmfuhrer across the hall (a woman who defines herself by her husband’s rank – who becomes interesting later in the book), but unafraid to make secret drops and transport documents. She is also unafraid to show passion, something showcased spectacularly when she and her lover Egon have rather fumbling, urgent sex in a seat in the mezzanine of the cinema. As well as tension and risk, this novel is also dripping with sexuality. Everyone seems to be at it, and if they are not they are trying to get it. The feeling of desperation throughout Berlin extends not only to safety and missing loved ones, but also to a desire for closeness and reassurance; and a few minutes to forget the reality of one’s life and escape into pleasure. It is sometimes graphic but never gratuitous, and I’m sure even the most judgemental of us could understand how circumstances drive actions.

City of Women does not have the most groundbreaking premise – it can be found is several other books I’m sure – but it is filled with intriguing original characters that feel entirely real, and twists I never expected. Gillham’s writing creates atmosphere and mood like few others’, and I was right there with Sigrid the whole time. I was moved and shocked, gripped and engaged, and I’m so glad I read this novel.

*

Published by Penguin UK in September 2013.

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Fiction, Reviews

Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier

2011 Atlantic Books cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

For his first novel, originally published in Germany in 1995 and only now being published in English, Pascal Mercier chose the academic world of linguistics as the background for the story. More specifically he chose a small group of professors meeting for a conference on the Italian east coast, in a seaside town not far from Genoa. Phillip Perlmann, a German professor, is our central character, the catalyst for the arrangement of the conference by his academic acquaintance and admirer Carlo Angelini. Recently widowed and obviously still suffering from the loss both consciously and sub-consciously (the latter becomes apparent in later stages of the book), he has had a long career but finds himself devoid of inspiration when it comes to writing a paper to present at the conference. He has also recently been invited to Princeton University in America, and will become an honorary citizen of the town during the Italian conference. This problem is the crux of the story – along with the fact that a Russian academic (Leskov) is unable to attend the conference but has sent the Russian manuscript of his work to Perlmann in advance. As Perlmann becomes increasingly nervous and desperate about his having ‘nothing to say’ he sits in his hotel room arduously translating the Russian text into English.

This task takes him almost half the 616-page novel. Having been told by the blurb that Perlmann’s fear and desperation lead him to an attempt to plagiarise Leskov’s text, by the time he comes to make the decision the reader knows it has been coming for some time. By the middle of the book the narrative has seriously begun to drag – Perlmann has become so neurotic and self-indulgent that one begins to find it hard to sympathise, though his situation is clearly dire.

Mercier is also self-indulgent. Page after page is dedicated to Perlmann’s anxiety and the act of moping in his hotel room and showering more than is surely necessary. His semi-reliance on sleeping pills seems superfluous, as if by having him depend on them (mentally at least) Mercier is trying to create a deeper personality that does not really exist, perhaps not even within the author’s mind. One begins to question Mercier’s skill as a writer – possibly the worst things a reader can doubt.

The novel is a little over 600 pages and one wonders whether this length is really necessary. The blurb’s synopsis suggests a depth of intrigue and thiller-esque tension, but this is simply not sustained beyond the first 100 pages, if that. The sheer length of this text seems to exhaust the author and protagonist as well as the reader – the story and the writing both begin to flag somewhere between 200 and 300 pages into the book. Momentum slows and seems to drag at the moment when the tension should be at its highest. Perlmann’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, but the reader becomes increasingly uninterested.

By the third section of the book and the coming conclusion, one does not really care about Perlmann at all anymore and is frankly relieved that this overly long text is coming to an end. Again we are given pages and pages of Perlmann worrying and waiting, counting the time until this or that happens. Again both author and character are self-indulgent and neurotic.

This is a promising novel and has moments of some truly beautiful prose – mostly early on – and it is no surprise that it was a bestseller throughout Europe in the 1990s. However, the rambling and indulgent plot structure overwhelm the skill of the writer that lies beneath the obsessional detailing of Perlmann’s worries and neuroses.

*

Published in October 2011 by Atlantic Books. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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