Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

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

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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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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Fiction, Reviews

Re-reading: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947)

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2009 Penguin paperback (image: goodreads.com)

I first read Alone in Berlin in 2011 just after I’d left university. I’d read a lot of books about the Second World War for a course at university, and my further reading (and time on Twitter) led me to this novel. It was only translated into English in 2009, so in 2011 it was still making quite an impact as a ‘new’ book in the UK, and everyone was talking about it. I read it without knowing much at all about the life of ordinary Germans during the war, or life in Berlin at the time. I had read mostly non-fiction about the war, survivor accounts like If This is a Man, and studies like Ordinary Men and Eichmann in Jerusalem, so this was a new side of the war for me.

I was impressed and somewhat overwhelmed by Alone in Berlin the first time I read it, though I’m not sure I fully appreciated it for what it was. Reading it in 2017 was a different experience. Since 2011 I have read a lot more about the war and have read about life in Berlin for ordinary people in non-fiction. I have also read a biography of Hans Fallada that was very illuminating about both him and the context in which Alone in Berlin was written; if you are interested in his fiction I would really recommend it. Fallada was deeply patriotic and refused to leave Germany during the war, even though his British publisher had made arrangements for him and his family to leave – he just couldn’t do it. He never joined the Nazi party and was therefore suspicious to his neighbours and Party officials – so much so that Goebbels himself tried to dictate his output (he was already a successful author and therefore well-known). He did the bare minimum to appease the tenacious Minister, and remained a private critic of the Party.

Alone in Berlin is based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who performed their own kind of civil disobedience to resist the Party. Their story was brought to Fallada by his friend Johannes Becher, who urged him to write about them – and Alone in Berlin was the result, written in only 24 days. Apparently Fallada was reluctant to take on the material, but once you read the book it’s clear he had a lot to pour into it – it is a rich and vivid novel filled with his resentments, anger, and sadness about the war years. The cast of characters features archetypes of Berlin at the time, covering Gestapo staff, petty criminals, terrified Jews, party members, beleaguered women, and those that just want to stay under that radar and get on with their lives – like Otto and Anna Quangel, the fictional versions of the Hampels.

Otto Quangel is a hard-working man, a foreman at a factory, hardened by years of work and with no belief in art or literature. He is described as having a birdlike face and a hard expression, and prefers silence to mindless chatter, even with his wife. He is uneducated, cautious, and set in his ways – and yet, he is the one to instigate his and Anna’s resistance. He decides to write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and deposit them around the city for others to find. At first Anna is terrified of being caught, but her fear for Otto and her desire for a better life lead her to help him with the cards. Like the real life Hampels, the Quangels are depicted as simple working people with little education. They do not have the power or resources to form any kind of large-scale resistance, but their passion compels them to do what little they can. Their defiance is driven by the death of their only son on the Eastern Front. They realise that they must do something, however small.

The book features several supporting characters, mostly the Quangels’ neighbours in their apartment building. These include the Persicke family, increasingly led by their teenage son who becomes a zealous member of the Hitler Youth; the Jewish Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been ‘taken away’; an old judge who seems well-intentioned; Eva Kluge, the postwoman, and her layabout husband Enno; and Emil Borkhausen, the petty criminal who tries to play everyone at their own game. There is also Inspector Escherich, assigned to track down the writer of the cards once they become known to the Gestapo. He is a multi-layered character with his own arc within the novel, and is a brilliant example of those who were instruments of the Reich but grew to have their doubts.

As with other books about this time and place, there is a strong sense of desperation running throughout the book, and we go through extreme highs and lows with almost all of the characters. Safety, reputation, and life itself are often on a knife edge, millimetres away from either saviour or destruction. More than once Fallada perfectly demonstrates apparent randomness of whether one is caught or one escapes, whether life will continue as always, or whether everything will change. Nothing in Alone in Berlin is certain, and the effect is terrifying. It is an intense and vivid novel, and though the writing is sometimes a little clunky, perhaps due to the speed at which it was written, you are still completely sucked in and engaged with the story and the characters.

The fact that it’s based on a real story, and even the embellished parts are probably close to things that really happened, means that the saddest and most devastating parts of the novel are even more so, and the effect can be overwhelming. You are shown real suffering, real determination and defiance, real chance and luck, and how easy it can be to win or lose. As per the title, and as is said by Otto more than once, we are all alone in the end; but in a strange way, this can bring us together. Knowing that we are each alone means that we should show compassion for one another, we should know that no one’s life is easy, no matter their position.

I think this time around I had a greater understanding of what Fallada was trying to do with this novel – to show how easy it was to collude, or do nothing, or give in to authority and power. This can be seen in several characters, and particularly Inspector Escherich. Fallada also demonstrates that, like Otto the misanthrope, you don’t even have to like other people to see that everyone deserves to live and be free, and that everyone is equal. The afterword mentions the ‘banality of goodness’ on display in the novel, in contrast to the ‘banality of evil’ later explored by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (as well as others). Society in Berlin is so destroyed that basic goodness and decency have become rare. Knowing this also made me appreciate Fallada’s writing a bit more, though it is flawed. His tone is often very deadpan, nonchalant, understated, or even sarcastic when serious or sad things are being discussed; violence, death, cruelty, grief have all become so commonplace for the characters and the city that they do not require any special language.

When I reached the end of Alone in Berlin a second time, I wondered whether it can be considered a hopeful book. The answer is yes and no – even if evil wins sometimes, there are many more victories for goodness and compassion.

*

Originally published in Germany in 1947 as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone); translated into English in 2009 and published by Melville House in the US, and Penguin in the UK. I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition (pictured above).

A new film adaptation of Alone in Berlin, starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, was made in 2016.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Non-Fiction

The Second World War: Selected Reading

Note on photos: where possible I have photographed my own books. I own the others mentioned in this post but don’t have the books with me, so have used photos from GoodReads.

 

It would be impossible to narrow down the absolute best books about the Second World War, not least because there are scores I haven’t read. So, I’m going to detail the best of what I personally have read, subjective though that may be.

So why books about the Second World War? I’m currently reading The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, and it got me thinking about the different types of books I have read about this earth-shattering period in our history. The Kindly Ones is a fictional autobiography of Max Aue, a successful businessman who was a Nazi officer in a former life. He tells his story to ‘set the record straight’ and does not spare his reader from gruesome or disturbing details. Littell spent five years researching the book, and its detail is both astounding and endlessly fascinating (however unpleasant it might sometimes be). Really it’s quite an odd sort of book, and quite unlike most of what I have read about the war. When I finish it I will tackle writing about it properly!

The other books that have stayed with me the most are listed below.

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi – I think this is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like to live in (and survive) a Nazi concentration camp. I read this as part of a course of Literatures of Genocide at university and it remains, to me, the pinnacle of survivor testimony from this period (whether or not that’s actually the case).

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1987 Abacus books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – this was read for the same course and really opened my eyes. It is the story of a Polish police battalion, made up of civilians, who became part of an Einsatzgruppe. It’s a similar principal to the Stanford prison experiment, except this is real life and it is both harrowing and entirely believable.

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2001 Penguin Books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – the subtitle of this book is The Banality of Evil, and that just says it all. Eichmann was essentially a pencil pusher who wanted to further his own career, and in doing so helped put The Final Solution in motion. This is a hard-going read at times, as you’d expect, but it is most definitely worth it.

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1994 Penguin Classics edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Magda by Meike Zeirvogel – this is a fictional account of the life and psyche of Magda Goebbels, and is one of the most elegant and disturbing books I have read. While not sympathetic to Magda Geobbels, this novel does try to understand her and why she became the woman she was. The beautiful writing certainly helps deal with the tragedy, and the fact that the author is German adds another layer of interest.

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2013 Salt Publishing edition

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – I just had to include this. I read it when it was reissed by Penguin a few years ago, and it just blew me away. Though fictional it is based on a true story, and exposes some of the horror of living through the war as a German civilian who did not support the Nazis. The vivid and yet subtle writing is unbeatable.

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2009 Penguin Classics edition

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall – this is also about the struggle to survive as a German civilian, and is told almost like one long bad dream. It is lyrical and strange at times, but this does not reduce the emotional depth of the sparse writing. I just read this and would recommend it anyone looking for a literary and less stark depiction of life during the war.

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2015 Peirene Press edition

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe – this just blew me away. It is framed as a letter from a French citizen to the Nazi Commandant in his hometown in Occupied France. He tells his life story and explores his views about France’s relationship with Germany, as well as his own personal struggles. It is a fascinating and terrifying book that I highly recommend. My review is here.

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2014 Gallic Books edition

 

There are an awful lot more books on the War that I would like to read, some of which I already own, and some which I don’t. It is a rather long list so I’m not going to include it here, but might save it for a future post. I’m sure some of the books on the list will be reviewed/written about at some point soon! Here are the books I currently own that are next on the reading list:

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I’d love to hear some more recommendations for literature of this period – what would you suggest?

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe

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2014 Gallic Books edition

Gallic Books kindly offered to send me a review copy of Monsieur Le Commandant – the cover got me straight away. A beautiful graphic font, not too busy, and a French stamp mingled with a Nazi eagle in the corner – something that becomes more and more poignant and chilling as you make your way through the novel.

Paul-Jean Husson is a French academic and hero of World War I, where he lost an arm and was awarded for his bravery in fighting against the Germans. One day in 1942, during the German Occupation of France, he decides to write a letter to the senior SS officer, le commandant, in his hometown of Ardigny. This book is that letter. In it, he tells a potted version of his life story and emphasises his undying commitment to the glory and success of France as a nation, and of its people. He believes in patriotism and strength, in conquering your enemies and taking pride in your domination of weakness.

The style of writing reminded me greatly of both Thomas Mann and Hans Fallada – though I cannot know if that is entirely the author or partly the translator. Either way it was measured and calm, whilst still being sufficiently dramatic and with plenty of emotional depth and character. This fictional story set in real historical events feels utterly true, and the characters entirely believable as real people. There were probably many like them.

Husson is a dedicated follower of Marechal Petain, the Premier of France and later Prime Minister of Vichy France during the war, who recommends an armistice between France and Germany  that is viewed by Britain as highly dangerous and would undermine Britain’s position on the continent. Husson is a highly respected writer and member of local government who has friends in high places; as the novel goes on he becomes more and more involved in the politics of France at war, and as France is bombed, attacked, and occupied, he comes to the opinion that the French people should work with the invading Germans to create a greater, stronger Europe. Like his idol Petain he supports an armistice between the two countries, and he does not believe that Britain and the rest of the Allies have France’s best interests at heart.

Paul-Jean’s son Olivier marries a young German, Ilse, who soon comes to live in France. They have two children over the course of the novel, and for a while Olivier is sent away to fight. Ilse and their first child Hermione often come to stay with Paul-Jean and his wife Marguerite, Olivier’s mother, and his sister Jeanne. Everything is idyllic, despite the war, as the family enjoy their villa and each other’s company; but Paul-Jean finds himself thinking about his daughter-in-law increasingly often and cannot blame her if she makes an error or does something wrong. He is captivated by her, and wishes that Olivier would stay away longer and she would come visit more often. He expresses his feelings of confusion and guilt to the commandant, unsure of what to do, and hints at ‘what happened next’, creating a sense of dread and fear in the reader. We know from the blurb that this letter is a confession and that he makes ‘a decision that will devastate several lives, including his own.’

This sense of foreboding coupled with Paul-Jean’s deeply felt anti-Semitism and support for Nazi Germany creates a great sense of unease. To deflect suspicion from his family he writes anti-Semitic articles for the press that he copies into his letter to the commandant; they are truly disturbing. From our future perspective, we can also see that his ideals are utterly misguided and doomed to failure, as is his support of the Fuhrer and the invading Germans, and this adds a great feeling of not only sadness but also despair that these things happened and people felt this way. From a British point of view his opinions, and view of the War, are disturbing and unsettling, as well as hard to understand.

Paul-Jean becomes increasingly conflicted about his feelings for Ilse and his feelings for his country and the Germans. His semi-incestuous love for her is intense and illicit, and becomes heightened  and more overtly sexual as he spends more time with her when his wife is ill; it is always present in his mind. But which is more important to him – the object of his affection and lust, or the future of France?

There are a few major plot points that I simply cannot give away because they would utterly spoil this book. There are surprises, building fears that come to fruition, and devastating moments when true feelings are revealed. Monsieur Le Commandant is at once fascinating, beguiling, engaging and, as a quote from L’Express on the cover states, terrifying. The intricate complexities of the socio-politics of World War II are carefully examined from a perspective mostly unfamiliar to us Brits, and practically the entire battlefield of human emotions is explored. I was left saddened, shocked and enthralled by this novel, and very highly recommend it.

*

Originally published in France by NiL Editions in July 2012. Published on 16th September 2013 by Gallic Books in the UK. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

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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