Below is a guest post from Tom Roberge, an editor at Penguin, avid fan of international literature, and big lover of this book.
Last March was a strange time for novels dealing with Nazis. On the one hand Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones finally appeared in the US, and reactions on both ends of the critical spectrum were hyperbolic. The fictional memoir of a Nazi officer who details his role in scores of unspeakable atrocities that won two of France’s major literary awards, it was either heralded as a masterpiece or dismissed as utter garbage by American critics. I wanted nothing to do with it, not because I cringe at descriptions of violence and depravity—I generally gravitate towards them—but instead because I’d read so many reviews that accused Littell of a grievous fault: being a bad writer. Questionable morality I can handle; bad writing I cannot. To this day, the only person I’ve spoken to who’s read the book was a used bookseller at a flea market, and he claimed that it was the best book he’d ever read.
On the other hand was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which for some absurd reason had never been published in the U.S. since it was completed just before the author’s death in 1947. But thanks to Dennis Johnson at Melville House Books, this oversight has been addressed. At the heart of the story are Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged German couple whose soldier son has died just before the book’s opening. At first simply stunned into near paralysis, they slowly emerge from their passivity and begin a quiet civil disobedience campaign by making and distributing anti-Nazi postcards. They imagine they’re sparking revolution, or at least sparking a conversation about a revolution, but the truth is that the cards are rarely seen by anyone other than citizen informants and their official contacts. Their efforts are not only largely fruitless, they’re also incredibly dangerous; as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t look kindly on defiance.
What makes Every Man Dies Alone so remarkable is its portrait of what we’d now call “average” Germans during World War II. They’re average on one level because they’re blue collar employees living in modest conditions. They are also surrounded by and only interact with other people living in similar situations, some better off, some worse off. But they’re average on another level as well: they are not targets of Nazi “cleansing.” Instead they are the people for whom Hitler’s war is being fought. In return for this crusade, all the Nazis ask for is unquestioned loyalty and total devotion to the war effort.
Littell’s Nazi officer is a cruel, despicable man. He represents the entire Nazi regime, and The Kindly Ones is meant to give readers a glimpse inside the minds of men who killed millions mercilessly, all for the sake of an appallingly horrific ideal. Fallada, however, set out to portray life among the non-Jewish, non-military Germans during the war, and what he reveals is a terrorizing existence. Otto and Anna had been, before their son was killed in combat, as close to politically apathetic as it was possible to be in Nazi Germany. They hated the war and they hated Hitler, but they believed they were powerless to do anything, so they spent all of their time either at work or at home, avoiding contact with anyone but each other as much as possible. They were absolutely terrified, and Fallada shows why this is by following various other characters as they navigate the tense society.
A family of zealous former Nazi youths spies on its neighbors, robs an elderly Jewish woman, and generally causes trouble for anyone it believes is disloyal or insufficiently loyal. A lazy, lecherous man tips off officials for the money. On the other side there are people like Otto and Anna who want nothing more than to keep to themselves, including an elderly doctor who allows the aforementioned elderly Jewish woman to take refuge in his apartment, along with a postal worker who brazenly quits the Nazi party—despite the fact that it means she’ll be essentially unable to work again—when she realizes what her soldier son has been up to. The Berlin that emerges is one of constant terror. The Nazis have used terror to force average citizens to spy on each other, to exploit each other, to cast suspicion on each other. Fear of being wrongly accused, arrested, and punished or killed drives many people inside, both literally and figuratively. They race to work and race home, and talk to no one. And once home, they barely talk to each other, keeping all thoughts to themselves. It takes Otto and Anna several days to even talk about the death of their son. In such conditions, every action against the state, every slightly critical word or insincere gesture of loyalty, is magnified to superlative levels, and the consequences can be life-altering to say the least.
As I read, the book I thought of the most was Camus’ The Plague, his extended allegory on German-occupied France during the same time period that Fallada’s book takes place. Both books are about finding ways to get through individual days and about fighting back against ubiquitous terror. The doctor in The Plague fights back steadily but cautiously, despite pleas from his neighbors, one of whom gets through the days by perpetually re-drafting the opening sentence of a novel. Otto and Anna fight back, as well, but their battle isn’t as successful, except in one very crucial, personal regard: it engendered hope, it offered a vision of a different life. There is no happy ending here. Instead this is an invaluable portrait of a time and place that we should all make every effort to understand as much as possible.
One of the biggest books this spring—at least in terms of general coverage and growing hype—has to be Hans Fallada’s rediscovered masterpiece, Every Man Dies Alone.
It’s based on a true story of a working class couple living in Berlin during WWII who launch a “simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has an enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.”
The novel’s been receiving heaps of praise, including a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review that opens: “A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred.”
I should save this for my upcoming PRI post, but The World recently did a segment on The Kindly Ones and Every Man Dies Alone that included a brief conversation with Ulrich Ditzen, Fallada’s son.
All of this build-up is just to let you know that the German Book Office in New York is giving away five free copies of the beautifully produced hardcover. To get one, just e-mail Hannah Johnson at johnson at gbo dot org.
(And if you want to get future announcements from the GBO, be sure to join their Facebook Group.
Here’s the PW review:
Starred Review. Extreme grief permeates Fitzek’s brilliant psychological thriller, a bestseller in his native Germany. When TV psychiatrist Viktor Larenz’s 12-year-old daughter, Josy, who suffers from a number of unexplainable illnesses, vanishes without a trace from her doctor’s office, Larenz’s subsequent search for even the smallest clue to the girl’s disappearance costs him his career and marriage. Four years later, Larenz has retreated to an isolated, storm-prone island, where he’s visited by children’s novelist Anna Glass, a schizophrenic who believes the characters she creates become real. One of those characters bears a striking resemblance to Josy and may have the answer to what happened to her. Unbalanced by his mourning, Larenz emerges as an unreliable but sympathetic character. Is he really losing his mind or is he being gaslighted? Undertones of gothic suspense imbue an unpredictable plot that will remind many of Shutter Island and A Beautiful Mind.
You can click the title above to order the book from Harvard Book Store (our featured bookstore this month), or e-mail Hannah Johnson at johnson at gbo dot org to try and win a free copy . . .
The next GBO Book Pick is Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which we’ll be covering in much greater detail in the near future. In the meantime, you can find out more by visiting (and joining) the GBO Facebook Group.
These two books arrived a couple weeks ago and are nearing the top of my reading list:
Every Man Dies Alone is one of three Hans Fallada books Melville House is bringing out this season. (The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? being the other two.) A mammoth book (although written in only twenty-four days!), Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a working-class couple that resisted the Nazis. This is Melville House’s lead title for the spring, a book that they’ve been pushing as a sort of German Suite Francaise and lost masterpiece. Based on the relative success of his other novels — Little Man, What Now? was even made into a movie — it’s surprising this book wasn’t translated into English before now. A great find for Dennis and Valerie, and every indication points to this book taking off. And the production on this book is phenomenal: the end papers feature full color maps of Berlin, and included with the afterword are all the historical documents related to the “true story behind the novel.”
Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny made the 2009 Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist, which is one reason I’m very interested to read his Blinding Moment, which just came out from Ariadne Books. Ariadne Books is pretty press that specializes in Austrian literature. (In addition to Jonke’s book, I’m very excited about Kathrin Roggla’s we never sleep, which is due out later this spring.) Jonke’s book is a collection of four pieces—“The Head of George Frederick Handel,” “Catalogue d’oiseaux,” “Gentle Rage, or The Ear Machinist: A Theater Sonata,” and “Blinding Moment: A Novella.” According to the copy, he “takes the works of four composers (plus a universally loved saint) as the starting points of profound but often hilarious explorations of human struggle and triumph, of spiritual yearning and fulfillment.” In addition to Jonke’s pieces, Vincent Kling’s translator’s afterword looks really interesting. It’s a pretty substantial piece that places this book within the context of Jonke’s entire career.
Hopefully we’ll have full reviews of both of these titles online within the next month or so.
Hard to say that the New York Times doesn’t review translations after this week . . . In addition to Kakutani’s
possibly insane review of The Kindly Ones, this weekend’s Book Review includes articles on four works of literature in translation.
A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. This event is the belated appearance in English of the novel Every Man Dies Alone, the story of a working-class Berlin couple who took on the Third Reich with a postcard campaign intended to foment rebellion against Hitler’s Germany. Published in 1947, the book was written in 24 days by a prolific but psychologically disturbed German writer named Rudolf Ditzen, who spent a significant portion of his life in asylums (for killing a friend in a duel, for threatening his wife with a gun), in prison (for embezzling to finance his morphine habit) and in rehab. In spite of his precarious emotional state, he wrote more than two dozen books under the pen name Hans Fallada, which he took from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Then there’s Dennis Overbye’s positive review of Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which was translated by Stephen Snyder, another Salzburg Seminar participant. Ogawa’s earlier book — The Diving Pool — was included on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and despite my rather tepid review, is worth checking out. I’m sure we’ll review this one sometime in the near future as well. And according to Stephen, the next book of Ogawa’s that Picador is publishing is the best of the bunch . . .
Yet Doghead is a very different book from The World According to Garp, say, or A Prayer for Owen Meany. For all their eccentric habits and physical peculiarities, Irving’s characters are essentially realistic, capable of making a profound emotional connection with the reader. Ramsland’s are larger-than-life creations who go by a roll call of nicknames, among them Jug Ears, the Bath Plug and the Little Bitch. In the world of the Erikssons, life is shocking and childhood brutal. No one is to be trusted, family least of all. Rambunctious, often imaginative, invariably cruel, the stories rattle through a catalog of adultery, duplicity and casual violence. A father sells his son’s precious coin collection to buy booze. A mother hides the letters sent to her son by his distant love. A brother tapes his sister making out with her boyfriend in the room next door and shares the cassettes with his friends. None of these characters learn from their mistakes. Instead they run away from them. And those who stay make more.
Despite its earthy comedy, then, Doghead is ultimately a bleak book.
And last but not least is Floyd Skloot’s review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Fat Man and Infinity and Other Writings. I wrote a very positive review of this for Quarterly Conversation (coming soon) and really hope that this book gets even more attention than What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? did. It’s more accessible, and a great intro to Antunes’s world. Skloot’s review isn’t entirely positive, but he does sum up the sundry nature of the book pretty well:
Now, in The Fat Man and Infinity, he turns his attention inward, onto his own life and mind, his own experience of place and community. Neither traditional memoir nor in-depth analysis, it collects 107 brief chronicles from the weekly or biweekly columns Lobo Antunes has written for various publications, particularly the Portuguese newspaper O Público. The Fat Man and Infinity is a genuine miscellany, roughly half reminiscence or reflection and half very short fiction, that struggles to cohere. Detailed and often lyrical, it is best at offering moments of nostalgic charm.
I’m sure people will still jump on Tanenhaus for something, but this is a pretty solid issue . . . now, hopefully one of these weeks an Open Letter title will slip in there . . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .