Discovering an author you admire, one you haven’t read before is always a thrill. A door opens to a different world as that new voice and style gets inside your head.
Hans Fallada writing about Berlin during WW2 is my new discovery. Alone in Berlin is the story of Otto, an ordinary German who, after his son is killed at the front, is shocked into a silent campaign attacking Hitler. He drops anonymous postcards around the city in the hope he will spur others into fighting back against the Nazi war machine.Described as the great novel of German resistance, it’s an terrifying picture of a world in which even law-abiding citizens are helpless, in danger and able to trust no one. Yet it all sounds fairly familiar and you’d think a well worn subject such as the war period between 1938-45 wouldn’t have anything new to offer. But Fallada’s 1947 novel, reads as if it has just been published. There’s an immediacy to his characterisation in the way people struggle with or are destroyed by the world around them and how they might find meaning in their moral integrity and human decency.
A similar experience can be found in Fallada’s Little Man, What Now, written in 1932 in the lead up to the war. Again, it is his characterisation of an ordinary young couple and their struggle to maintain a dignified and decent life in an economically and morally declining Berlin, that drives the plot and brings the novel to life.
“Old” subject matter and an author who died in 1947 doesn’t sound like a serendipitous recipe, but it’s a tribute to Fallada’s skill that his classic novels remain fresh and readable and able to reach new audiences. His ear for dialogue developed when he worked on farms and estates in Mecklenburg, Silesia and West Prussia:
“I was with people almost all the time, I stood behind endless rows of women talking away while they chopped turnips and dug potatoes, and I heard the women and girls talking away. It went on from dawn till dusk...I could not avoid it, I had to listen and I learned how they talk and what they talk about, what their worries are and what problems they have. And as I was only a very minor official and not riding around on horseback - I just had a bike now and then to save time - they had no inhibitions about talking to me and I learned to talk to everybody.”
There’s a lesson for every writer. Fallada’s dialogue is not however, just a simple repetition of the overheard chitchat some modern writers employ. Fallada refines and details his conversations to reveal inner thoughts, fears, aspirations and circumstance. That’s why his novels continue to stand up to scrutiny.
I wonder how many new novels, those we hail as masterpieces, will stand the test of time and be able to reach new audiences in 70 or 80 years.
Australian and US readers: