The Nazis didn’t kill German novelist Hans Fallada, but they were in many ways responsible for his untimely death in 1947, at the age of 53. There can be no question that Fallada’s already frail health was undermined by his harsh treatment at the hands of Nazi officials, a fate outlined in our piece this week on his stunning novel Every Man Dies Alone. As if to compound the misfortune, the author’s work then began a long slide into obscurity, despite the widespread success that such novels as Little Man, What Now? had enjoyed during his lifetime.
Dennis Johnson has been trying to right this wrong with something like missionary zeal. Johnson, publisher at Melville House in Brooklyn, New York, first came across Fallada’s writings on the recommendation of a friend in Europe. Compelled by Fallada’s unique vision to track down and read one out-of-print work after another, he set about publishing Every Man Dies Alone, the author’s final novel and one never before translated into English. With this and Melville’s new editions of Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker, Johnson is bringing readers back to a fascinating but overlooked figure.
The Georgia Straight reached Dennis Johnson by e-mail at a writers’ conference in Australia.
Georgia Straight: Why did Hans Fallada refuse to leave Germany when other writers of his stature were fleeing the Nazis?
Dennis Johnson: Several reasons. For one, unlike many of those who fled, such as Thomas Mann, Fallada did not write in High German. He wrote in the vernacular—indeed, he was celebrated for this. He strongly felt that if he was removed from the country, he would no longer be able to “hear” the language of the common man that was, in a way, his ultimate muse. For another reason, his biographer, Jenny Williams, tells a moving story that when his English publisher sent a boat to rescue him, he and his wife packed up their bags and put them and the kids in the car, and Fallada then said, “Let me take one last walk around the property.” When he came back, he told her to take the kids back in the house, that he could not leave his country to the barbarians.
GS: Every Man Dies Alone is based on a Gestapo file that was given to Fallada after the war. What was it about this case that inspired him? Was it important to him to feature such quiet, average citizens as resisters?
DJ: Fallada actually wrote an essay about the Gestapo file before he wrote the novel, and in that essay the thing that seems to move him the most is that the real-life couple, the Hampels, chose writing as their means of protest. It spoke to what Fallada thought of his own form of resistance against the Nazis—he wrote. Against the full magnitude of their horror, it must have felt pitiful, but it was all he could do. So too with the Hampels.
GS: Why was Every Man Dies Alone written so quickly? Did Fallada always work at this kind of clip?
DJ: Yes, he always worked like that. He had one rule of writing: write more today than yesterday. This had to do with the constant financial pressure he was under. He not only wrote books, but screenplays and numerous magazine articles, to put food on the table in a country with a devastated economy.
GS: As with a lot of literature about the Second World War, there’s a sense of this novel being an act of witness. What importance does the book carry today?
DJ: It remains, I think, the only book that really testifies to the life of the common citizen in Berlin during the height of the war, and so offers unique insight indeed. As the great Primo Levi also noted—he called it “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”—it is also perhaps the only book to testify to acts of resistance by working-class individuals, as opposed to stories such as the military plots against Hitler and the White Rose or Red Orchestra organizations by intellectuals.
GS: Is it part of your mission here and with other Fallada novels to restore him to his rightful place among 20th-century novelists? How can that place be described?
DJ: Absolutely that is my mission. We have published three Fallada books so far, with three more coming up over the next year or two. I think it’s a great literary injustice that he’s been neglected. The only major writer who stayed in his country to fight the Nazis with his pen deserves our attention, and his brilliant work combined with his courage gives a timelessness to his work that I think makes him one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He tells the story of the century—the impact of fascism in all its forms—from the inside of its most extreme incarnation.