A stunning, if somewhat depressing, biography of Hans Fallada.
Hans Fallada was all but forgotten outside Germany when his 1947 novel, Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), was reissued in English in 2009, whereupon it became a best seller and reintroduced Hans Fallada's work to a new generation of readers.
Jenny Williams, here refers to Hans Fallada as Rudolf Ditzen - his real name, and the name he used throughout his life. Where this biography scores especially highly for me is in its clear eyed depiction of Germany throughout the first 50 years of the twentieth century.
Rudolf Ditzen grows up in the rigid, authoritarian German society of the pre-World War One Wilhelmine era and this biography throws up all kinds of fascinating details about everyday life and social trends. Here's one example, when Rudolf was a teenager there were an extraordinary number of suicides in Rudolf's class. This was part of a much broader wave of suicides and suicide attempts that swept through Germany in the years before World War One. Germany's strict society during this period apparently inducing despair and hopelessness amongst many of the young.
Ditzen was a deeply troubled individual, prone to bouts of mental torment resulting in regular periods in psychiatric care. He was also variously addicted to drugs and alcohol, stole and spent time in jail, and was unfaithful to his first wife. All of these behaviours were exacerbated during the Nazi era and, again,Jenny Williams perfectly evokes the living hell of everyday life for many ordinary Germans under this regime.
Ditzen is denounced by neighbours on numerous occasions throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, on one occasion, this results in a spell in prison, the confiscation of the house he owned, and plunges him into another of his regular nervous breakdowns. Ditzen is generally viewed with suspicion by the Nazis and therefore has to severely compromise his work by retreating into children's stories and innocuous historical fiction having been declared an 'undesirable author'. Whilst many contemporaries emigrated he chose to stay in Germany and was therefore perfectly placed to witness, first-hand, the everyday horrors during this era.
I read this biography before reading any of Hans Fallada's work. I now feel very well informed about his life and work, and I am feeling very enthused about reading his books. Ditzen's friend and colleague, Paul Mayer, is quoted at the end of the book:"German literature has not many realistic writers. Hans Fallada is one of them. His work, mutilated by political terror, is even as a torso important enough not to be forgotten."
This book works on so many levels, and includes memorable insights into the social history of Germany, the life of a tortured artist, and the subtle but insistent day-to-day horrors of life under a fascist regime.