Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Intoxicating Story. . .

I know, I know - in keeping with St. Paddy's Day, I should be blogging about an Irish author, but I haven't read any recently; I seem to be obsessed with Germany these days. So instead, here's a cautionary tale in case you are tempted to imbibe just a bit too much tonight. . .

Hans Fallada wrote The Drinker while in a Nazi insane asylum in 1944. Under the pretence of writing a propaganda novel, he was instead covering sheets of paper with tiny writing, turning them, and writing more between the lines. Fallada was released after the war, but he died in 1947 before the publication of the book.
The novel is narrated by Erwin Sommer, a respectable grocery wholesaler, who lives a quiet life in a small town with his wife Magda until he starts to drink. From then on, his life completely disintegrates. He loses business contracts, begins arguing with his wife, starts fantasizing about a barmaid, and through his desperate need for alcohol, becomes inextricably involved with Lobedanz, a scheming landlord who fleeces him of all his money. Sommer eventually ends up first in prison, and then in an insane asylum and his (now sober) descriptions of his fellow inmates, the horrors of daily life behind bars and the endless futile and ironic attempts to negotiate the law system, form the latter and most powerful part of the novel. Sommer's antics and situations are entirely of his own doing but it's to Fallada's credit that there are times when you can't help sympathizing with his bad luck and inability to slow down the momentum of his social and mental descent. He is very apt at self-justifying his actions (comically at times) and honest in his attempts to analyze his situation, even though we see his weak character flaws right from the first paragraph, when he sulkily tries to blame his early drinking on Magda, and the fact that she took four days to remove a cobweb from his room. Petty and petulant, Sommer's narrative voice nevertheless convincingly propels the reader right to the end of his story.
The book contains a very good afterword by John Willet, talking about the political context of the novel and also positioning it within Fallada's oeuvre. More of his backlist will be brought back into print by Melville House over the next few seasons. I'm definitely a Fallada fan - next on my list is his novel, Little Man, What Now?

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