Hans Fallada

The German novelist Hans Fallada was born on this day in 1893. Although he is regarded as one of the most important German novelists of the 20th century, and his Little Man, What Now? (1934) was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, Fallada had been a forgotten writer in North America until Melville House recently published new translations of a number of his novels.

The only English-language biography is titled More Lives Than One (Jenny Williams, 1998), an allusion to Fallada’s lifelong series of near-deaths—from accident, suicide, morphine and alcohol, mental illness, and the Nazis. In 1947, the year of his actual death, Fallada published two novels, each of them true stories in their own way. The Nightmare, a fictionalized version of Fallada’s war years, tells the story of an author who struggles to overcome his substance abuse, his derailed literary career, and his conflicted response to the Nazi regime. Every Man Dies Aloneis the fictionalized story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class Berlin couple who courageously resisted the Nazis by mounting a postcard campaign—”German people wake up!’ “Hitler’s war is the worker’s death!”—against the Third Reich. In the following passage, on the night before posting their first card, Fallada’s heroes lie in bed, envisioning what might come from their small acts of defiance:

And he, once again carried away by their prospects: “And we will keep the police busy, the Gestapo, the SS, the SA. Everywhere people will be talking about the mysterious postcards, they will inquire, suspect, observe, conduct house to house searches—in vain! We will go on writing, on and on!”

And she: “Maybe they’ll even show the Führer himself cards like ours—he will read our accusations! He will go wild!…

They are both silent, dazzled by their prospects. What were they, previously? Obscure characters, extras. And now to see them alone, exalted, separate from the others, not to be confused with any of them. They feel a shiver; that’s how alone they are.

The Hampels, like their fictional counterparts, were caught and executed, and most of their anti-Nazi postcards were turned in to the authorities as soon as they were tacked up. Before writing his novel, Fallada wondered if the Hampels were innocents who “sacrificed their lives in a purposeless battle, apparently in vain. But perhaps not entirely purposeless, after all? Perhaps not entirely in vain, after all?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.