Rudolph Ditzen took the pen name Hans Fallada in 1913 to protect his family — his father was a respected judge — from embarrassment at his first angst-ridden novel. He took “Hans” from the folktale of “Lucky Hans,” the story of a foolish farmer who barters away all his possessions, trading his life savings for a horse, the horse for a cow, and so on, until he is left carrying a millstone down a dusty road. The farmer’s natural optimism, however, is such that he views each new item as a wonderful bit of luck, and when his millstone rolls into a river, he feels “light at heart, free from all his troubles.”
“Fallada” derives from the fairy tale of “The Goose Girl,” in which a cruel chambermaid swaps identities with a princess as she travels to be married. The only witness is a horse, Falada, whom the false princess orders beheaded. The true princess bribes a servant to have the horse’s head nailed above the gate to the city, where it sings songs bewailing the crimes it has witnessed. These twin motifs — the fool’s cheer in the face of hardship, and the lonely voice singing against injustice — would mark much of Fallada’s work, as he wrote through the economic blight of the Weimar Republic and the atrocities of the Third Reich.
A troubled, sickly, guilt-ridden youth, Fallada was just 18 when he and one of his few friends arranged to kill each other in a staged duel. The friend died, Fallada survived. Over the course of his life, he would spend many years in and out of mental institutions, was often unemployed, and succumbed periodically to his alcohol and morphine addictions. He considered writing his great escape (he called it his “little death”), and he wrote with the same voracious speed as he smoked his hundreds of daily cigarettes. Part of the “New Objectivity” ( “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” ) art movement, Fallada’s writing is intentionally plain: Grocery lists make more appearances than metaphors, the characters speak in exclamations, and weep easily. Though the goal is realism, there are elements of pantomime and slapstick. The characters tend to be flat, social types, but Fallada renders them with great sympathy and vividness. There’s a strong genetic connection between his writing and the films of Charlie Chaplin— The Tramp is essentially a comic figure rather than a “real” person, yet in his travails and hardships we cannot help but feel his humanity. Fallada’s characters — cruel bosses, generous libertines, petty thieves, Nazi thugs, bumbling drunks, hapless young lovers — are a literary paradox, simultaneously static and vibrating with life. There is no great mystery to them, but their lives are full of surprises.
Fallada’s 1932 novel, Little Man, What Now?, tells the tale of a naive young married couple, Johannes and Lammchen, as they struggle to make ends meet in the aftermath of World War I. It became an international success, was translated into 20 languages and made into two films. Though the novel’s theme is the hardships of poverty, the tone remains light, comic and sweet, with many whimsical scenes, as when Johannes spends all his wages on a fancy dressing table — their only furniture — or when a pregnant Lammchen eats their entire salmon dinner and weeps with guilt. Fallada never directly addresses politics — he is no Bertolt Brecht — but the reader becomes acutely aware of the tensions in the air: National Socialists clash with communists in the street, the parks teem with the unemployed, cruel bosses fire their employees only to fall victim to the next wave of layoffs. By novel’s end, Johannes has been crushed by the economy. Ragged, jobless, he cowers in the bushes until his wife coaxes him back into their cottage — a similar note to the last scene of Modern Times as The Tramp urges the beautiful gamin to “Buck up!” Little Man ends on this bittersweet note: Times are hard, food is scarce, there are riots in the streets and strikes at the factory, but hope remains, love remains.
By the time he wrote The Drinker, hope and love were mostly gone. After the rise of the Nazis, Fallada was deemed an undesirable writer, and his marriage had fallen into chaos as a result of his manias and drinking. For firing a revolver at his wife, Fallada was thrown into a psychiatric prison. While there, he wrote a semiautobiographical novel of an incompetent small-town businessman, Erwin Sommer, who destroys his business, his marriage and his life through his sudden infatuation with schnapps. For a ruined man writing in prison during a terrible war, Fallada surprisingly kept his comic undertones, and the first half of the novel has the slapstick escapades of a dark farce. His character makes one poor decision after another, full of braggadocio and self-satisfaction even as he inexorably falls. In one sublime scene, after being called up to a barmaid’s room for a tryst, the narrator takes off his shoes but then dreamily climbs out a window and wanders home in the countryside, singing songs and drinking brandy. Only when his wife finds him drinking the last of her cooking sherry does Fallada mention the man’s bleeding feet.