By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
This is a repeated Fallada trope: a veneer of humor over half-hidden and horrible truths. By the novel’s second half, the veneer begins to scrape away as the narrator’s humiliations and degradations mount. He is charged with murder, imprisoned, robbed, beaten, and his nose bitten off by another convict. When The Tramp goes to prison in Modern Times, it is an excuse for a Keystone Cops routine, but Fallada’s descriptions of the prison inmates have a harrowing veracity unlike either a Chaplin film or Fallada’s Little Man. A lovelorn prisoner is callously tricked out of his tobacco by a beautiful young inmate. Herr Sommer’s cellmate, Holz, is a “master” at imagining delicious meals (a common practice among the starving inmates): “He was most eloquent when he described how a farmer had . given the convict-party pieces of bread spread thick with ‘good butter’... [and] his voice trembled as he described how his stomach had not been able to stand the unwonted rich food, and he had brought it all up again.”
There’s a ruthless sadness and accuracy to these details, and one senses that Fallada’s old literary model is bending to breaking point. How can his broad plot lines and simple characters encompass such madness? After World War II, Chaplin said if he had known the true extent of the Nazis’ monstrosity, he would not have been able to make The Great Dictator, and one of the pleasures of The Drinker is watching Fallada’s style shift under the strain of witnessing the naked depths of the human experience.
Released from prison after the war, Fallada was a nervous wreck. He had left his wife, and remarried a fellow morphine addict in Berlin. In hopes of reinspiring him, one of his literary patrons gave him a Gestapo file concerning a famous case that took place in Berlin under Nazi rule: A middle-aged couple, who for years spread hundreds of anti-Nazi propaganda post cards around Berlin, avoided capture and infuriated the SS. Fallada took this material, and at his typical breakneck pace, in 24 days produced Every Man Dies Alone. Having already investigated the suffering of poverty and addiction, in this novel, his masterpiece, he bears witness to the 20th century’s greatest crime. Primo Levi hailed the work as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis,” and Levi and Fallada’s books share an understanding that while the Nazis were evil, the moral corruption of citizens and prisoners themselves was nearly as grotesque.
Fallada’s depiction of wartime Berlin reveals dissolution on all levels of civilization: Yes, there are brutish Gestapo agents and sadistic SS torturers, but equally fiendish are the looters, blackmailers and bullies among the general population. When a man, the morning after learning his son has died at the front, complains that Germany’s new wealth “isn’t worth a single dead body,” his neighbor reminds him, “You know I can get you put in a concentration camp for defeatist mutterings like that,” and promptly tries to cadge 10 marks.
This is not a novel about a monolithic evil empire but rather one that charts a million transgressions. One of its major side plots features two louts’ bumbling attempts to steal a dead Jewish woman’s linens. For a few marks a boy beats up his father. The leader of a communist resistance cell smugly orders a young woman to commit suicide because she has jeopardized their security. Every Man Dies Alone is a vision of humanity unmasked, of our basest instincts given free rein.
Fallada spares no one: The retired judge who shelters a Jewish woman is so cold in his rules of her confinement that she decides to kill herself rather than live forever in a shuttered room. Otto and Anna Quangel, the couple heroically defying the Nazis, are shown to be fools: They dream of instigating righteous resistance, but no one reads their post cards; every single one is either destroyed or turned over immediately to the Gestapo. After his capture, and realizing the futility of his efforts, Otto sighs, “Given the chance I’d do it again. Only, I’d do it very differently.”
The novel’s final chapter, fittingly titled “The End,” is aswarm with misery. Yet in these final pages, stripped of hope, love and the last vestiges of civilization, Fallada reaches new artistic heights. In a surreal tangent, Otto Quangel is thrown into a cell with a psychotic SS officer, who believes that he is a dog. This dog-man bites Otto, steals his food, licks his entire body, and generally torments the poor man. But surprisingly, the dog-man learns to like Otto, and as Otto is led away to trial, he “howled piteously ... [and] when Karlchen the dog was driven back into his cell, then Quangel’s face was no longer cold and implacable, and in his heart he felt a slight pressure akin to regret. The man who all his life had only ever given his heart to one being, his wife, was sorry to see the multiple murderer, the beast of a man, pass out of his life.” Otto has been slipped a cyanide pill, which he plans to take before his execution, but as he’s led toward the guillotine, “A terrible, tormenting curiosity tickled him. ... A couple minutes more, he thought. I must know what it feels like to lie on the table. ...” Miraculously, here at the bitter end, the spirit of Lucky Hans is still alive, still nursing his perverse optimism, still finding something worthwhile in his wretched life: His compassion and curiosity may be irrational but they survive. Even the sensation of your own murder has some small value.