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Wolf among wolves

January 13, 2011

Why can’t I be loved as what I am?

A wolf among wolves

and not as a man among men?

– Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy


I have just finished reading Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolvesdefinitely a close contender for book of the year, 2010. It bears no relation to the song quoted above, but I like them both.

Originally published in Nazi Germany in 1937, the book has been out of print in English for 70 years. It tells the story of Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier, and a number of other characters, as they try to live with dignity in the ethical and economic morass of Weimar Germany. The book starts in July 1923, when inflation is so bad people are paid twice a day, as new prices are set in the morning and at lunch time. Currency is almost worthless; as soon as you get any, it needs to be spent immediately, on anything, before its value disappears entirely.

Pagel is living with a girlfriend, a prostitute he picked up one night who never went home. She loves him, but he is lost in the moral wilderness and spends his nights at Berlin casinos, trying to win enough to live on. Over almost 800 pages, the characters are lead through a number of experiences that test them utterly. What makes the book astounding is the attention to detail, the realism and the character development: there are no minor characters. The narrative burns like a slow fuse until a climatic putsch attempt brings the character’s personal crises to a head.

There is no salvation for the characters, except for what the manage to salvage for themselves from the wreckage that surrounds them.

I have read reviews that say the book is boring, slow moving, and that nothing really happens. Indeed, the first half of the book covers just 24 hours, in extreme detail. I confess that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the book as much if I hadn’t read it over a few days on a Scottish island with no mobile reception or television. The book moves at a pace we are no longer accustomed to – we have become used to instant narrative and just-in-time action. But the effect of understanding the characters, their motivation and the milieu intimately make the experience of reading the book so much more immersive than anything I have read in a long time.

By giving us an intimate picture of conditions in the Weimar Republic, it becomes easy to understand the environment that gave birth the Nazism, and in particular the resentment bred by the Treaty of Versailles, the French occupation of the Ruhr and the punitive attempts by the Allied powers to destroy the German economy.

The bigger story, though, is Hans Fallada. He’s a writer of the calibre of Thomas Mann, but I hadn’t heard of him till this year, and I don’t think he’s well knownin the English-speaking world. He lived a varied and troubled life: at 18, he killed a friend in a dual which was also a suicide pact, and narrowly avoided  a prison sentence. He endured years of drink and drug addictions, prison and institutionalisation. All this gave him a unique insight into the underbelly of German society between the wars, and he captures it beautifully.

Clearly, some enlightened soul in the publishing industry decided it was time to reacquaint the English speaking world with Fallada, and went about it systematically.

First, Alone in Berlin was republished and widely distributed – it’s available at Waterstones and WH Smith on various multibuy offers. It’s an excellent book – plotted like a thriller, it’s based on the true story of one ordinary working class couple’s resistance to the Nazis. This Guardian article calls it a ‘miracle’, and it is an astounding book. It is also probably the most interesting and accessible for an English-speaking audience, so it’s an ideal entry point. If I hadn’t seen the book on 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones, I wouldn’t have know of it’s existance.

The publisher, Melville House, have also released attractive editions of two other books, which I will read shortly. Little Man, What Now? was his breakthrough portrait of ordinary people crushed by circumstances beyond their control, and The Drinker was written secretly while Fallada was locked up in an asylum, smuggled out and published after his death.

I was brought up in public libraries and came to fetishise books as remarkable artefacts. This was destroyed for me when I worked as a book seller for a while, and saw publishers heavily promoting profitable rubbish while quality literature received no support. Even more heartbreaking was having to destroy books which couldn’t be sold: having to stand and tear up hundreds of books that couldn’t be sold was soul destroying – I wasn’t even allowed to take them home, as this would have been theft.

The promotion of Fallada restores my faith in the publishing industry to some extent. Despite the fact that books are commodities that are sold for profit, there are clearly still people in the industry who love literature. 


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