Hans Fallada – What Now? Fallada’s English-language Renaissance

By Nicholas Jacobs (Libris, UK)


The purpose of Nicholas Jacobs’s paper is to describe how this ‘undesirable author’ was rediscovered at the end of the twentieth century. Jacobs sees Fallada’s choice to stay in Germany during the Nazi period, and his consequent association with the regime, as the most important factor in Fallada’s disappearance from the English-language literary scene from the 1940s onwards. Jacobs points out the importance of his last pre-Nazi bestseller, Kleiner Mann – was nun?, in depicting ordinary life in Germany at that time, and underlines the role of his subsequent books in giving readers a fuller understanding of what it was to live in Hitler’s Germany.

Keywords: hans fallada, kleiner mann – was nun, literary translation, editorial policy, publishing strategies

©inTRAlinea & Nicholas Jacobs (2013).
"Hans Fallada – What Now? Fallada’s English-language Renaissance"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Ritradurre "Kleiner Mann – was nun?" di Hans Fallada
Edited by: Natascia Barrale & Chris Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1954

Fallada’s pre-war books, published in Britain by Putman, were reviewed regularly and very positively in The Times Literary Supplement, sometimes twice (in their German and subsequently in their English versions).

Putnam & Co. were general publishers in London and New York, a branch of the major US publishing company G.P. Putnam & Co, New York.  The director in London was the American, Constant Huntington, who seems to have been responsible for adding Fallada to the list.

No sales figures are available, but Putnam’s loyalty to its author, who remained in Nazi Germany, albeit in bad odour with the regime, would hardly have been merely altruistic. In fact, it extended so far that Putnam did its best to persuade Fallada to leave Germany with his family and took practical steps to achieve this, nearly succeeding in 1938 when tickets were provided by the firm and a passage was booked. Rudolf Ditzen (alias Hans Fallada) simply would or could not leave his country.

Among the enthusiastic reviewers in Britain of Fallada’s most famous book, Little Man What Now?, were the respected critic Raymond Mortimer (New Statesman 22 April 1933), the regular Sunday reviewer Gerald Gould (Observer, 16 April 1933), and above all the novelist Graham Greene. Greene even recorded in his diary ( Spectator, 10 April 1933) a disturbing political dream he had had after reading the book - which he reviewed favourably in the same weekly (21 April 1933). Such responses must have given Putnam confidence, for they published a hardback Fallada novel every year for the next nine years, including an albeit heavily abbreviated Der eiserne Gustav (Iron Gustav) in 1940, actually during the war. (In the Afterword to the publication in 2014 of the revised translation of this book, Jenny Williams will discuss its abbreviation or censorship.)  

The fact that Fallada stayed in Germany and tried to keep out of trouble, not always successfully, must have been the biggest single factor in his virtual disappearance from the English-speaking literary scene from 1940 until near the end of the twentieth century, more or less exactly fifty years after his death at the age of 54 on 6 February 1947. As the respectful and well-informed Times obituary put it:

There can be no doubt but that his later output suffered from the necessity of writing books that could in no way be interpreted as hinting at any criticism of the Nazi regime (The Times, 11 February 1947).

ln 1952 Putnam published its last Fallada novel, the horrifyingly autobiographical confession, The Drinker, written in an asylum for the criminally insane in September 1944, which John Willett, in his introduction to the 1989 Libris edition,  compared to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Evelyn Waugh’s Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. It is worth noting that Fallada’s recently published Gefängnistagebuch 1944 edited by Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange (Aufbau 2009), which supplies the background to this part of Fallada’s life, is due to appear in English translation.

With the exception of the children’s book, Fridolin der freche Dachs, published by Heinemann in 1959 as That Rascal Fridolin, the Fallada trail went dead for over thirty years, when Libris republished The Drinker (with an introduction by John Willett, the Brecht scholar, who – as one of that paper’s editors – had kept the Fallada flame warm at the influential Times Literary Supplement even in the cold years).

Libris was founded in 1986 with the aim of repairing some of the damage done to the reputation of German literature in Britain by two World Wars, but mainly by National Socialism.  It did so by publishing new bilingual editions of classic authors like Goethe, Schiller and Mörike, and new editions, in English, of such authors as Erich Kästner, Hans Fallada and Bertolt Brecht. It also published biographical works, on Fallada (by Jenny Williams) and on Ernst Toller and other authors exiled after 1933 (by Richard Dove).

The reprint of Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd’s translation of The Drinker received a dozen excellent reviews – by the novelists Beryl Bainbridge  (Evening Standard, 3 November 1989) and Paul Bailey (Sunday Times, 18 February 1990), and the critic D. J. Enright (Observer, 26 November 1989), among others – and seemed to indicate that the  time had come for a Fallada rebirth.  Little Man - What Now?, Fallada’s most celebrated book, seemed the obvious choice.

Historically, Little Man –What Now? was one of the last pre-Nazi bestsellers and it had actually swept aside Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front from the no. 1 position in Germany when it appeared in summer 1932. It sold subsequently over a million copies, was translated into fifteen languages, and was filmed in Hollywood  as Little Man – What Now, released in 1934,  by Frank Borzage (with Maureen Sullavan and Douglas Montgomery, and a poster proclaiming: ‘Learn about Life from Little Man and his Wife’).

However, Eric Sutton’s 1933 English translation – though admirably readable – was dated, abbreviated and almost comically censored. The details often concern loss of some of the book’s charm, and one example at least is worthy of record.

Little Man tells of the decline and fall of a simple, decent, unpolitical working-class couple through the German Depression from 1929 to 1931. When they have their first baby, the nervous father (Johannes Pinneberg) is introduced to his brand-new son by a sympathetic nurse and finds himself confronting:

Ein uraltes, lackrotes, häßliches, faltiges Gesicht, mit einem zugespitzten birnenförmigen Kopf . . .Da wurde Pinneberg plötzlich ganz wach, und all seine Sünden fielen ihm ein, von der frühesten Jugend an: das Onanieren und die kleinen Mädcheron und der Trippper damals, und wie er vier- oder fünfmal schwer besoffen gewesen war (Rowohlt, 2000, p.280)

[…] a very old, very red, very ugly, wrinkled face, with a pointed pear-shaped head... Then Pinneberg was suddenly wide-awake, and all his sins came back to him, from the very earliest days: the masturbation, the little girls, that dose of clap, and how on four or five occasions he had been completely drunk (Libris, p. 215, translation by Susan Bennett, 1996).

Sutton’s 1933 translation of this passage reads:

[…] an ancient, ugly, wrinkled face, varnished red, with a pointed pear-shaped head . . .Pinneberg became suddenly wide awake, and all his sins, from his earliest youth, came into his mind: the little girls in the sand-bins, many misdeeds of his youth (Putnam, p.291, translation by Erich Sutton, 1933 ). 

The new translation by Susan Bennett also contains an introduction by Philip Brady, then Professor German at Birbeck College, London, and a regular broadcaster on German culture for the BBC.

The book’s reception shows what an unpredictable business publishing can be. The Jewish Chronicle (9 August 1996) and the Times Literary Supplement (4 May 1996)  carried positive reviews (the latter by the distinguished social thinker Ralf Dahrendorf), and the novelist Beryl Bainbridge praised the book, calling it ‘unexpectedly comic and romantic’ (The Oldie, 1 July 1996). However, not a single daily or Sunday paper reviewed the book. Graham Greene was no longer at The Spectator, nor Raymond Mortimer at the New Statesman. As the Germans say, the book was virtually totgeschwiegen ­– silenced to death. Was it, by some dialectical convolution, a victim of the temporary crisis over contaminated European beef in Britain, or was the message that Fallada should never have been resurrected and should remain blighted by being unfairly associated with the Nazi regime – one more of its innocent victims?

For nearly fifteen years, this indeed seemed to be the case. For many years, Libris tried to find a paperback partner for The Drinker and for Little Man – What Now?  Both novels were offered to and were rejected by no less than eleven publishers in the UK and one in the US.  Not until 2009 did the enterprising firm of Melville House in New York not only publish paperback editions of both of these titles, but commissioned a translation of Jeder stirbt für sich allein.  This book appeared in March 2009 as Every Man Dies Alone in the USA and as Alone in Berlin (Penguin) in the UK. It was followed by the first full translation of Wolf unter Wölfen (Wolf Amongst Wolves, Melville House, 2010), by Sachlicher Bericht über das Glück Morphinist zu sein (A Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism, Penguin, 2011), and by Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben (A Small Circus, Penguin, 2012), and the first full translations of Wer einmal aus dem Blechnapf frißt (Once a Jailbird, Penguin, 2012), and Der Eiserne Gustav (Iron Gustav, Penguin, 2013). The last three of these all have introductions by Fallada’s biographer, Jenny Williams.

So this ‘undesirable author’ (as the Nazis officially designated him), who was for some time treated as virtually undesirable in the English-speaking world as well, has now been rediscovered.  It is perhaps no accident that the book mainly responsible for that rediscovery was Jeder stirbt für ich allein, the Fallada novel most rooted in Nazi Germany – that version of Germany with which the British have been hitherto taught to be most comfortable. Little wonder, then, that – as Alone in Berlin – it received universally glowing reviews in the British press and sold over a quarter of a million copies within two years of being published, more than during its whole publishing life in Germany.

It is too early to say how the subsequently published Fallada novels have done, but safe to predict that none will approach Alone in Berlin in popularity.    

However, no author depicts the ordinariness of life in Germany at that extraordinary time as well as Fallada, so that now English-language readers have the opportunity to learn that life in Germany then was not so completely different from life in Britain, thus making possible a fuller and more sympathetic understanding of the horror of what it was to live in Hitler’s Germany.

In this specific respect, and in his genius for depicting the common man and common woman, Fallada’s novels are a revelation of the Germany and its people of which the English-speaking world has been ignorant, for understandable but hardly excusable reasons, for much too long. It is relevant to record here that the English translation of Jeder stirbt für sich allein, by Michael Hofmann, is the eighteenth foreign language in which the book has appeared, the first appearing in Russia and in Sweden in 1948.

‘Spät kommt ihr – doch ihr kommt!’  And there is no doubt that the English translation of this book has had an enormous effect, both on the German edition’s sales in Germany itself and on the possibility of a major film. 

Engish translations of Fallada mentioned in this article

Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben, 1931
A Small Circus
2012: trans Michael Hofmann , Penguin Classics

Kleiner Mann – was nun?, 1932
Little Man – What now?
1933: trans Eric Sutton, Putnam
1996: trans Susan Bennett, first Libris then by Melville House

Wer einmal aus dem Blechnapf frißt, 1934
Who Once Eats out of the Tin Bowl
1934: trans Eric Sutton, Putnam
Once a Jailbird
2012: new complete edition, trans Eric Sutton and Nicholas Jacobs, Penguin Classics

Wir hatten mal ein Kind, 1934
Once We Had a Child
1936: trans Eric Sutton, Putnam

Märchen vom Stadtschreiber, der aufs Land flog, 1935
Sparrow Farm: The Tale of the City Clerk Who Flew into the Country for a Holiday
1937: trans Eric Sutton, Putnam

Wolf unter Wölfen, 1937
Wolf among Wolves
1938: trans Philip Owens, Putnam
2010: new complete edition, trans translated Philip Owens, Nicholas Jacobs and Thorsten Carstesen

Der eiserne Gustav, 1938
Iron Gustav
1940: trans Philip Owens, Putnam
1969: trans Philip Owens, Howard Baker
2014: [forthcoming] new complete edition, trans Philip Owens, Nicholas Jacobs and Gardis Cramer von Laue, Penguin

Der Trinker, 1950
The Drinker
1952: trans Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd, Putnam
1989: trans Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd, Libris

Fridolin der freche Dachs, 1954
That Rascal Fridolin
1959: trans Ruth Michaelis-Jena and Arthur Ratcliff, Heinemann

Sachlicher Bericht über das Glück Morphinist zu sein, 2005
(Originally published as Drei Jahre kein Mensch : Erlebtes, Erfahrenes, Erfundenes, 1997)
Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism
2011: trans Michael Hofmann, Penguin Classics

©inTRAlinea & Nicholas Jacobs (2013).
"Hans Fallada – What Now? Fallada’s English-language Renaissance"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Ritradurre "Kleiner Mann – was nun?" di Hans Fallada
Edited by: Natascia Barrale & Chris Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/1954

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