February 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann

If Primo Levi told me to crawl underneath the Brooklyn bridge, naked, and read the graffiti there -- if he were here to suggest that -- I’d be swinging over the side of that bridge right now, even though it’s 30 degrees and the middle of rush hour. His The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, is one of the most beautiful compilations I’ve ever read, with its merciless love and despair for humanity, with its Darwin and Babel and Eliot and Rabelais and Thomas Mann and Book of Job. If I had to answer an awful “Would you rather be deaf or blind?” kind of question and pick the best writer of the twentieth century, it wouldn’t hurt too badly to pick Levi. So when I heard that Primo Levi had declared Hans Fallada’s long-obscure Every Man Dies Alone to be “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis,” I tucked into its 500 pages with a feeling of razor-sharp glee mixed with dread, worried and hopeful that it would make me unable to live in the same way anymore.

Also, Fallada (1893-1947) was a fascinating, tragic character, the kind whose long-lost books you fantasize about finding in some discarded attaché case years after his death. He wrote bestsellers before the Second World War, books that sold in the U.S. and U.K. just as well as Hesse’s or Mann’s, books that were chosen for the Book of the Month Club or made into major motion pictures. He refused to join the Nazi party and was arrested by the Gestapo. He refused to leave Germany, like Hesse and Mann and the others, and his drug addictions got worse. He shot himself in the chest after a scuffle with a friend, and ended up in a series of insane asylums. He pretended to write an assignment for Goebbels while actually writing three books about his experiences in a dense code that was not deciphered until after he had died. After the war, he was inspired by a Gestapo file about a working-class couple who resisted the Nazis, and were executed. Every Man Dies Alone is the fictionalized story of that real-life couple. He wrote it over 24 days, and died just weeks before it was published. This English edition of the book contains data and documents from the real file.

The book seems to capture the feeling of its time, or, at least, it seems like it couldn’t have been written decades later. It seems dense with the present moment, meaty, not meaty in the sense of a deep, juicy read, but meaty like having a tray of wurst brought to the dark table. Or, not wursts, but livers, and some other thick, brown slabs on a parsleyless plate. The writing is clear and simple, a conventional third-person narrative with the narrator, let alone the author, missing from the story. There’s none of the awareness of what it is to write that turns prose like Levi’s into new blood for the universe. Every time I forced myself to dip in to the tome, I found quotable and interesting insights on ordinary working-class Germans, on Nazism, on the banality of evil. Yet, while these sorts of insights compel me to obsessively reread Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek or Elie Weisel or Gunter Grass, while they make me cling to Primo Levi or Cordelia Edvardson or Carl Friedman, I couldn’t get into Every Man Dies Alone.

It just, to me, doesn’t read like the prose of a great poet (Levi, Friedman) or the prose of a great storyteller (Weisel, Chaim Potok). It reads the like work of a writer of bestsellers, a writer fated to cross paths with Steven Spielberg or Meryl Streep. It’s closer, much closer, to Thomas Keneally or William Styron than Primo Levi (or Hesse or Mann, for that matter), but most of all it reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a book that everybody loved, that I struggled to finish, and failed to like. I liked the title, the title’s reference, and the idea of the theme, but it stopped there. Every Man Dies Alone is like the lovechild of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, with the genetic misfortune to favor the former more.

So, the thrill of dread I felt at opening this book, with the Levi endorsement in bold print on the front cover, was justified, although I dreaded it for the wrong reasons. My desperation to like it -- because Levi liked it, and because Fallada was a victim of brutal things, and because of the courage it took to write it, and because of the courage in the story, and because of the sad ending, and because of its important role in history, and because of the fact that I know it is the kind of book, like Keneally’s or Styron’s or Wolfe’s or, for that matter, Malcolm Gladwell’s, that everyone else in the world seems to like except for me -- did not help me like it.

There’s something blocked about it, intellectually, spiritually, something that lovers of bestsellers seem to like. Fallada has been hailed as the next Irène Némirovsky, which is fair enough. Both authors were successful in their time. Their books sold. They wrote the kind of books that sold, that still sell. It makes me think of the Jewish-Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, who died at age thirty-five during a forced march. He carried around a little notebook, for which he was badly beaten by the militia, and then when he was too weak to keep walking he was shot and buried in a mass grave. Years later, his body was dug up, and the little notebook was found in his pocket, and we were all rescued from life without his best poems, and it makes me wonder about all the lost manuscripts that have been burned or drowned or torn apart, that can never be unearthed. So it’s nice for those millions of readers who apparently feel about Tom Wolfe the way I feel about Miklós Radnóti that Tom Wolfe was mass-published in the late-eighties, safe from exile or gassing. And I can tell that many readers will love Every Man Dies Alone. Maybe someday I’ll love it, like Primo Levi did. Himmler planned on the Holocaust being an “unwritten page of glory.” Every unearthed manuscript or reprinted book like Every Man Dies Alone defeats that plan.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
Melville House
ISBN: 1933633638
450 Pages