The Man Who Drew Attention To Himself
This is a tragic and largely forgotten story.
Your favourite authors are often unknown to others, and the works of the unlucky Mr Rudolf Ditzen were unfamiliar to me; not anymore, for they haunt my sleep. His real life, which involved murder, theft, madness, suicide, alcoholism, drugs and Nazis, is as disturbing as anything he wrote.
Ditzen’s pen-name, Hans Fallada, was supposedly drawn from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but his novels had little in common with the moralistic fantasies of mittel-Europe. If they can be considered as fables, they’re remarkably detailed ones.
Born in 1893, raised in Berlin and immersed in Dickens, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, he was the son of a German magistrate. At 16 he suffered a terrible road accident, where he was kicked in the face by a horse, then a year later he contracted typhoid. His adolescence actually worsened; forming a suicide pact with his best friend, the pair staged a duel to cover their intentions and Fallada accidentally shot his friend dead. In order to keep him from prison he was declared insane. In the sanatorium he became addicted to morphine painkillers, but started writing.
What saved him from being just another casualty in the coming German tragedy was his writing ability. ‘Peasants, Bosses and Bombs’ established him as a fresh literary talent. Never in good health, Ditzen found himself on the receiving end of a string of escalating calamities including addiction, imprisonment for embezzlement and repeated nervous collapse in the face of escalating fascism. Tortured by the wartime death of his brother, he committed a string of alcohol and drug-related thefts, but finally emerged from hospital cured.
Hans married and his books started to sell, despite being critical of German politics. In 1932 the smashing success of ‘Little Man, What Now?’ caught him by surprise and became a poisoned chalice. The story of a young couple trying to stay afloat during the rise of National Socialism proved a hit Hollywood film in a Jewish production which brought him the unwanted attention of the Nazis.
Fallada now fell under the scrutiny of the rising party, who trumped up a charge of ‘anti-Nazi activities’ and jailed him for a week. The book was removed from public libraries. Persecution led to falling sales and another nervous breakdown. Having been banned in Germany (Hans was a nationalist who loved his homeland too much to leave) his sales dropped and further mental instability followed.
After being declared an undesirable author, he switched from social realism to writing harmless children’s stories. He soon grew tired of this, and in 1937 wrote an adult novel, the immense ‘Wolf Among Wolves’. This had the great misfortune to be admired by Joseph Goebbels, who misread it as an indictment of the Weimar Republic. Goebbels now enthusiastically suggested that Hans should write the great anti-semitic novel, leading the author into a trap from which he could not escape. Intimidated into producing a carefully ambiguous work, he decided to deliver it and make a run for it. He packed his bags and was all set to emigrate, but changed his mind at the front door.
Staying behind in Berlin meant undergoing Nazi predations (including a lack of paper). When he finally found himself back in an insane asylum, suffering from further drink and drug problems, he wrote an extraordinarily bleak novel, ‘The Drinker’, a roman a clef about his alcoholism, which was harshly critical of life under the Nazis. It escaped attention partly because his handwriting was deliberately indecipherable, and because by 1944 the Nazis had bigger problems on their hands.
‘Every Man Dies Alone’ and ‘Lost In Berlin’ (were there ever more downbeat titles?) were his great late books. The latter is tension-drenched and gruellingly depicts fascism as experienced by the residents of a single house. It’s based on an extraordinary true story, and some editions contain photographs of the protagonists (there’s a film version with Emma Thompson but it’s disappointing). The question must have haunted Hans; was it better to stay and compromise, or flee (like Thomas Mann and others) and be true to oneself?