Hans Fallada’s must-read masterpiece

March 15, 2010

I’d never heard of this popular German novelist, who died in 1947, until I came upon advertisements in The London Review of Books for his reissued novels.  What caught my eye were the quoted praises about Hans Fallada by Graham Greene, Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse.  They drove me to the website of  the book’s publisher, Melville House, to learn more about this author. There I discovered Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. Primo Levi described it as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” And yet, before April 2009, it wasn’t available in English.

The plot is based on the true story of a working class German couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power.  When their only son was killed on the WWII front battle lines, they became resisters, launching a dangerous anti-Hitler campaign via postcards they circulated throughout Berlin. Eventually, the couple was found out, tried and beheaded by the Nazis. 

According to Melville House publisher, Dennis Johnson, speaking about the novel on The Charlie Rose Show, someone contacted Hans Fallada (a pen name for Rudolf Ditzen) and gave him the couple’s Gestapo file — because inside the file was the stuff of a great novel.  Fallada wrote his fictionalized version of the couple’s story in 24 days. It was his last novel, finishing a prolific literary career and a tough life of psychological struggle and addiction. Fallada died shortly before the book was published. 

After the war, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Fallada’s  reputation fell into steep decline. American and British publishers let his titles slip out of print, and in Germany, he was relinquished to school reading lists and dusty library shelves.” More than half a century later, Melville’s Johnson learned about Fallada’s books from friend and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. In an interview with biblioklept, Johnson says Furstenberg told him Fallada’s masterpiece had never been translated into English. “That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it.”

Acclaimed WWII espionage novelist Alan Furst blurbs the dust jacket, “One of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever….Please, do not miss this.” Liesl Schillinger from The New York Times calls it “gripping” on The Charlie Rose Show. The paperback edition is scheduled for release end of this month. Melville House also publishes Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker. Coming in May, Wolf Among Wolves.

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