To start off, I have to admit that I had already read Every Man Dies Alone in bound galleys before I was asked to review it. I read it, and then I wrote a blurb for it. Passionately. I wrote this blurb, and I took a long time to make sure it was the strongest I could manage to write. Then, when I was asked to review it, I didn't decline. I snapped at the opportunity.
Now, this is not the way these things are supposed to go; the reviewer is assumed to approach a new work in a condition known as "fair and impartial." Well, "fair," I don't know, but "impartial," definitely not.
What kind of human, given the circumstances under which Every Man Dies Alone was written, could be impartial about it? Novelist Hans Fallada was simply born in the wrong year, 1893, and in the wrong country, Germany. Thus, his life, professional and personal, had to be lived amid the chaos and brutality of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. In 1920, at the age of 27, he published his first novel, and went on from there to become a world-class popular author - Book-of-the-Month Club in the United States and a major motion picture in Hollywood of his best-known novel, Little Man, What Now?
By 1931, after Fallada had lived through the First World War and German economic depression in the 1920s, his novels began to reflect social consciousness - just in time for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933. In April of that year, Fallada was jailed, for the first time, by the Gestapo, for "anti-Nazi activities," and by 1934 - he was then 41 - his books were removed from public libraries. By 1935, he was declared "an undesirable author."
In 1938, his British publisher, George Putnam, sent a boat to take Fallada and his family out of Germany. At the last minute, Fallada realized that he could not leave, he had to stay in Germany. By 1943, Fallada's life had fallen apart. His marriage failing, he had become an alcoholic and was addicted to morphine. By 1944, at the age of 51, he had been locked up in a Nazi insane asylum. Things weren't bad enough, though, because at this point the master of his life was Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who ordered him to write an anti-Semitic novel. Fallada pretended to do so, in fact using the paper he was given to write his own work in code.
After the war ended, a caring friend tried to help him, to inspire him, and gave him the Gestapo file of a working-class couple who performed many acts of resistance in Berlin. In 24 days, Fallada produced Every Man Dies Alone, based on this file. In 1947, two weeks before the novel's publication, he died.
Every Man Dies Alone is a good book, a readable, suspense-driven novel from an author who a) knew what he was doing when it came to writing commercial fiction, and b) had lived through, and so knew intimately, the period he was writing about. This is an extraordinary combination. I hesitate to use a word like "serendipity," but cruelly enough, that's exactly what it was.
Thus, the characters - and what characters they are, the good, the bad and the ugly of the Berlin working class during the war - are drawn from life. They are alive.
The plot follows the daily lives of a few of them who resisted evil at a time when it was pretty much guaranteed to be fatal to do so. As a reader, you desperately want them to evade capture, to get away with it, but you fear from the very first page that they won't. Still, the suspense never eases; Fallada, like any good commercial novelist, knew how to work on the reader.
It's hard to find a comparison here. Every Man Dies Alone seems to me a one-of-a-kind novel. It will inevitably be compared to Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, but to me her book is the story of a victim. Jean Malaquais's World Without Visa is a resistance novel written by someone who was there to see it - in the unoccupied zone of France until 1943 - but I find it more of a political statement than a novel. Some of the best books about the period were written by authors who successfully escaped - Erich Maria Remarque is one - but as good as these are, they are a long way from the tension, the claustrophobia, of every page in Fallada's book.
At the end of the day, Every Man Dies Alone is a testament, nothing less. It is Fallada's attempt to retrieve the few shreds of honour and courage that the Nazis, no matter how viciously they tried, could not manage to destroy. Thus, in his way, Fallada can be seen as a hero, a writer-hero who survived just long enough to strike back at his oppressors. And it is in his honour, as a fellow novelist, that I wrote this review.
Alan Furst is the author of the Night Soldiers series of historical spy novels, set before and during the Second World War. The most recent is The Spies of Warsaw.
LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? By Hans Fallada, translated by Susan Bennett, Melville House, 325 pages, $19.95
Fallada's breakthrough novel, published in 1932 as Kleiner Mann - was nun?, tells of the tribulations of a young, loving German couple, the Pinnebergs, in the disastrous Weimar Republic years. The novel was turned into a film in Hollywood, starring Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery. But the fact that the movie was produced by Jews brought Fallada to the attention of the Nazi Party, which was just coming to power.
THE DRINKER By Hans Fallada, translated by Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd, Melville House, 282 pages, $19.95
This is the novel that Fallada wrote in the madhouse, when he claimed to be producing an anti-Semitic work for Joseph Goebbels. Der Trinker is Fallada's poignant, often funny, semi-autobiographical account of a small businessman resisting the encroachments of an increasingly oppressive society. As such, of course, it is a deeply critical study of life under the Nazis, and could have resulted in his death if it had been discovered.