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the complete review - fiction
Every Man Dies Alone
(Alone in Berlin)
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- German title: Jeder stirbt für sich allein
- US title: Every Man Dies Alone
- UK title: Alone in Berlin
- Translated by Michael Hoffman
- With an Afterword by Geoff Wilkes
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B : moving, dark depiction of individual fates in Berlin during World War II
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "This novel is far more than a literary thriller, however. It gives us a full range of well-drawn characters who live their daily lives on Jablonski Strasse in constant fear (...) Fallada’s vivid novel gives us the true, concentric circles of lives in a Berlin apartment block under totalitarianism." - Hugo Hamilton, Financial Times
- "It is remarkable that Fallada, just months before his death, could compose a long novel that, after an overcrowded beginning, advances so confidently to its conclusion." - James Buchan, The Guardian
- "Alone in Berlin is the work of a dying man and yet nothing could be more full of vitality. Not a single character in it represents a type or fulfils an overt purpose. Everyone is quirky, exact, singular (.....) Hans Fallada was correct: he had written a great book, in circumstances and a space of time which make the achievement almost miraculous. But it's the double miracle of translation which gives us Fallada's novel in English as Alone in Berlin. Michael Hoffman is a fine poet, whose acute ear and eloquent understanding of the transition-points between the two languages make the text as powerful as it is down-to-earth." - Helen Dunmore, The Guardian
- "In these closing chapters, the novel achieves real tragic grandeur, while its unsentimental depiction of quiet courage demonstrates that, even in the most hostile circumstances, human decency is never entirely extinguished." - Chris Schuler, Independent on Sunday
- "Though Every Man Dies Alone is much better than some of his Nazi-era books, and reflects the benefits of postwar freedom, it is more concerned with the art of storytelling -- with generating clever subplots and minor characters -- than with an examination of evil." - Benjamin Lytal, The Nation
- "Hans Fallada’s final book (now available for the first time in English, in a fluid translation by Michael Hofmann), deserves a place among the 20th century’s best novels of political witness. (...) Fallada interweaves the tale of this failed resistance movement -- which he paints as almost senseless, eccentric and foredoomed -- with those of the lives affected, directly and indirectly, by the Quangels’ decision (.....) The book’s treatment of the Gestapo is perhaps the ultimate source of its particular greatness." - Sam Munson, The National
- "A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. This event is the belated appearance in English of the novel Every Man Dies Alone (.....) To read Every Man Dies Alone, Fallada’s testament to the darkest years of the 20th century, is to be accompanied by a wise, somber ghost who grips your shoulder and whispers into your ear: "This is how it was. This is what happened." " - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "The book has the suspense of a John le Carré novel, and offers a visceral, chilling portrait of the distrust that permeated everyday German life during the war." - The New Yorker
- "His landscape of fear is part police report, part Georg Grosz, part Hieronymus Bosch. It reads not as horror from afar or from memory, but as testimony from a witness who can't turn away. Fallada's stunningly vivid characters form their own inhuman comedy (.....) The writing can indeed be not only deadpan but also humorous and wildly dramatic, even in this translation, which flattens the original German. Fallada is a writer of observations rather than symbols, of urgency rather than contemplation, of hard-edged honesty rather than lyricism." - David D'Arcy, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Penguin bill the novel as a thriller, but though the narrative is gripping, the true fascination of the book is the picture it offers of working-class Berlin during the war. (...) Fallada presents us with a vivid and terrible picture of the Nazi regime seen from below. (...) This is an extraordinary novel. The wonder is that it has taken so long to be available in English. Hofmann's version is as good as one would expect from the translator who has introduced Joseph Roth to English-language readers." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman
- "Fallada often packs in detailed paragraphs of redundant exposition or alerts us to what will happen in later chapters. There are intrusive pieces of editorialising (...) that blunt the sharpness of the direct narrative. (...). There are some unlikely coincidences and ungainly repetitions. Perhaps these faults can be explained by the author's lifelong morphine addiction or by the almost incredible fact that he wrote the book in less than a month. Yet despite its flaws, Alone in Berlin is, by unrelenting implication, a case study of how Nietzsche's reassessment of all values might take a frighteningly distorted historical form." - Tom Deveson, Sunday Times
- "Michael Hofmann’s strong, uncluttered translation should make it required reading for anyone who is interested in fiction as a political and moral force. (...) Michael Hofmann’s strong, uncluttered translation should make it required reading for anyone who is interested in fiction as a political and moral force." - Charlotte Moore, The Telegraph
- "Fallada's prose, well rendered by Michael Hofmann, has a journalistic clarity and a thriller writer's pace as the Quangels move towards their brutal, inevitable end." - Ian Brunskill, The Times
- "Fallada's writing is a little rough around the edges (.....) But it is the coarseness in Fallada's storytelling that gives his work the gritty, unpolished realism its subject matter demands. (...) Alone in Berlin is a credible thriller, but its stark portrayal of fear and the effects of persecution is disturbing on another level." - Charlotte Bailey, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Every Man Dies Alone is a novel of civilian life in Berlin during World War II.
Fallada folows the fates of quite a number of characters, but the focal points of the novel are Otto and Anna Quangel and their small acts of defiance against the Nazis, based on the real-life case of Otto an Elise
Over a period of years, the Quangels, like the Hampels, left postcards with anti-Nazi messages on them all over Berlin.
(The book includes reproductions of the Gestapo file on the actual case that Fallada based his story on; among the pictures are several of the cards the Hampels deposited.)
The Quangels are presented as fairly unremarkable.
Master carpenter Otto is a foreman at a furniture factory that has been reduced to churning out crates that are presumably to be used to transport bombs (before switching to producing only cheap coffins as the war drags on).
He is a dutiful German, obsessed with work, "a hard, dry man" without a friend at the plant (or, it would seem, elsewhere) -- he had even: "never spoken a kindly word to anyone there".
He is a fair supervisor, however, -- and he also never joined the Nazi party, even though he sees how doing so smoothed the way to promotion for others who were less deserving.
He had some hopes in Hitler, but has been disillusioned; when word comes that his son has been killed in action he decides to rebel -- in his own small way.
Otto is a:
strangely persistent man who always waited for the right moment, who could never be induced to do something except in his own sweet time.
But once his mind is made up he dedicates himself to his task wholeheartedly.
The Quangels are also surprisingly successful in their bit of subversion, at least in depositing the cards and not getting caught.
They take all sorts of precautions and distribute them over a wide area, and it is years before they are caught.
Part of Every Man Dies Alone is, indeed, much like a thriller, as Fallada also follows the police investigation into the case, the confident Inspector Escherich certain that the clues will sooner or later add up and deliver the perpetrators to him.
(Most of the cards (it appears) were delivered to the police when they were found, providing information about when and where the drops were made; there are also clues on the cards themselves, from the handwriting to the mention of a fallen son.)
Eventually, Escherich's superiors are sufficiently frustrated by his lack of success to take him off the case, briefly replacing him with an Inspector Zott in a few odd scenes adding up to a comedy of errors; eventually, however, the Quangels are discovered.
They're not immediately put to death; rather, they are jailed, interrogated, even put through a trial -- or at least the vague notions of one, as Fallada makes it a bit too easy on himself and everyone concerned with the kangaroo-court scenes, as:
If Judge Feisler's proceedings suggested to an unprejudiced viewer those of a bad-tempered bloodhound, the prosecutor played along as a little yapping terrier, only waiting to give the bloodhound's quarry a nasty little nip in the calf while his big brother had him by the throat.
Once or twice in the course of proceedings thus far, the prosecutor had tried to get in a yap, only to be silenced by the bloodhound's barking.
What need was there for this yapping, in any case ?
The judge had assumed the duties of the prosecution from the first minute; from the first minute, Feisler had violated the basic duty of any judge, which is to establish the truth.
He had been utterly partisan.
The Quangels' story is a compelling one, and in some ways it's a shame that Fallada dilutes it by going off on a variety of tangents.
Some play into this central story -- such as the fate of the Quangels' son's fiancée, Trudel, a member of the resistance -- but they do pull the novel in too many directions.
The English titles for the novel emphasise the every-man-is-an-island aspect of the work, and Otto certainly is a man who is very much alone (even if he dearly loves his wife); the German, title, however suggests a bit more -- that: 'everyone dies only for themselves', i.e. you make the bed you lie (and die) in.
Many of Fallada's characters are honourable, remaining true to themselves (hence also the many, many suicides when all is said and done), and he's nowhere prouder than when he can have his condemned character Otto say:
"At least I stayed decent," he said.
"I didn't participate."
His death -- and his life -- will hardly make a difference, but he has the satisfaction of having lived and died on his own terms, without compromising himself.
Not participating is, however, often close to a luxury, and often futile.
And even Otto had his doubts, at first, as when Trudel passionately argued:
"But the main thing is that we remain different from them, that we never allow ourselves to be made into them, or start thinking as they do.
Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis."
But ultimately he does see the point, even if he realises that it will 'accomplish' very little.
That's the brilliance and poignancy of this particular act of postcard-defiance.
""And what will that accomplish, Trudel ?" asks Otto Quangel softly.
"I don't see the point."
Other characters act nobly as well, especially a retired judge who lives in the same building as the Quangels.
He bravely takes it upon himself to try to help a Jewish tenant, for example, but has to accept that:
You can't just want to rescue someone: they have to agree to be rescued."
And in this, and many other ways, Fallada explores the ethical issues raised by living in the Third Reich, in a time of war.
It's an over-packed book -- and a rushed one too: the endpapers claim: "Fallada wrote the book in 24 days", and there is some sense of bloat and hastiness to the writing -- but fairly well-paced (some of the sub-plots also entertainingly depict a variety of low-lifes and thuggish behaviour) and offers a very broad picture of Berlin-life in the war years.
A slimmer, more tightly Quangel-focussed work would likely have been more powerful, but as is Every Man Dies Alone is a fine and moving book of life under the Nazis at that time, and the possibilities of resistance.
Note: Every Man Dies Alone is translated by noted, prize-winning, and much-praised translator Michael Hoffman.
We've often had issues with his translations -- most obviously with Durs Grünbein's Ashes for Breakfast -- and here, again, find ourselves flummoxed.
Yet again, the translation feels 'off' to us.
Not that it's bad -- and we recognise the obvious difficulties in rendering Fallada's period-style, and there will always be debatable word-choice issue (we couldn't find a German version to consult, but can be certain that Fallada didn't use the word: "Fuck", and have to wonder whether, for example, he really meant "corn brandy", etc. etc.).
As best we can explain it, Hofmann's sense of and ear for German is just different from ours -- like someone who reads music half a note off key: he reproduces it exactly, in a sense, but sounds completely flat (or sharp) to us.
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Every Man Dies Alone:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of German literature
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About the Author:
German author Hans Fallada lived 1893 to 1947.
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© 2009-2011 the complete review
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