Little Man, What Now?
by Hans Fallada
Published March, 2013
Living writers are such a dime a dozen, it’s great to find a new one who’s dead. It is not as if I was unfamiliar with early-twentieth century literature in German: Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann are all writers on my shelves I go back to often. But somehow Hans Fallada had escaped me. So when the newly published English language edition of his best-known work Kleiner Mann – was nun? (Little Man, What Now?) recently landed in my hands and I read the first page and was hooked, I thought what a sad and uninteresting life those bungee jumpers must lead.
Fallada was enormously popular in his day. On the back of the success of the original German editions, British publisher Putman & Co translated a run of Fallada books almost annually from Little Man, What Now? in 1933 to Iron Gustav in 1940. The only Fallada-less year for his now avid English readership in this sequence was, significantly, 1939. Putman also brought out the posthumous novel The Drinker in 1952, but by this time Fallada-mania, in the English-speaking world at least, seemed to have settled.
In 1996, Libris published a new translation by Susan Bennett of Little Man, What Now? but it was not until the reissue in 2009 of Every Man Dies Alone, translated by Michael Hofmann, that Fallada’s resurrection was realised. Released in the UK as Alone in Berlin, it once again had Fallada’s work on the bestseller lists, this time on both sides of the Atlantic. Not bad for a writer 66 years dead. On the back of this success, a new wave of Fallada-in-English publishing began, which now includes Scribe’s reissue of the Bennett translation of Little Man, What Now? alongside The Drinker (1950) and Wolf Among Wolves (1938).
So who was Hans Fallada, a writer who for many English readers had until recently been little more than a name that appeared occasionally in the index of works by or about better known German writers? Fallada’s was a life of such tragedy and struggle, at a time of such upheaval, that it is a wonder it lasted as long as it did, until the age of 53, when he died in the now-ravaged Berlin that had both inspired and cruelled him.
Fallada was born Rudolf Ditzen in 1893 into a well-to-do family. His father was a judge; of an evening he and his wife would play piano together and read aloud to the children. Fallada took his pen name at the age of twenty-six and the early works written under it were largely autobiographical and much influenced by the newly-fashionable Expressionism. He later asked that they be pulped. It wasn’t until the publication in 1932 of Little Man, What Now? that he really broke into the public consciousness. It is in many ways a disarming book: the matter-of-factness of the prose, the light-heartedness of both the characters, and often the story itself, belie a life already lived that would have undone most of us.
Fallada’s troubles started – or seem to have started – with a bicycle accident at the age of fifteen. In his memoir, he relates how this incident had the effect of ‘turning my world completely upside down’ and here (as opposed to elsewhere) he seems not to be exaggerating. He collided with a butcher’s cart, ignominious enough, but then had the wheel roll over him and his face kicked by the horse. He was put on the critical list; the dizzy spells and headaches continued for some time.
At the age of seventeen, he contracted typhoid and became, according to his mother, ‘strangely changed’. He started smoking and drinking heavily, and they became lifelong addictions. A few months after this, and no doubt related, he made the first of a number of suicide attempts. He initially tried to poison himself, then cut his throat. A few months later again, he was placed in a psychiatric clinic near Weimar after he told a friend he was going to cycle out of town and hang himself (the bicycle black humour seemed to have escaped him – I hope the later memoirist smiled). Released from the clinic and enrolled in a new school near Leipzig, he declared himself at eighteen to be already ‘weary of life’. His doctor diagnosed nicotine poisoning. In October 1911, Fallada and a friend decided to shoot themselves – no, shoot each other. His friend missed; Fallada hit. He was charged with murder and put (again) into a psychiatric clinic on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He spent his nineteenth birthday in Tannenfeld Sanatorium near Jena and was released just as the rumblings began of what would soon become World War I.
In Tannenfeld, he had been writing, poems mostly, but when he got out he was thrown not into the creative and political maelstrom of contemporary Berlin or Vienna but onto a nearby dairy farm. He stayed two years. While his fellow writers were sitting in the coffee houses, Fallada was up at three in the morning milking cows. After that, it was growing potatoes. He was offered work with the Berlin-based Seed Company and at the age of twenty-three was transferred to their head office. ‘At the peak of my powers,’ he said, ‘I was able to distinguish 1200 varieties of potato and not only by name but also by their appearance.’
While in Berlin, Fallada sent his first poems to the legendary publisher, Kurt Wolff. Wolff rejected them. In 1919, a month before the Treaty of Versailles that brought the war to end all wars to an end, Fallada’s first novel, Young Goedeschal, was published by the equally-legendary Ernst Rowohlt. It came out to mixed reviews, but Rowohlt backed his author. In the rocky thirteen years before the sensation that was Little Man, What Now? he advanced Fallada money on a number of books not yet written (and went to ground when Fallada asked for more). In the meantime, his author had been in and out of psychiatric clinics three more times and was, after treatment for stomach ulcers in 1918, now badly addicted to morphine. He had also spent two separate periods in prison for embezzling money to fund his addiction, with the court in the second case declaring him ‘a thoroughly degenerate psychopath’. So when, in January 1930, now clean and settled back in Berlin, he was given a job in Rowohlt’s office writing reviews, it was a break he couldn’t squander. He started a new book. He wrote it in sixteen weeks. There are other books that have famously been written faster (William Faulkner did As I Lay Dying in six), but none whose style I would suggest was more influenced, in a good way, by its hurried composition than that of Little Man, What Now?
Fallada was the first to admit that many of his life dramas had, up till then, been self-inflicted. (‘Despite all my books, despite all my opinions, I am born bourgeois,’ he said.) This was the calm after a mighty and unrelenting psychological storm. He had a job, a place to live, a wife and a newborn child. Everything in those sixteen weeks seemed to flow towards an honesty, a directness, a simplicity. Yes, he was writing for money – he had submitted an outline to Rowohlt in September 1931 and he wanted to be paid – but there is also the sense in the writing that Fallada himself was realising what a fool he had been: it was time to stop and think about what mattered.
So what did matter?
Fallada had met Anna Issel (‘Suse’) in 1928, just after his second prison term, and they married the following year. She was a working-class girl, unsophisticated, practical; he was a recovering alcoholic and morphine addict eight years her senior. He would later say of Little Man, What Now? that he set out ‘to write a novel about unemployment, but gradually and imperceptibly this book became a tribute to a woman’.
The ‘little man’ idea was very much the thing in German literature at the time – Kafka had privately lifted it to a higher plane just a few years before with his Ks – and here Johannes Pinneberg is your little man done to a ‘t’: humble, hard-working, good-natured, ‘small’. But from the first pages, we get a sense of how misleading, in fact, Fallada’s title is going to be. It is about a little man, sure, but it is equally about a little woman (and, importantly, their ‘little Shrimp’) and the extraordinary times this family of three finds itself in. You can understand why a writer in search of a subject in Berlin in the early 1930s might alight upon ‘unemployment’ – and, yes, the book is about unemployment, and underemployment, and job insecurity, and hyperinflation, and much else – but, front and centre, it is a book about the Pinnebergs doing the best they can.
Perhaps the best indication of how clear, clean and honest this novel is going to be is the opening scene, in which the gynaecologist lets Pinneberg know his soon-to-be-wife Emma Morschel (known throughout as Lammchen, or ‘lambkin’) is with child. We also get the first sense here of how Fallada is going to counterweight the light tone of his book against the dark times in which it is written. Pinneberg speaks first:
‘But it could be a mistake … Perhaps your period will start tomorrow. If it does, I’m going to write that man such a letter!’ He relapsed into thought. He was composing the letter.
After Krumperweg came Hebbelstrasse with its beautiful elm trees. The two of them walked deep in thought through the summer afternoon.
‘I shall ask for my fifteen marks back as well,’ said Pinneberg suddenly.
Lammchen did not reply. She was concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other and taking great care where she walked. Everything was so different now.
‘He relapsed into thought. He was composing the letter.’ ‘She was concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other and taking great care where she walked.’ The beauty is in the detail – and how beautiful is it? It is as if, with all the big noise going on in the background, Fallada felt the need to come up with something small, quiet, breezy, light. Its lightness almost amounts to an act of defiance.
When Fallada handed the final draft of Little Man, What Now? to Rowohlt in early 1932 there were eight and half million people unemployed in Germany. By 1933, a staggering 40 percent of the population was registered as out of work. What cannot be forgotten about Little Man, What Now? is that, aside from its coming out of the mad black fog of Fallada’s personal circumstances, the book was written and published just as one of history’s greatest political upheavals was rumbling over the horizon.
During those interwar years, while Fallada’s life became an unhinged mix of psychiatric clinics, prisons, morphine and manual labour, the country itself was fitting and spasming, only to rise from its fevered sick bed in the early 1930s with a wild look in its eye. In 1923, just as Fallada was about to start his first prison term for embezzlement, Hitler announced himself clumsily with his Munich Beer Hall Putsch; by 1924, when Fallada was in prison and Hitler himself was behind bars writing Mein Kampf, inflation had run so wildly out of control that the government created a new currency, the ‘Rentenmark’, by knocking twelve zeros off the old. In 1929, as Suse had fallen pregnant and the couple was preparing to make Berlin their home, the Wall Street Crash sent millions to the dole queue. By 1932, when Little Man, What Now? hit the shops, Hitler had pulled nearly 37 percent of the popular vote in the presidential elections. One year later, with the Reichstag fire, the Nazi dictatorship began.
In bad times like these, how do little people get by? It was in Fallada’s close-up look at how a small-time white-collar husband and wife deal with difficult days that he struck a chord with his public. Here, for example, is the newly-married couple’s first conversation about what each member might bring to the union, economically-speaking:
‘Tell me,’ he said.
‘No, you tell me first,’ she said.
‘I …’ he began, then broke off.
‘Oh, please tell me!’ she begged.
‘It’s really very little. Perhaps even less than you.’
‘It can’t be.’
‘Oh, yes it can.’
Some time later, the pregnant Lammchen has an uncontrollable craving for salmon. Pinneberg has by now lost his job but, despite the massive expense at a time of serious belt-tightening, he agrees they should have it together for supper that very evening. Lammchen hurries off to buy the salmon. But when she comes back, something is wrong. Pinneberg finds her in the hallway ‘holding out a wax-paper wrapper shining with grease-marks but with nothing in it’:
‘Oh gosh, Lammchen, what’s the matter? Did the salmon fall out of the paper?’
‘I ate it,’ she sobbed. ‘I ate it all, by myself.’
‘Like that, out of the paper? Without any bread? The whole quarter? But Lammchen!’
‘I ate it,’ she sobbed. ‘All by myself.’
Time and again these small foreground details give us hints of the bigger picture outside, and even more so when, not long after this, the couple and their ‘Shrimp’ move to Berlin to look for work. Fallada seems to be pushing the domestic deliberately into the centre of frame. By doing so he ensures that we experience the big messy stuff at the edges, not as an abstraction, but as a felt thing, the way the characters themselves are feeling it.
A comparison here with Fallada’s contemporary Bertolt Brecht is instructive. (So far as we know, they never met, although Brecht’s collaborator, Kurt Weill, was originally contracted to write the score for a 1933 film adaptation of Little Man, What Now?) The general view, as another contemporary Walter Benjamin put it, was that Brecht’s work was all about ‘producing astonishment rather than empathy’. But it could equally be argued that in his stories from the 1920s and ’30s Brecht was in fact all about empathy, despite (or indeed because of) what Willett and Manheim in the introduction to their English language collection called a ‘conscious naivety’ and ‘lack of affectation’. It is a style that has uncanny echoes with Fallada.
After reading Little Man, What Now? I kept thinking about where else I had experienced this distinguishable ‘tone’. Then I remembered an old Brecht favourite, his 1938 story Socrates Wounded, which is as much about his wife Xanthippe as the great Socrates himself, and where the big war with the Persians takes a back seat to the knowing husband-and-wife banter. (Socrates has been shouldered back from the battle as a hero but the truth is he had turned tail in the dark and ran into a thorn bush; Xanthippe, with her wifely instincts, is on to him.) Like Fallada, Brecht is often celebrating what we might call the heroism of the unheroic. His Mother Courage is the exemplar of the basically good-hearted character in troubled times doing her best to ‘get by’ and – contra Benjamin on ‘astonishment and empathy’ – I challenge anyone to watch, for example, the death of Mutter’s mute daughter, Kattrin, without tearing up. It is exactly the ‘lack of affectation’ that affects us.
No one here in Australia from a socio-economic stratum below middle class could read Little Man, What Now? and not recognise in it a thousand tiny moments. For anyone who has just seen their latest electricity bill, been to a medical specialist and paid ‘the gap’, watched their super go down the sink or listened to an interminable Bach sonata on Centrelink’s ‘help’ line will appreciate the scene where Pinneberg ‘in the mammoth hall, as small and shabby a figure as you could wish for’ tries to get a hundred marks back on his health insurance. (‘We deal in millions here,’ says the god-like voice in his head ‘and your hundred marks are of no importance to us whatever.’) Or when, in one of Fallada’s less-guarded moments, he lets Pinneberg say: ‘Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offence, poverty is a stain.’
The effect of ‘big economics’ on ‘little people’ doesn’t go away. The book might be eighty years old and counting but – plus ça change – it smells as fresh to me as this morning’s news. A major stock market crash just a few years earlier, a labour market drifting further into insecurity, deep inequities in the distribution of wealth (‘“A bit more justice would do no harm at all,” thought Lammchen’), politicians loudly praising the ‘little people’ while at the same time bashing their advocates, the trade unions; and finally, and inevitably, the rise of right-wing extremist thought. In the absence of much political literature getting published in this country, Little Man, What Now? could almost serve as a model for the way we might speak, with no intellectual pomposity, about things mostly unspoken: the growing gap between rich and poor, the increasing casualisation and insecurity of the workforce, the growth of a new outer suburban underclass.
Here is the heartbreaking moment in the book where the Pinnebergs’ old landlady, Mrs Scharrenhofer, finds her savings ravaged by inflation. She just doesn’t understand (and let’s face it, who could?), explaining to the Pinnebergs how before the war she had ‘a comfortable fifty thousand marks’:
‘And now that money’s all gone. How can it be all gone?’ she asked anxiously. ‘An old lady can’t spend that much, can she?’
‘Inflation,’ said Pinneberg, cautiously.
‘It can’t have all gone,’ said the old lady, unheeding.
‘I sit here reckoning it up. I’ve written it all down. I sit here, reckoning. Here it says: a pound of butter: three thousand marks … can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?’
‘In the inflation …’ began Lammchen, joining in.
‘I’m going to tell you. I now know that my money’s been stolen. Somebody who rented here stole it.’
The old lady thinks her money has been stolen, and in a funny way, she’s right. It has been stolen, not by some unscrupulous tenant, as she suspects, but by something far bigger and harder to understand. It has been stolen by the wildfire of free market economics. Try telling the policeman that.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Pimlico, 1999).
Bertolt Brecht, Collected Short Stories, edited by John Willett & Ralph Manheim (Methuen, 1983).
Martin Kitchen, A History of Modern Germany (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
Jenny Williams, More Lives Than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada (Libris, 1998).