Iron Hans | The Nation


Iron Hans

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size


About the Author

Benjamin Lytal
Benjamin Lytal lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at the Pratt Institute. He has written for the Los Angeles...

Also by the Author

An appraisal of Rainer Maria Rilke's novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

The radical subjectivity and reckless politics of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun find new expression in recent English translations and editions.

Hans Fallada is the romantic nom de plume invented by a man who lived through some of the most difficult episodes in his country's history and came out indifferently, neither a hero nor a villain. "Hans" recalls the Grimms' Lucky Hans, a fairy-tale fool who smiles even as he is cheated; and "Falada" is the talking horse in another Grimm tale who, though slaughtered by his mistress's treacherous chambermaid, continues to speak truth to power as a taxidermied trophy. Fallada the man avoided the fate of Falada the horse. "I do not like grand gestures," he said, "being slaughtered before the tyrant's throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of my children, that is not my way." He made this excuse, rather grand itself, in 1938, after accepting edits of his latest novel, Iron Gustav. The book was part of a Nazi film project, and Joseph Goebbels wielded the blue pencil. Iron Gustav tells the story of a coachman whose authoritarian parenting ruins most of his children but who becomes a national hero after he refuses to relinquish his horse and carriage for an automotive taxi. Taking up his editor's suggestions, Fallada extended his narrative's endpoint from 1928 to 1933, twisted Gustav's one decent son into becoming a Nazi storm trooper and made the other, criminal son a member of the Communist Party.

Fallada was not sanguine about these revisions; he complained to his mother that "I am not satisfied with what I'm doing.... I cannot act as I want to--if I want to stay alive." Yet he never disowned Iron Gustav or any of his other works that were compromised, to varying degrees, by the editorial expectations of the Third Reich. In an autobiographical address given after the war, "Wie ich Schriftsteller wurde" ("How I Became a Writer"), he tried to explain:

Perhaps it is best to say, that I am now so far along, that I have learned my craft so well--my occupation being like any other occupation very much a craft--that I would say that I have by now mastered my craft to the extent that I can make the most foreign, chance material quite my own.

It was the weaving of the story, out of whatever threads were at hand--political or otherwise--that consumed Fallada. In "How I Became a Writer," he describes the writing process as a sudden, propulsive outpouring, an intoxication, a poisonous addiction, a race to get it all down, a day-and-night binge. It was never a moment for exploratory imaginings or close moral deliberation. He resented the constraints of the Nazi era but saw no reason to abandon his craft.

In 1938, after a last walk on the property of his small farm north of Berlin, he decided not to meet the boat his publisher had sent to ferry him to London: he couldn't bear to leave Germany. He was a man who, after his rootless youth, valued home life immensely. One of the only important writers to remain in Germany for the duration of World War II, Fallada appears to fill an important gap in literary history. But as he might have admitted, he didn't have anything profound to say about the period. He never came close to defending the Nazi Party, as did a more profound writer, Gottfried Benn. He didn't go willingly into exile only to turn around and preach the dangers of National Socialism to his fellow Germans, as did Thomas Mann. And he didn't experience anything that would make for important documentary realism, as did so many witnesses of the Holocaust. His achievement lies elsewhere.

Melville House has reissued two of Fallada's novels, Little Man, What Now? (1932) and The Drinker (1950), translated by Susan Bennett and Charlotte and A.L. Lloyd, respectively, and published the first English translation of a third, Every Man Dies Alone (1947), making the last the centerpiece of an effort to reintroduce Fallada to American audiences. Translated by Michael Hofmann and marketed as the great novel of the German Resistance, Every Man Dies Alone showcases Fallada's talent for fluid storytelling. But of the three titles Melville House has brought to light, the real gem is not Every Man Dies Alone but Little Man.

Published eight months before Hitler came to power, Little Man made its author world famous. Movie versions of the story were produced in Germany, in 1933, and in the United States, in 1934. Set against the economic troubles that brought the Weimar Republic to an end, the novel follows two newlyweds attempting to feather their nest even as unemployment looms. Despite Fallada's ambition as a social commentator, he would always make the family unit the building block of his stories. This was his signature pattern, and Little Man was its crystallization.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.