Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Little Man, What Now? is a mini-masterpiece that chronicles the last days of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Mixing satire with social realism, Hans Fallada has created a deeply affecting portrait of an ordinary man trying to survive in a society on the brink of collapse.

Hans Fallada (1893 – 1947) was a German writer whose best known works were composed during the 1920s and 1930s. His real name was Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen and his adopted pseudonym is taken from two characters in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. His breakthrough novel was the enormously popular Little Man, What Now? It was published in 1932, the year before Hitler achieved power and became Chancellor of Germany.

The plot of the novel is pretty straight forward. A young couple, Johannes Pinneberg and his girlfriend Emma Morschel, find that they are expecting a baby. The couple are unmarried, and so decide they better start planning immediately for their baby, which they call the ‘Shrimp’. (Both extend these playful names to one another, which are used right throughout the novel. Emma calls her Johannes ‘Sonny’, while Johannes calls Emma ‘Lammchen’.) But babies cost money, and so right from the get go the whole notion of having a baby is painted not so much as a joyous occasion of new life entering the world, but as a vexing financial problem that needs solving.

After the Weimar Republic, Communism or National Socialism?

It is the time of the Weimar Republic, and Germany has stubbornly high unemployment. Money is extremely tight and the couple find themselves getting poorer and poorer. To meet this challenge they continually reduce their standard of living, renting out substandard and even dangerous housing. Things get so bad that they reach a point of despair and wonder how on earth they can go on. Then ironically enough, part three of the novel is called ‘Life Goes On’,and the narrator says that, of course, life does goes on. It just goes on in very much reduced circumstances. Perhaps the ultimate question is: for how long can life go on, or to what depths can human dignity sink, before it does become untenable? Fallada’s realism makes it clear that Germans were desperately looking for a solution to their economic woes. But what was the answer to such a national crisis, Communism or National Socialism? That answer to the novel’s question mark became clear on the 30th January, 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

Little Man, What Now? is a superb work of literature that has two key qualities to recommend it. Firstly, its sheer literary brilliance. Fallada is a superb stylist and his prose skips and dances across the page. He’s an absolute pleasure to read. The novel also has a lot of Dickensian-like satire in it and these scenes are handled consummately. Fallada makes great comedy out of parents-in-law, rogue mothers, work place politics and the many bitter realities of life during the Weimar Republic. The carictature of Sonny’s mother, the morally suspect Mrs Mia Pinneberg, who’d obviously sell her son down the river, is a wonder of the grotesque. Fallada’s hilarious and punchy dialogue often recalls masters like Gogol, Dickens and Dostoyevsky. His comic scenes also have a cinematic effect, like you’re watching a Buster Keaton routine.

Secondly there is the novel’s much famed realism. You really get a vibrant picture of what Germany must have been like during the Weimar Republic, the desperate poverty and the permissiveness. Sometimes these two are mixed together, as in the character of Heilbutt. Thrown out of his job as a salesman, he turns his hobby of nudism into a business venture by selling nude photos. During the Weimar Republic, it seems everyone skirts close to breaking the law. All except for Sonny, who is a straight forward and fairly uncomplicated type of man, simply trying to get by. Lammchen, his wife, is also adamant that they both stick to the rule of law. All may be falling down around their heads, but she maintains that they at least keep their basic human dignity intact during these uncertain times.
For anyone who has ever lived on the dole, or experienced any extended period of dire poverty, there’s much in Little Man, What Now? that will ring true. The novel really gives the sense of what it’s like to live as a second class citizen, and how low you can sink into indigence. The world can often seem like an alien place from this perspective.

Little Man, What Now? is both a literary triumph and a testament to the times. It entertains, enlightens and transports the reader back in time. This story of an honest and straight forward man trying to stay sane in a society that is irrevocably collapsing is deeply affecting.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada. Published by Scribe Publications. ISBN: 9781922070289  RRP: $22.95