Monday, April 14, 2014

Tales from the Underworld, by Hans Fallada

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

These 29 short stories written between 1925-1946 give a bracing picture of Germany during this crucial period in the country's history.

Hans Fallada: A Complex Character

A brief survey of Hans Fallada’s biographical details makes for agonising reading. At the age of sixteen he was run over by a horse-drawn cart and kicked in the face by a horse. Thus began a life of addiction to pain killers. His teenage years were characterised by self-doubt and feelings of isolation, culminating in several suicide attempts. A key drama in his early life was an extraordinary suicide pact he made with his friend Hans Dietrich von Necker. They tried to disguise their joint suicide as a duel. Fallada shot von Necker and killed him, but survived himself. Stricken, he shot himself in the chest but still lived. He wasn’t convicted of murder, but found insane, and so began several stints in various mental institutions.

That’s just his formative years. Fallada would lead a tortured existence once the Nazis came to power. His work was by turns denounced and praised by the Nazi regime. Goebbels, who thought his 1937 novel Wolf Among Wolves ‘super’ pressed him into writing what was essentially Nazi propaganda.

Fallada was foremost a novelist, and especially enjoyed that medium best for the expansion of his ideas. During his rather short life (he died aged 53) he wrote some 90 short stories. Tales From the Underworld comprises 29 stories written over a twenty year period between 1925–1946. Fallada maintained he always used his experiences as a primary source for his fiction, and this comes out clearly in the stories. Some even dispense with fictional names and simply use the author’s name as the protagonist’s. (It should also be noted that Hans Fallada was actually born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen. His pseudonym derives from a combination of names found in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.)

A Street View of German Life

The stories themselves cover Fallada’s experiences of working on farms, serving prison sentences, selling newspaper subscriptions, local politics and drug addiction. He writes in a fast, no nonsense style, so that the stories come close to being a cross between autobiographical sketches and fiction. Some of the nervous energy and acute detail in his stories, such as "Three Years of Life", which deals with alcohol addiction and the judicial system, reminds one of Dostoyevsky.

Overall the anxious tone and sometimes crude realism of these stories gives a from-the-ground-up alternative history of Germany during the 1920s to 1940s. The short story was not Fallada’s primary medium, and quite a few of these stories do have the feeling of having been dashed off quickly or inbetween other projects, but nonetheless there is often a brilliant rawness and immediacy to his shorter fictions: he is a writer determined to tell his readers the unvarnished truth. For a sharp and often bracing picture of Germany during this period, Tales from the Underworld can’t be overlooked.

Tales From the Underworld, by Hans Fallada. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780141392851  RRP: $22.99

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