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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

Hans Fallada and the fates of history

More than 60 years after his death, Hans Fallada had a groundbreaking success in the United States.

The German writer, who died in 1947, was a bestseller in his home country with the publication of his novel “Little Man, What Now?” in 1932, which was later turned into a Hollywood film. But Fallada’s name, which was a pen name swiped from a fairy tale — he was born Rudolf Ditzen — languished in obscurity after the war until the 2009 publication of “Every Man Dies Alone.” I talked to Ulrich Ditzen, Fallada’s 80-year-old son, here in Berlin, and he explained how the book came to be.

It’s maybe not an obvious bestseller: the story of a Berlin couple whose son is killed fighting in France, who decide to risk their lives by voicing their dissent. They begin to leave postcards in office buildings and apartment houses, calling for the people of Germany to wake up, realize what their country as come to, and join together. It does not, as you might imagine, end well for the couple.

It was the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg who first approached Dennis Loy Johnson at the publisher Melville House, saying it was a shame the book had never been translated into English. “She talked to the American publisher, why didn’t he publish this book, it was a fantastic book,” Ulrich said. “She was very surprised that it had never been translated. Dennis Johnson then read it and shared her opinion and proceeded to get it translated. And it was a runaway success, to my great surprise.”

The book itself was written near the end of Fallada’s life. He had divorced Ulrich’s mother by then, but Ulrich was living with Fallada and his new wife in Berlin after the war, as the rural schools had not yet reopened. Fallada wrote furiously, finishing the work in about 47 days.

Ulrich remembered, “Taking the title, ‘Every Man Dies Alone,’ you could say, ‘every man writes alone.’ It was a situation where the house had to be quiet so that he could concentrate. In the evening he went to bed rather early, 10 o’clock or something like that. … So at three or four in the morning he got up, made himself some coffee, and set down to work. With a quite fantastic and awful rule, namely that no date should he write less than the day before. That was a goal he set for himself. That’s awful!”

The book was inspired by a real couple who were arrested during the war. “It’s based on a Gestapo file, which [member of the Communist Party Central Committee] Johannes Becher gave to him in the assumption that he would be able to make something out of it. And he did. My father always wrote along the facts. He changed it so that no one could sue him, but one could identify many of the figures in this book. It was a very factual novel.”

With the success of “Every Man Dies Alone,” Melville House has reprinted some of Fallada’s other books, including “The Drinker,” which was written in code during the war and only fully decoded after Fallada’s death, “Little Man, What Now?” and “Wolf Among Wolves,” which Ulrich believes is his father’s greatest work. It’s a story of the Weimar years, during the seemingly neverending plummet of the Deutsch mark, when a loaf of bread suddenly cost millions of marks. “It is a document about Germany in the ’20s, and it’s absolutely fascinating to see how the story is driven along by dialogue, dialogue, and nothing much else,” Ulrich said.

I tried to bring up the more scandalous parts of the life story of Rudolph Ditzen (there was a childhood incident that left a friend dead and after which Rudolph attempted suicide, there was incarceration in the insane asylum, there were breakdowns) but Ulrich cut me off pretty quickly. He said it’s not nice to talk about. But anyway, he had to go through all of that. “Otherwise, he couldn’t have had the experience to write the books.”

Ulrich, however, preferred when his father was not writing, because then “something beautiful” happened. “He cared for his kids, for the household, he had time to tell us stories, he cared for the pigs and the cow. We always went along with him, my sister and I, and learned quite a lot of putting vegetables in the garden and stuff like that.”

So was it difficult to have a writer for a father?

Eh, he shrugged. “We all have our fates.”

A conversation about German writer Hans Fallada
[Charlie Rose]