I know it’s only the middle of January and it’s ridiculously early to start talking about books of the year but I’ll be very surprised if this one is not on my list in December! I loved every minute of this funny and charming yet dark and poignant German novel from 1932.
Johannes Pinneberg (Sonny) and Emma Morschel (Lammchen) are a young German couple in their early twenties. After discovering that Lammchen is pregnant they get married and move into their first rented home together in the town of Ducherow. As they await the birth of their child (who they think of as The Shrimp), Sonny and Lammchen struggle to get by in the harsh economic conditions of 1930s Germany.
When Sonny loses his job (because his employer has discovered that he is married and no longer free to marry his daughter), he and Lammchen are forced to move to Berlin in search of work and cheaper accommodation. The trouble is, in times of high unemployment and widespread poverty, jobs are not easy to find and rents are high (and the situation isn’t helped by Sonny’s impulsive decision to surprise Lammchen with the expensive dressing-table she’d set her heart on, or Lammchen, suffering from cravings, eating all the salmon on her way home with the shopping). But while others around them lie, cheat and think only of themselves, the honest, hard-working Pinnebergs are determined to survive and to create a happy, safe environment for their new baby.
It was such a relief to find that I loved this book, as I’ve had mixed experiences with Hans Fallada’s novels in the past. Alone in Berlin, which I read in 2011, remains one of my favourite books that I’ve read since I started blogging, but the next one I picked up, A Small Circus, was a huge disappointment and put me off wanting to try any more of his books. I was hesitant to start reading Little Man, What Now? but I’m so glad I did because the problems I had with A Small Circus – the translation, the unlikeable characters, the unfamiliar politics and the fact that most of the novel was written in the form of dialogue – were not problems at all with this book. I was happy with the translation (though I wish I was able to read it in its original German), the Pinnebergs were both lovely, the politics stayed in the background and there was a good mixture of dialogue, action and description.
The book was originally published in 1932 in German as Kleiner Mann, was nun? and a successful film version followed. It’s easy to see why it was so popular, as according to the Afterword, 42% of German workers were unemployed in 1932 (compared with 22% in Britain) and many people would have been able to identify with Lammchen and Sonny. The book still feels relevant today, with many countries around the world suffering high unemployment in recent years. In 1930s Germany, the resulting poverty opened the way for the National Socialist and Communist parties. Yet the novel is far less political and far more domestic than I thought it would be at first.
As Sonny moves from job to job he meets people from a range of different backgrounds and religious or political beliefs, but he doesn’t side with or against any of them; his biggest concerns are for his wife and unborn child. This is not a story that deals with the bigger issues of the time, but about the immediate day to day struggles that ordinary people faced. Sonny is the ‘little man’ of the title, aware that he is only one of millions in the same position, but what sustains him throughout his ordeals is his love for Lammchen and his knowledge that however hard things may be he is still lucky in so many ways.
I liked both of the Pinnebergs from the beginning. I couldn’t help thinking how rare it is that we actually get to read a book about the daily lives of a couple who are happily married, rather than a book that deals with the breakdown of a marriage or one that ends with the wedding rather than beginning with it, as this one does. Sonny and Lammchen are a husband and wife who really love each other, who discuss things together and make decisions as equals. Their story feels completely realistic and the problems they face are the same problems that many young married couples will face: managing their money, finding somewhere to live, worrying about their jobs and preparing for the arrival of their first child. There’s an innocence about Lammchen and Sonny that makes them completely endearing and I think it would be almost impossible to read this book and not fall in love with them both!
While this book is available for Kindle, it seems that paperback and hardback copies of this particular Fallada title are harder to find. If you do have the opportunity to read it I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse of 1930s German life as much as I did.