This month Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life are hosting their annual German Literature Month. I thought this would be a good opportunity to read a German novel which has been on my TBR for years: Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. So far my experiences with Fallada’s work have been mixed: I was disappointed with A Small Circus, but loved Little Man, What Now? and Alone in Berlin. I had been putting off reading this book because of the length (800 pages), but now that I’ve finally read it, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it much more than A Small Circus, although not as much as the other two.
Wolf Among Wolves is set in Germany in 1923. With the country’s economy still suffering in the aftermath of the recent world war, hyperinflation means that prices are spiralling out of control and the currency is rapidly becoming worthless. As the novel opens we are told that there are currently 414,000 German marks to the dollar; within months this figure has increased into the billions, causing misery and desperation for the German people.
“So many people are running away from their jobs,” went on Studmann. “To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason. But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask. Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.”
Wolfgang Pagel, our hero (if you can call him that), has never been good at managing money. He is a gambler and at the beginning of the novel we see him lose at roulette, meaning he has to postpone his wedding to his girlfriend, Petra Ledig. When Petra finds herself in trouble with the police after he takes her clothes to be pawned, leaving her on the streets with only an old coat to wear, she decides that this time she’s had enough. Wolf needs to change, and until he does she will refuse to see him or speak to him. And so they separate, Petra remaining in Berlin while Wolf heads out into the countryside to work on a friend’s farm.
I have only mentioned two of the novel’s characters so far, but there are many, many more and they all have fully developed storylines of their own. There’s Joachim von Prackwitz, still referred to by his military title of Rittmeister, who is leasing the country estate of Neulohe from his father-in-law and struggling to cope with his return to civilian life. There’s the Rittmeister’s teenage daughter Violet, whose lover is planning a putsch – a coup – against the Weimar government. There’s the estate bailiff, known as Black Meier, who loses his job and spends the rest of the novel thinking of ways to cause trouble for everyone at Neulohe. And there’s Etzel von Studmann, a hotel reception manager, who agrees to come and work for the Rittmeister following an embarrassing incident with a guest. These, and others, become Wolfgang Pagel’s new companions as he tries to build a new life for himself away from the temptations of the city, only to find that even the idyllic countryside is not free from corruption.
Fallada moves from character to character as he paints a portrait of life in the Weimar Republic and explores the impact of the First World War and the struggling economy on the fortunes of ordinary people. Over the course of the 800 pages we get to know them all very well; however, some are more interesting and more appealing than others, which makes this quite an uneven read. I was sorry that, after the opening chapters, we see very little of Petra – her relationship with Wolf and the question of whether they will be reunited was my favourite of the novel’s many storylines. Of the characters living at Neulohe, von Studmann was the only one I had any sympathy for; I found the others a selfish and unpleasant bunch. To be fair, though, I should have been prepared for that: Fallada warns us at the beginning of the book that his story “deals with sinful, weak, sensual, erring unstable men, the children of an age disjointed, mad and sick. All in all, it is a book for those who are, in every sense, adult.”
Wolf Among Wolves was first published in German in 1937 under the title Wolf unter Wölfen. I read an English translation from 1938 by Philip Owens, ‘with additional translations by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs’. I found both the translation and the novel itself very readable. It’s probably not the best place to start with Fallada – Alone in Berlin (also published as Every Man Dies Alone) and Little Man, What Now? are my recommendations – but it’s definitely worth reading for the insights into 1920s Germany.